On September 12, 19-year-old Kenneka Jenkins was found dead in a walk-in hotel freezer in Rosemont, Illinois, where she had been at a party. Nearly one month after the fact, the Cook County medical examiner ruled her death an accident, despite thousands of social media users insisting otherwise.
News of Kenneka’s death went viral almost immediately after becoming public, and amateur sleuths quickly got to work trying to solve the mystery of what happened. Social media was flooded not only with sadness and well-wishes, but also with analyses of social media videos, conspiracy theories, and personal accusations, which have continued for weeks.
Meanwhile, the police were conducting their own investigation under the watchful eye of the media, protesters, and social media — the latter of which they weren’t pleased about. In mid-September, Rosemont mayor Bradley Stephens said that the online activity and speculation was “convoluting the investigation,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
That statement and the flurry of Internet detectives do raise an interesting and important question: What are the effects of social media on criminal investigations? After all, while Kenneka’s case did go uniquely viral, the presence of social media in criminal investigations isn’t unique — anymore. “This is a fairly new dynamic,” Henderson Cooper, a former Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) and CIA officer and current security expert, tells Teen Vogue. “Looking back, for example, on the O.J. Simpson case, there was Internet, but social media had not taken hold in the way it has today. News leaks and early reporting were the only similar sourcing that resembled what we have today with social media. The advent of Facebook and earlier social media platforms grew slowly in this type of use. But then the floodwaters were released.”
Joshua Ritter, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, tells Teen Vogue that he’s seen a significant change in the course of his career. “The proliferation of social media being used in police investigations has gone up exponentially, I’d say, in the past 10 years or so.” Now, when he begins working on a case, Ritter says it’s not uncommon to receive a “huge data dump” of information police have subpoenaed from Instagram, Facebook, or other platforms. Indeed, according to one LexisNexis study, four out of five law enforcement professionals use social media for investigative purposes.