FBI Uses Social Media to Catch Mobster

How do you catch a mobster? With Twitter of course! FBI uses TV, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to help catch a mobster they’ve been tracking for 16 years.

How do you catch a mobster? With Twitter of course! FBI uses TV, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to help catch a criminal they’ve been tracking for 16 years.

James “Whitey” Bulger is not the kind of guy you’d want to run into in a back alley. A South Boston based criminal, he was wanted for 19 killings, and was known for pulling out his victim’s teeth so they couldn’t be identified. He is the mobster who inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. Not “bad” enough for you?  Bulger is also charged with narcotics distribution and extortion, and has had the honor of being on the FBI’s Most Wanted List in 1999.

But, Bulger wasn’t a simple crime boss. He was also a government informant with strong political ties. His brother was a Democrat in Massachusetts for twenty years, and Bulger ratted out his Italian Mafia rivals to the government. He had evaded the FBI for years, a case that spanned 44 States, 5 continents, and two decades. So, how did they finally nab him?

The FBI drew two powerful weapons: television and social media. The bureau took out billboards in the New York Times Square and blasted Twitter and Facebook with images focusing on Bulger’s relationship with Catherine Elizabeth Greig, his girlfriend of many years. The FBI also launched short social media ads on YouTube and released similar ads on television.

Within hours of the campaign launch, the FBI received a call in Los Angeles. A caller from Santa Monica had seen the publicity and recognized both Greig and Bulger. In fact, the caller knew exactly where they were: in an apartment complex. Soon, the FBI rounded its people and arrested both Greig and Bulger. The 81 year old Bulger apparently surrendered willingly.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the campaign itself that caught the attention of the caller; it was the media’s coverage of the social media campaign. If you look at the ads, you’ll understand why. The YouTube ad, for example, is such a textbook “FBI Wanted Ad”, at first I thought I might be watching a spoof. The content is presented in a very straight forward manner, with a serious female voice providing commentary while still images are presented on screen. It’s definitely not the kind of ad that typically goes viral.

What this proves, however, is that the interest surrounding a social media campaign can be as important as the campaign itself. In this case, the hook was that the FBI was using social media. That’s all the campaign needed;  media outlets and journalists picked up the story, and suddenly a relatively focussed campaign (the television ads were screened in 14 cities, Los Angeles not among them) picked up momentum and was being reported nationally – and even internationally.

So, there are two morals to this story:

  1. Crime doesn’t pay.
  2. Social media campaigns do if , particularly if they catch the attention of the media

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