Authenticating Social Media Evidence Is Harder Than Lawyers Think
Let’s play a game. You’re the judge. Under the following facts, is the social media evidence admissible?
After obtaining a Court Order allowing him to obtain a criminal defendant’s Facebook records, the prosecutor files a motion seeking permission to introduce into evidence the following items:
- Screenshots of the defendant’s Facebook account
- Various undated mobile and online “chat” messages
- A bloody hands photo posted by another individual
So, which items were admissible? Not which items should have been admissible?
The answer: None.
Why? Even social media obtained pursuant to a court order must be authenticated properly to be admitted into evidence. In other words, the prosecutor failed to establish sufficiently that the items were “connected” to the defendant even though the Facebook account in question bore the defendant’s name and other characteristics. The chat messages were excluded because they contained insufficient contextual clues establishing the defendant’s identity as the author to allow them in as evidence.
Pennsylvania Evidentiary Standards for Authenticating Electronic Data
The Superior Court, in Commonwealth v. Mangel, 2018 PA Super 57 (Pa. Super. Mar. 15, 2018), ruled that social media evidence authentication requires, at a minimum:
- An adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity, and
- Direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication, such as testimony, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.
- The admissibility is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for an “adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity.”
Direct Evidence such as electronic communications or documents require more than mere confirmation that the number or address belonged to a particular person to be authenticated and used in court.
Circumstantial evidence may include personal knowledge of participants, and verification to authenticate computerized instant messages, cell phone text messages, Facebook posts, and other contextual clues that tend to corroborate the identity of the sender to verify authorship.
So, was Mr. Mangel lucky that his Facebook chats were not admitted? Yes. But, why? Because the Commonwealth did not do its research and obtain corroborating data to authenticate the messages. In fact, no one testified about the veracity of the messages; thus, they were unverifiable.
Of note, as our office has explained to many clients, as well as lawyers attending continuing legal education programs where we speak, social media records and communications can be properly authenticated within the existing evidentiary rules. To authenticate social media chat messages or emails, the proponent (person offering the evidence) must present sufficient direct and circumstantial evidence to establish its authenticity, that the matter is what it purports to be, and/or testimony of a witness with personal knowledge. See Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901.