To some researchers, TweetDeck might seem superfluous in a world where Twitter Advanced Search exists. The platform would appear to be just a prettier version of what you are already doing through Twitter. However, I am here to show you how TweetDeck can vastly simplify and organize your research while allowing you to collect a greater amount of information with less time and effort.
Recall the 50 tabs you have open on your desktop, each one for a different Twitter advanced search. You are furiously clicking between them and trying to collect information.
Every time you want to change something small about your search, you have to start the search over again. Now, picture if there existed a platform where you could keep all these searches in one place, manipulate them at your will, and save them so that you could check on the same searches in a day or even a month to see what new information awaits you. Welcome to TweetDeck!
When something happens in real-time, such as a protest or election, you can use your TweetDeck to watch the events stream in right before your eyes. This makes it easier to collect crucial information in real time and sort through your searches, augmenting them to find more relevant content and removing the inevitable noise. For this process of live monitoring, I know of no better accessible and free tool than TweetDeck.
As a disclaimer, remember to always protect yourself when conducting online investigations. While Twitter is a fairly benign way to look through information, always know that one wrong click can reveal who you are if you are not careful. Take appropriate cautionary measures, whatever this means for you and your work.
I will begin the guide simply, as though you had never used the tool in your life. It will then progressively get more complex.
In other words, fast forward if you consider yourself an expert — but also remember, everyone could use a refresher on the basics from time to time.
The Basics: Search Columns and Filters
If you have a Twitter account, then you already have a TweetDeck just waiting for you to use it. Go to www.tweetdeck.com and sign in with your Twitter to begin. Note that this platform is owned by Twitter, therefore you are not giving your Twitter credentials to a random third party (or you might be, but then you are already doing that when you use Twitter anyway).
The most basic column you can create is a search column. This is essentially a keyword search — filtering the 6,000 tweets entering the internet per second for content that contains the word (or words) you are interested in. However, keywords alone will usually not suffice for sorting through the vast amount of uninteresting content that exists on Twitter. This is where filtering your search columns allows you to target your searching efforts and collect more relevant information. The filters on a search column include (but are not limited to):
- Filtering by type of tweet: Tweets containing images, videos, gifs, etc.
- Filtering by date and time: You can create your own date range, which goes back as far as 2010, and if you want tweets from a very specific hour range on a day, you can do that too!
- Filtering by the language the tweet is written in
- Including or excluding retweets from your results
- Filtering by the tweet author: You can filter by tweets only from verified Twitter users, members of a list, or a single individual
- And more!
This is the backbone of TweetDeck, and I recommend you go play with the filters to see what potential exists for you and how you can best manipulate your search.
What Is a Twitter List?
Twitter lists are a compilation of Twitter users. Think of them as lists of sources that exist on Twitter. For instance, if you are interested in news coming out of Washington D.C., you might have a list of all D.C. correspondents.
Then, when a breaking news event occurs in Washington D.C., you can go to your lists feed and only see tweets that are coming from its members. This removes the clutter of what else populates your feed, yielding news only on the topic you are interested in.
Additionally, you do not need to follow any of these Twitter users to add them to your list. Therefore, you can entirely separate them from your Twitter feed and categorize them alone. This way, you can only see their tweets when looking at your lists feed.
Creating (And Borrowing) Your Own Lists
Twitter lists live on the profiles of Twitter users, at the top, next to their follower count and likes. To create your own, click on your Twitter icon at the top right-hand corner of your home page and go to “Lists.” Then, on the right you can “Create a new list.”
The list you create can be public or private. If you make it public, someone added to it will receive a notification. If it is private, no one will know except you and all the Twitter engineers.
While starting from scratch and creating your own list is a respectable task, the chances are that someone has already created the exact list you are looking for (you are probably not the only person interested in news coming out of Washington D.C.). To find these lists, you have a couple options.
First, you could just find a reputable news agency, journalist, or investigator. Most of these users will have a plethora of lists that you can look through. Or you can go through Google. In your Google search bar, type out site:twitter.com/*/lists “LISTNAME”. This will spit out a variety of public Twitter lists hopefully matching the topic you want. Then, you can click on any of these results and it will take you to the list on Twitter. For instance, if you were interested in lists related to NBA basketball:
Okay, now let’s say you found a list you are interested in for research. You have two options for following the content of the list. One is that you can subscribe to the list through Twitter which will allow you to see it on your profile and TweetDeck, but the list creator will be notified that you have subscribed, and you will not be able to manipulate the list (remove or add users to it).
Another option is to use a tool called Twitter List Copy. This open-source tool is free to use and quite self-explanatory once you get to it. However, you do need to log into your Twitter in order to use it, which gives the creator of the tool potential access to your account.
Most researchers I know use this tool (unless they are working on something extremely sensitive and confidential) but make your own judgement here. The tool is indispensable to many of us because it allows you to copy all of the users from someone’s Twitter list to a list of your own.
Copying a list through Twitter List Copy does not notify the original creator of the list, and if you paste all the members into a private list of yours, it also won’t notify any of the people in your list. Be careful here: Make sure your list is private before you copy members to it if you are trying to do research incognito. Then, because the resulting list is yours (with members borrowed from someone else), you can manipulate and change it by adding or removing users.
Adding a List To Your TweetDeck
Alright, now you have lists! This is essential for your research as tweets from these people will (hopefully) contain information you are interested in and can trust.
The hard part is over, now you just need to add a column to your TweetDeck which will let you see the tweets coming from the members of your list in real-time. Go to the left-hand side of your TweetDeck, hit the plus sign, and select “List” from the column options. Then, select the list you are interested in and you are done!
Like a search column, you can filter these results, but you have fewer filter options. If you want to really filter the tweets coming from a list, I would recommend a seemingly counterintuitive method that I detail below.
Searching a List on TweetDeck
First of all, to search a list and to filter the results of a list on TweetDeck, don’t go through your list column.
Instead, go through your basic search column. Under the filter option “Tweet Authors” in your basic search column select “members of a List…” and then type out the list you are interested in searching through the very specific format they have laid out, “@username/list-name.”
The username refers to the person who owns the list and if you are trying to search your own list, put your Twitter handle there. However, this does not have to be your own Twitter username; you can search anyone’s list in this column. You can find the list name in the exact format you want by going to the list’s page on Twitter and copying whatever is at the end of the URL. Now your column will populate with results from your search, filtering through only tweets authored by the members of your list.
Searching by Location
Important: Some of you may have read about the recent changes to Twitter location tagging. As of now, my colleagues and I have not noticed any major differences in the results from executing the process detailed below. It seems that these kinds of location searches are still possible and we will keep you updated if this changes in the future.
The Basics of a Location Search
For many researchers, one of the most useful ways to use TweetDeck is searching for tweets by location alone. Even without a keyword, you can filter Twitter by the location that the tweet was sent from and collect information about an area in time.
To search by location, open a regular search column on your TweetDeck. Instead of a search term, type in geocode:coordinate,coordinate,Xkm where “coordinate,coordinate” is the location you want to search and “Xkm” is the radius around the specific location that you want to search.
Note that there are no spaces between anything in the search term, including between the comma and the first number of longitude coordinates (when copy and pasting coordinates, there will automatically be a space there that you need to manually remove).
One of the easiest ways to find coordinates for any specific location you want to search is by going to Google Maps, searching your location, right-clicking on the location on the map, and hitting “What’s here?”
The coordinates will appear at the bottom of the map and you can carefully copy them.
This method works for nearly all locations because it picks up on the location settings of a user’s phone when they tweet. If they have location services enabled, as most people do, their tweets will appear in this search. If it is not working and TweetDeck is telling you “No recent tweets,” double-check that you have formatted it entirely correctly and then try widening your search radius.
You may have noticed that there is a “Location” option in the filter choices of a search column. However, in order to use this, you need to have a keyword in mind and cannot passively monitor all tweets from a specific location.
With this “Location” filter option, you also need to use the name of a location that Twitter recognizes, such as a big city. It does not work with coordinates, which can be more useful for researchers interested in remote parts of the world. Therefore, I always use the geocode search technique instead and ignore this filter option.
Combining a Location Search with More
Now that you have a geocode search column, your TweetDeck should be picking up all tweets from that area in real-time. Depending on where you are looking, this can be overwhelming, with tweets streaming in every few seconds. Chances are that most of these will not be of use to you. Therefore, beyond a location search, you want to narrow down your results to find only that which is relevant for your investigation.
Because the geocode search is in a normal search column, you can filter it with all the usual search filters, including date, members of a list, language, and much more. This is useful if you do not have a search term in mind to connect all the tweets. For instance, if you are simply live-monitoring the tweets in one area, filtering them could be more useful than using a word search that would have to be present in all tweets.
However, if you do have a specific search term in mind, the process is very simple.
Just add the word to the end of your geocode search with a space between Xkm and your search term. For example: geocode:51.514666,-0.117235,1km “Brexit” will return all tweets within a 1 km radius of The London School of Economics that have the word “Brexit” in them.
I recommend making your radius quite large because the location feature is not perfect.
Yet even with a radius as large as 1 km, the results for the search below showed me events happening at LSE because my coordinates were exact.
Other Twitter Location Tools!
Beyond the realm of TweetDeck, there are other interesting Twitter location tools that use the same search function above but can visualize your resulting data for you.
One of these tools is http://qtrtweets.com/twitter/. This site allows you to input the coordinates of a location and specify a diameter radius. Then, it gives you the tweet results overlaid on a map of the location you have chosen. I would not take the exact location of the tweets to be entirely correct, as I stated before — I am not sure how accurate of a location Twitter picks up and transmits. However, this can be an interesting method of supplementing your investigation with visual data.
The other tool I would recommend checking out is https://onemilliontweetmap.com/. This one is similar in that it overlays tweets on a map by their location, however you can search the database by keyword rather than location and can then zoom into a location on the map to see if any tweets with that word have appeared. This tool also allows you to filter by time range (only going as far as the last 20 hours), whereas Qrtr tweets only displays results in their chronological order.
Onemilliontweetmap also allows you to save your searches if you log in, which can be useful if you want to check on something consistently over time.
Both tools link to the tweets they find, such that you can go to them on Twitter and archive or investigate further. I would suggest using these alongside a geocode search column on TweetDeck to compare your results and visualize what you find.
Searching Other Platforms Through TweetDeck
For some social media platforms that are notoriously more difficult to search, such as Instagram and Periscope, TweetDeck can be a useful tool for searching and monitoring their user activity.
Please note that the method I am about to detail only works if a user has paired their Twitter with another social media profile you want to search. For instance, if you wanted to search someone’s Instagram through Twitter, their settings would have to be set to where every time they post on Instagram, it simultaneously posts on Twitter.
For those who do have their accounts paired up, you can search their Instagram captions and locations as well as captions on other social media sites. The tweets will contain the caption and the link to the post which you can then further investigate.
In order to do this, create a basic search column once again by hitting the plus sign on the far left of the TweetDeck and selecting “Search.” Then, in the search bar type www.instagram.com followed by any search term you want.
This will yield Instagram posts with your search term in their captions. This also works for locations that individuals have tagged for themselves on Instagram. On Twitter, if a location is tagged on an Instagram post, the caption with be followed by “@ location” where location is the name of the place they have tagged. Therefore, if you search with the name of a location, your TweetDeck column will populate with Instagram posts that people have tagged with the location, as well as other derivatives of the same location.
However, this is all self-reported location tagging as Instagram allows you to put whatever location you want to any photo. Please keep this in mind throughout your research.
This same technique also works for other social media platforms. For instance, swapping out the link for Instagram for www.pscp.com will give you links to Periscope videos.
More broadly, if you want links to any outside website, you can type filter:links into your search column. This will populate your TweetDeck column with tweets that contain any links to other sites, and you can add an additional search term to this too.
Combining Your Methods
Everything that was discussed in the sections above can be combined together to maximize your searching power and really narrow down your results to meet your needs.
For instance, you can combine a location search with a search of Instagram by putting both the geocode search and www.instagram.com in your search column. In this example, the coordinates were for an area in Istanbul and many of the Instagram results that appear are tagged near Istanbul:
From this search, you will get Instagram results from people posting in and around Istanbul. Some will have also tagged their location on Instagram. You can click on an Instagram link and then click on the location they have tagged on Instagram to see other posts from the same location. For some, they will have simply tagged their location as Istanbul. However, others will tag specific buildings, parks, or other areas in the city.
Therefore, by clicking on each of these tags on the Instagram posts, you can access many different location search results on Instagram (an app that does not allow you to search by location in this way). This may seem like an advanced or complex technique, but try this on your TweetDeck and you’ll see how simple it really is.
You can get even more specific by narrowing down a location search filtered by tweets that contain links to only tweets that are authored by members of a list of yours:
Because we have intentionally conducted all of these searches in basic search columns, you can further filter them by all the additional filters in TweetDeck. This includes date, media contained in the tweet, language, and more:
Go Forth and Be Creative!
While going through this guide, you may have already noticed patterns to TweetDeck and thought of new ways to use it for research. In my opinion, it is one of the most versatile and limitless tools at our disposition on social media.
Have fun with the tool and try to find new methods to make it work for you! The only way I found out how to do any of this was through my own trial and error with it.
Please reach out if you have further questions and if this guide leads you to a wonderful TweetDeck discovery, I want to know about it! Thank you for reading and I hope you now see TweetDeck in all the warm glowing light that I do.
This article first appeared on Bellingcat and is reproduced here with permission.
Charlotte Godart is an investigator and trainer for Bellingcat. Before that, she was a researcher and team manager in the Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. During that time, she taught how to conduct open source investigations for various clients (humanitarian, legal, and governmental).