You might post photos or updates on family gatherings on Facebook. You might tweet about the newest restaurant you just 'discovered'... but if you say something's going wrong with the car you just bought, it might be YOU who triggers the next vehicle recall.

Automotive News reports that in addition to direct consumer complaints and information sent directly from auto and equipment makers, NHTSA investigators routinely search auto Web sites, fan sites, bulletin boards, trade publications and popular magazines for information that might lead to an investigation.

They also search social media sites for specific issues if they believe available data are inadequate for assessing a problem.

Online forums also offer new sources of defect information and surveillance, researchers at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business said in a study released late last year.

Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams and Professor Weiguo Fan conducted the large-scale case study of online discussion forums.
In the report, the researchers took a snapshot of thousands of discussion forum threads for Honda Motor Co. Toyota Motor Corp. and Chevrolet in June 2010. Automotive experts analyzed and categorized the posts.

"Social media analytics provides low-cost, real-time insight into defect existence and severity, by vehicle component category," Abrahams said.

He said the voice of the customer is well-known to be one of the best sources of design intelligence, and social media analytics give automakers aggregate access to customer voices.

The primary benefit from the Virginia Tech research is product design, Abrahams said. Social media postings are potential early indicators of issues before they appear in NHTSA complaints or other media outlets.

"Using social media analysis, one maker's car models can be benchmarked against other brands," Abrahams said.

Automotive social media expert Kathi Kruse, founder of Kruse Control Inc., said manufacturers would benefit greatly from researching conversations and developing a closer tie to consumers on social media.

"Take a platform like Facebook," Kruse wrote in an e-mail. "It's the most frequently checked Web site on the Internet: 852 million daily logins, 25 percent of users login five times a day, 3.2 billion likes and comments everyday." She notes that the Facebook page for Grappone Automotive Group has more than 28,300 likes.

It's good to be aware that the federal government is looking at social media for the purposes NHTSA shared, but remember that if you don't want to make your info public, don't post it. Lawyers are combing through social media too, and if they can make money using your info against you, what do you think they'll do?