In May 2021, GIJN hosted two webinars with Paul Myers, a leading international expert in online investigation. Myers, who works for the BBC and is a big favorite at GIJN conferences, shared his tips on the best tools and strategies for digging up information about people. Check out his tipsheet below. It was updated in April 2021.
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FINDING PEOPLE: Google
How to Google More Effectively: The Basics
- Focus your search by either using quotation marks around phrases, or by using a minus sign before a term that leads to unwanted categories.
- For example, search for “Michael Jordan” instead of Michael Jordan. This will ensure that you get pages about the basketball star, but not pages that simply mention the words Jordan and Michael on them in no particular order.
- You can add flexibility, and avoid ruining a search, by adding the word “OR” in capital letters between options, for example apple OR android app.
- You can focus your search to a particular domain with the prefix “site:”, leaving no space afterward.
- E.g. to find all mentions of COVID on the Indian government website, search – site:gov.in COVID.
- Using ext:pdf in your search forces Google to look exclusively for pdf files. If you know a few words that were in that document, put them in quotes in Google, and see if there are any other sources for the same document.
Sometimes you need information that has been removed from the web, such as a deleted tweet, website or Facebook account. There are a number of tools that can help bring the information back.
- Search engine caches
- If information has only recently been deleted and still comes up in a Google search, try clicking on the little black triangle next to its entry in the search results. This might give you access to a stored copy in the search engine’s cache.
- Even though this Facebook page had been deleted, a copy still existed in Google’s cache.
- Date range searches
- Some personal information can be buried by later news coverage. To go back to the time before a big news story broke, click on “Tools” and choose a date range from the time drop-down box:
- Archive.is is especially good for finding deleted social media posts and accounts.
- And the Wayback Machine, www.archive.org, which is great at bringing back web content.
Searching by Image
- Identifying where an image is found online can lead you to information that will identify the person in the image.
- Google’s reverse image search can be found by clicking on the camera icon in Google Image’s search box.
Identifying the Right Person
- As names are often very commonplace and sometimes incomplete, it is best to gather as much information as possible about the person you are looking for.
Think about the following issues:
- Name: spelling, abbreviations, transliterating from other alphabets, could they use their other parents’ surname, change after marriage, unique usernames.
- Relationships: family members on friends lists, same friend across different networks.
- Employment: job, company, previous employment.
- Connected places: where were they born, where do they work.
- Email address: can websites to find work email addresses that follow a format.
- Also think about what the person looks like, as well as their interests, causes and hobbies.
People Research Tools
- Some online resources gather personal data into a searchable resource.
- Pipl Pro, Spokeo, etc., are dedicated people research sites and provide a wealth of personal information on the subject of your investigation. Pipl can be searched by phone number, email name and other factors. Spokeo is similar in some respects but focused on US citizens.
Searching Social Media
- People have different social networks for different aspects of their lives. Each will have different followers.
- On all platforms, start your internal search boxes on the specific platforms rather than Google; it has direct connections to its own database, and can offer more up-to-date results.
- Some social networks, for example Instagram, have very rudimentary search engines. Search Instagram via Google for better results by adding site:instagram.com to your Google search box.
- Twitter has a very useful, flexible advanced search form. Other resources are also available, including:
- Tweepsect will show follows, followers and follow-backs.
- Followerwonk compares followers of two or three accounts.
- Tweetbeaver has loads of useful Twitter search tools.
- Identifying hashtags relevant to your search can help you.
- Groups and pages have their own search boxes, helping find a particular post.
- Facebook’s People tab is one of its most useful features. You don’t even need to search for a name. Just enter a single letter and few details about the sort of person you are looking for. For example, you can simply search for a profession, a company, a town, or a university. You can also find filters on the left-hand side of the page that allow you to specify aspects relating to your search.
- Use the website www.graph.tips to squeeze even more search functionality out of Facebook. Setting date ranges or specifying the user ID of the poster, for example.
- The Posts tab allows you to search for keywords in Facebook posts. The filters allow you to specify a source, a date, and to search Facebook Groups.
- If you have a hunch that someone has post-edited something on Facebook, click on the three little dots to the top right, see ‘edit history’, and you’ll be able to see previous versions;
- If you suspect that an entire post has been moved back into the past, hover your cursor over the small clock icon next to the Facebook post, which will reveal the date it was added:
- LinkedIn has fantastic search functionality allowing you to differentiate between a person’s current and former job in the search box.
- Click “enter” into the search box. If you are searching for individuals, choose “people” as an option. Then choose “more filters” to unleash LinkedIn’s full functionality.
- Slightly more difficult to search, but very valuable if your target is younger or you are investigating an issue that is relevant to a particular demographic.
- Picuki.com is one of the sites that offer effective searches of Instagram. It allows Instagram images to be copied and opened at full size.
Copyright (c) Paul Myers 2021. For more information, follow Paul Myers on Twitter at @paulmyersbbc.
Paul Myers is the lead consultant of the BBC’s Investigation Support initiative. He has worked at the sharp edge of online research for nearly 20 years, and has trained fellow journalists since the turn of the century. Outside of his BBC work, Myers has helped investigators at the UNDP, World Bank, Guardian, CNN and many other investigative teams. He runs the researchclinic.net website.