In her book, Magic and Loss: the internet as Art, The New York Times journalist Virginia Heffernan asserts “the Internet is among mankind’s great masterpieces—a massive work of art.” She notes that the internet “favors speed, accuracy, wit, prolificacy, and versatility. But it also favors integrity, mindfulness, and wise action…It is not outside human civilization; it is a new and formidable iteration of that civilization…the internet may not be reality, but it’s very real art.”
Heffernan’s metaphor comes to life when you consider that every minute, more than 350,000 tweets and 400 hours of new video are published on Twitter and YouTube, respectively. That is a lot of content — or in Heffernan’s opinion, an enormous volume of contributions to a huge, collaborative work of art.
Like art, some aspects of the internet could be considered realist – accurate news coverage of current events, for example. While others, such as Photoshopped pictures or websites that circulate fake news, lean toward the surreal or abstract.
When it comes to investigative work, the simultaneous real and fake nature of the internet can be a friend or foe. An aid or deterrent in learning more about an individual, company, lawsuit or any other information you seek. The internet can be an artful masterpiece of useful data, or a masquerade of misleading or incomplete information.
The bottom line? You have to know how to use it correctly.
The Internet as a Masterpiece
The internet is certainly a thing to behold. While the world-renowned Mona Lisa has approximately nine million visitors per year, the internet has a whopping 3.7 billion users — nearly half the world’s population.
As an investigator, the internet is a useful tool. With a few keystrokes and targeted search strategies, our investigators can explore court or property records, while others review a subject’s online profiles, pictures and posts. This can lead to a wealth of information regarding the subject’s professional, legal, financial and family histories, not to mention their character and behaviors.
Using the internet to research or verify information — such as an individual’s professional background or licenses — often leads to valuable clues and helps us provide greater insights for our clients. Typically, this means taking a deep dive into databases and other online resources, as well as having a knowledge of credible information sources, search techniques and navigating that nebulous worldwide web.
The Internet as Masquerade
Unfortunately, information on the internet can sometimes be as clear and forthright as one of Picasso’s portraits.
As my colleagues have written before, a basic internet search is no substitute for a comprehensive background investigation. It usually falls short when accurate information is required that could affect the safety and security of a business, family, individual or their bottom line. A quick trip to Google can omit critical information when attempting to identify an individual’s assets or investigate their litigation history.
Although the internet has democratized access to information, it’s easy to forget it has also enabled the proliferation of unreliable sources, such as open-source databases and websites promoting fake news. At the same time, public records available online are often incomplete and may contain inaccurate information, if they are even available online at all.
Similarly, social media profiles may look squeaky clean on the surface, but targeted search strategies can help reveal less-flattering photos or posts that are more difficult to find.
Of course, it is critical to validate the information found online with multiple sources when possible. We often use tools and techniques outside the internet to develop broader intelligence, including in-person interviews or trips to a courthouse, county recorder or local library to view original or archived records.
As Heffernan concludes, the internet’s “cultural potential and its societal impact often elude us.” In the same vein, its ability to both help and hinder an investigation must be considered and navigated carefully.
What can you learn from the internet? And, perhaps more importantly, what can’t you?
 “Magic and Loss: The internet as Art,” by Virginia Hefferman, preface, 2016.