Private investigator Phil Becnel is struggling to keep up with witnesses who can only be contacted via social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. (THOMAS HODEL/REUTERS)

In the past few years, parts of Phil Becnel’s private investigation job have become easier.

His Arlington, Va.-based company, Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group, has generally followed the standard investigative protocol established by an older generation of detectives since it was founded in 2004. But whereas he used to take witness’ statements on paper, he now can record them on a tablet. And instead of posting a physical sign for a missing person with a phone number, he can request informational tips in exchange for a reward on a Facebook page.

Becnel and his six-person team provide litigation support, meaning they interview witnesses, file reports and provide testimony in court cases.

As witnesses are increasingly drawn from a pool of younger, more tech-savvy people, social media heavily influences the way Becnel connects with important people in a case. And though social media has helped him gather information about witnesses before he interviews him, Becnel has found that talking to witnesses in person — instead of online — is a better way to guarantee their cooperation in court.

Most young people today don’t have landlines, and their home addresses aren’t always publicly available. If they don’t have a credit history with their contact information, Becnel has no option but to contact them online — most often through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But in Becnel’s experience, people don’t always consider their social media presence to be an official one, and are reluctant to respond to his interview requests.

“The etiquette hasn’t been well established,” Becnel said. “As an investigator reaching out to someone on Facebook, people don’t respond. If you get a friend request or message from someone you don’t know, there’s no stigma associated with ignoring the request,” he said.

In the past, when dealing with adults whose addresses were publicly available, private investigators would call a witness’s house or knock on their door. If you approach witnesses in person or talk to them on the phone, “nine times out of 10 they’ll cooperate,” Becnel said. “A lot of times people talk to you because it’s the polite thing to do.”

But if the request comes via social media — often the only option for young witnesses — it’s frequently met with silence.

While it’s annoying, this dynamic could have real implications for the way cases play out, Becnel said. “It shifts the advantage to the people who don’t want to cooperate. You don’t really know who they are. If they ignore you, you can’t track them down.”

However, Becnel has noticed varying levels of success depending on the platform on which he contacts witnesses. Facebook requests typically get low reponses because the service is largely built on personal connections and users summarily ignore requests from strangers, he said. Requests on LinkedIn have a better response rate — likely because a person’s account is associated with their career — but messages are often delayed, because users don’t check their messages as often as they do on Facebook. Twitter poses a challenge because of the 140-character limit. “It’s hard to fully identify yourself via Twitter,” Becnel said.

Where Becnel has found social media to be tremendously helpful is in researching witnesses or potential jurors before he interviews them.

For example, Becnel was recently working on a case in Charlottesville, Va. against the University of Virginia. He needed to establish if any of the potential jurors in the case had strong ties to the school — such as support for its sports teams — which could result in a bias. He checked their Facebook pages to assess their neutrality.

Becnel has occasionally scanned Pinterest — an online platform allowing users to “pin” images or articles they find interesting — to gauge witness’ personalities before an interview. Casually mentioning baseball, if you know they’re a baseball fan, could make a witness more cooperative. “Every little connection makes it easier to build rapport,” he said.

Social media has also been helpful in marketing Becnel’s business. Becnel has connected with other private investigators via Twitter, his favorite social media platform, and was even recently invited via Twitter to speak at a private investigators’ conference.

Though social media protocol has posed a challenge for Becnel and his firm, he predicts technology will emerge to help address the problems he’s facing. “As the older generation of investigators retire, the new generation primarily communicates via Twitter and Facebook. They will develop whatever apps or techniques that help navigate [social media].”

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