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article imageWriters with Criminal Intent on the 'Net Revealed By Forensics

By Carol Forsloff     Feb 12, 2009 in Crime
Those who thought they get away with saying anything they wanted to on the Internet may find themselves in hot water. That’s if forensic investigations turn out to be as planned as current studies reveal.
Forensic linguistics and content analysis are techniques that are used to identify writing styles to determine specific characteristics. Experts can identify an individual who wrote an article, blog post, letter or anything like it by recognizing stylistic characteristics that are dominant in the writing. This form of science can do a lot towards undoing potential damage and preventing more from happening as a result of Internet porn, defamation and verbal violence. A recent report in Science Daily spells this out.
How is content analysis or forensic linguistics done? A document laboratory in Liverpool reveals some of the techniques that police are using to identify criminals. This can be done with threatening notes, letters planning terrorist attacks, or seductions over the Internet of an adult with a child in sexually explicit ways. It can also be used to identify writers who defame or undermine others without evidence, thinking they can do that and not be found out.
Linguistic analysis has been used to solve major crimes where text messages have been analyzed and identities determined. One of them is the recent prosecution of David Hodgson, who was convicted of killing his ex-lover Jenny Nicholl whose body has never been found.
Dr. Tim Grant explains how uncovering identities can be found and some elements of the technique of forensic linguistic analysis or content analysis:
‘Jenny Nicholl disappeared on 30th June 2005. A linguistic analysis showed that text messages sent from her phone were unlikely to have been written by her but, rather, were more likely to have been written by her ex-lover, David Hodgson. A number of stylistic points identified within texts known to have been written by Jenny Nicholl were not present in the suspect messages. Instead, these were stylistically close to the undisputed messages of David Hodgson.
As an example, Dr. Grant mentioned that Hodgson was convicted partly because, in text messages he had sent from the victim’s phone, after she had disappeared and that he wanted to use as an alibi, he spelled "myself" as "meself". In her own text messages, identified from previous material, Nicholl, who had been reported missing and assumed dead, had spelled the word "myself".
The example of forensic linguistics in Liverpool is but one in the array of agencies, organizations and universities now studying and using forensic linguistic analysis or content analysis, as it is commonly called. Mike Palmquist gives a comprehensive overview of the resources and information on the topic and describes its possible uses as this:
Reveal international differences in communication content
• Detect the existence of propaganda
• Identify the intentions, focus or communication trends of an individual, group or institution
• Describe attitudinal and behavioral responses to communications
• Determine psychological or emotional state of persons or groups
The past couple of decades has shown a dramatic increase in studies of forensic linguistics, or content analysis, with universities, police departments and even the F.B.I. teaching courses in the subject. One reference source cites a number of its uses and the issues involved. Content analysis, for example, involves different types of language identification such as voice identification, analysis of written material, or combinations of analysis in several linguistic forms. The problem comes about when there isn’t enough material, when a letter is too short for example, and there are not enough examples to make comparisons.
More about Forensics, Content analysis, Terrorist attacks
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