For anyone scrutinising, for example, politicians or anyone else in a position of power, it is just as natural and important today to follow their digital trails on social media as to search for information at the Enforcement Authority (Sweden), the companies register or in public documents from government agencies or local government.
In the grey zone between a person’s public/professional and private communications online, there are good opportunities for finding nuggets of information to fill in their wider background or to start a new journalistic investigation. The easier part of such a background search is to find out the platforms on which the person you are scrutinising is active by cross-searching on names and/or usernames. Most people use several different social media, including the biggest and most widespread, such as Facebook and Instagram, and the smaller, more niche services such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube or the games forum Twitch. In general searches, you can find out:
Who the person follows and interacts with. Search for open registers of friends and followers.
Which other networks are there? Which pages do they like and which groups (open or closed) are they a member of?
Note that a superficial review of a person’s presence on social media helps you gain a more complete idea of the person you want to scrutinise but does not per se generate any news. The fact that a person follows or likes a suspect page on Facebook or is a member of a group with doubtful content may mean different things, and does not necessarily mean that they sympathise with the opinions of the page or the group.
Sometimes you see news like “X likes Nazi pages on Facebook”, where the newsroom has assumed that was the only interpretation. But just like when you, as a journalist, like groups or pages but don’t support their content, the same may be true of those you are covering.
FOLLOW DIGITAL TRAILS
Most people leave trails online, even if they have closed or secret social media accounts. What is extremely interesting when looking into the background of politicians, other people in positions of power, or suspected criminals, is what happens in the intersection between public and private communications online. For instance, the person you are scrutinising may have commented on someone else’s post or be tagged in photos or places with others who have open accounts. First of all, you need to be certain that you are searching for the right person, particularly if they have a common name. For example, to separate all the John Smiths, Facebook has given each of them their own ID number. There are several different ways of seeing this number, but the easiest is to use the search engine graph.tips/beta, developed by Dutch journalist Hank van Ess. It will help you with standard searches on Facebook.
Enter the username of the person you are looking for. Then use this information to find, for example, open posts which the person has commented on or liked, or photos the person is tagged in. You can also search on restaurants, hotels, bars or pubs that the person has visited.
Graph Tips is a gold mine for charting Facebook activity, even for people with locked accounts, and the best way of learning to use the tool is by trying it out.
There are many sites and online tools for anyone doing people searching on social media. Some are free, while others cost something (where you get better performance).
Pipl. A site for people searches online to gain an overview of phone numbers, contacts, user names, aliases, etc. It scans the internet by name and you can easily click on to obtain more information. Desktop versus smartphone: Works well on both. Price: free version. You can pay USD 99 per month to get 200 searches in the Pro version.
Spokeo. A research tool that links telephone directories and other white page listings with public records and social media. However, it seems not to work so well for Swedes, although it is difficult to decide as you need to pay to get search results. Desktop versus smartphone: Seems to work on both. Price: Does not work at all unless you pay at least USD 5 per month.
Findmyfbid. Finds the Facebook ID of anyone who has not blocked the option for search engines to link to their timeline. Desktop versus smartphone: Also works on smartphones, but the page does not adapt Price: Free
Graph.tips/beta. An excellent way of looking into what someone has done (publicly) on Facebook – and what their friends have done (publicly). Desktop versus smartphone: Works on both but is slightly clearer on a desktop. Price: Free
Stalkscan. An even better way to quickly see everything someone has done publicly on Facebook. Desktop versus smartphone: Works on both but is slightly clearer on a desktop. Price: Free
Allmytweets. A user-friendly way to see the 3,200 most recent tweets in an account in as readable a way as possible Desktop versus smartphone: Works on both but is clearer on a desktop. Price: Free
Tweepsect. Allows you to quickly see the accounts that an account follows, which of them follows the account back, and which of them follows the account without being followed back. Desktop versus smartphone: The page is not smartphone-friendly. Price: Free
Tweeterid. On Twitter, you can change your Twitter handle/username (@example) but you cannot change your ID. This permits you to find Twitter users even after they change their username. Desktop versus smartphone: Works well on both. Price: Free
Truecaller. This is primarily a way of blocking cold callers, for example. However, it also syncs with ‘three billion phone numbers’ so you can see who is calling from a number you don’t know, and how many others have marked the number as spam. It probably deals primarily with US numbers. Desktop versus smartphone: As I understand it, it works best as an app. Price: Free with advertising, but you can pay USD 2 per month if you want to perform a lot of searches.
Sync.me. The same function as Truecaller, but it also syncs with social networks to give you a bigger, better phone directory. Desktop versus smartphone: Available as both an app and a site. Price: Free with advertising, but you can pay USD 3 per month to avoid advertising and unlock all information.
Lusha. A tool (Chrome plugin) that helps you obtain current phone numbers and email addresses for people by searching LinkedIn. Consequently, it only finds information on LinkedIn. Price: Free for 5 (successful) searches a month, USD 25 per month for 50 searches, USD 59 for 200 searches for up to 3 users, USD 119 for 500 searches for 10 users.