3 Essential Social Media Search Tips for Investigators

3 Essential Social Media Search Tips for Investigators

These expert tips will make your social media searches safer, faster and stronger.

Approximately seven in ten American adults use social media, with a majority visiting their favorite platforms multiple times per day. With people spending so much time on social media, sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can give investigators valuable insight into subjects' activity and background.

However, diving in without a plan might overwhelm you. Use these expert social media search tips to make sure you're looking for the right information in the right places in the right ways.

Don't ignore one of the best sources of online intelligence for your investigation

Social media accounts create a valuable repository of free information for investigators. Download this free eBook to learn how to conduct social media investigations effectively, including platform-specific tips and how to preserve the evidence you find.

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1. Find Information From Outside the Platforms

Searching for a subject on social media sites isn't always easy or discrete. Most platforms require an account to access them, which is problematic in two ways: creating a profile takes time, and it can be traced back to you, which could put you and your investigation at risk.

Secondly, social media sites often have poor search functions. Even if you know the subject's exact user name plus other details (e.g. employer, city of residence), they might not include these details in their profile, making them almost impossible to find.

Some platforms including Facebook and Instagram also allow users to make their profiles private and/or hide themselves from searches, making the hunt even harder.

To work around this, Cynthia Hetherington, investigation expert, trainer and founder of Hetherington Group, suggests conducting a Google site search. This easy search hack is formatted with the site you want to search followed by the subject's name or user name:

site:facebook.com Joe Schmo

Using Google to search the site for you is more private and helps you find otherwise hidden profiles. The process asks Google to "spoon feed" you only results from a certain site, making your online search easier and more efficient.

RELATED: 101+ OSINT Resources for Investigators

2. Search User Names and Hashtags

Many people use the same user name across multiple social media platforms. Knowing this can help you find all of your subject's profiles and posts with one Google search.

Google recognizes the "@" symbol as designating a user name and the "#" as a hashtag on social media. You "can look for either of these things across multiple platforms, and it will extract every time it finds that user's posts," Hetherington explains. Start with a site search but change the query slightly, for example:

site:instagram.com @joe_schmo12

site:twitter.com #JSConstruction

Conducting a site search for each platform helps you find all of the subject's profiles and posts with that user name. Searching for a hashtag helps narrow your results to those relevant to your investigation.

RELATED: Authenticating Social Media Evidence

3. Capture Evidence Immediately

Social media posts can be deleted as quickly and easily as they were posted. If your subject suspects that they're being investigated, they might go on a deleting spree to clean up their profiles of evidence against them. That's why it's essential to capture any social media evidence you find right away.

One easy way to do this is a screen cast, which is a video of your screen as you investigate. You can add a voice-over to explain what's on the screen, which is helpful for both your own reference and for anyone reviewing the video as evidence. Screen casts are good for scrolling down a long profile or history.

A screen grab is a still image of your screen, ideal for capturing words and images posted to social media. Whichever method you use, make sure that the date and time of your search are visible to time-stamp the evidence.

Social media offers a wealth of information for investigators, but one wrong move can render a key piece of evidence unusable. Download our free cheat sheet to learn how you can tap into this rich resource with minimal risk.

Searching a subject on social media can gift you with years of helpful information if you know how to do it. Use these social media search tips for your next investigation to find stronger evidence in less time.