Image: Ryan McGuire, Gratisography


Cordelia Hebblethwaite
The Social Media Reporter


This section covers:

  • Advanced search on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Reddit to find interviewees, story ideas and for research
  • Tracking people down via their social media accounts

N.B. This symbol ✳️ means the tool is free!

✳️ Facebook Signal

Update: Facebook Signal has closed down, so these links no longer work unfortunately…

Facebook launched a service just for journalists called Signal in September 2015.

You have to request access and give a work email address. It can take a few weeks to process, but after that it’s free to use, and provides more information than via the standard Facebook interface.

It’s perhaps most useful for its trending data (see more in the trending section of this guide).

But it’s also useful for searching both Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

This is what the main Facebook Signal dashboard looks like. Please see the Trending section of this guide for more

Doing a search on Facebook is very straightforward. Just select “Facebook search” on the right-hand side and type in the search. The results show all public posts, and are displayed in chronological order, with most recent first. Just beneath the search bar, a number of related pages, groups and events will display, which is useful too.

A Facebook search on “Brussels” on 31 March 2016

Facebook has also created a very basic map view for Facebook Live videos, which anyone can access.

The Instagram Search within Facebook Signal is handy. You can search by hashtag/s, location or username.

For the location, type in the place and then pinpoint the spot more accurately on the map. You can choose a radius of 300m, 1km or 5km. Once you’ve done this, make sure to hit the blue search button and the results will come up.

✳️ Searching on Facebook itself

Back on the standard Facebook interface, there used to be something called “Graph Search” which allowed you to combine search terms and phrases.

That has now been downgraded and replaced with a new simplified search, which arranges the results by “people”, “photos” and more.

On desktop, the tabs appear across the top of the screen.

Facebook groups are a great way of getting a sense of what people within a certain community, or with shared interests, are talking about. There are three privacy settings for Facebook groups — public, closed and secret. If it’s the latter, it won’t appear in a search, and you have to be added or invited.

It used to be the case that if you contacted someone who you were not friends with on Facebook, that message would go to their “other” folder… and probably never be read.

But in October 2015, the “other” folder for messages was replaced with “message request”, which is much better if you are trying to get in touch with someone you don’t have contact details for. The person you are writing to will get a preview of your message, and have the option of accepting or rejecting the message.

Tools for searching Facebook

Although Facebook Graph search itself no longer works as it used to, there are a couple of really great third-party tools for digging deeper:

✳️ The experimental Facebook Graph Search Engine (by Henk van Ess)

This is really easy to use and shows you all sorts of things, including posts a person has commented on, photos they have liked, and places they have visited. It’s a bit creepy (and doesn’t always work as it depends on their privacy settings), but it can be useful if you are scoping someone out.

You can also search for people from a given city or country who have visited another city or country and more.

✳️ Facebook Search (by Intelligence Software)

This allows you to really quickly and easily combine searches. It covers name, current/past job, lives in, speaks, visited etc. It’s very similar to the old Graph Search, but easier to use.

There is also a very handy Google Chrome extension, which covers LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as Facebook.

And there is also this workaround, which allows you to continue to use Graph Search. It was put together by Paul Myers of the BBC who runs a great website (especially if you work on investigative pieces) called Research Clinic. Tips include how to find people on Facebook via their phone number or email.

You can also search sites like Twitter, Facebook, Vine etc via Google, by adding, or to the search. Google images allows you to specify the date range, which is handy if you’re looking for something from the past.

Tools for searching Instagram

It used to be impossible to do anything but the most basic search on Instagram, but in late June 2015, Instagram relaunched the “explore” button, adding lots of new functionality.

Just hit the magnifying glass at the bottom of the app, place the cursor in the search bar at the top, and the options come up. The results are now filtered by “people”, “tags” and “places”.

There are some very useful third-party tools too, which allow you to search Instagram on your desktop, as follows:

✳️ Web.Stagram

✳️ Iconosquare

There’s more on searching Instagram in the locate section of this guide.

✳️ Searching on Twitter

When searching on Twitter, if you want to see the most recent tweets, make sure to click on the tab that says “live” across the top on desktop (the default is “top” which shows those with most engagement around them). On mobile, toggle across to “all tweets”.

You’ll need to think very carefully about what search terms you are looking for. For example, when breaking news happens, eyewitnesses will often use swear words, like fuck, shit, WTF etc.

Those at the scene, or closely involved, will also often use words like “me” or “my” (this piece by Daniel Victor of The New York Times gives lots of examples of this in action).

People often use very localized words (as opposed to the name of the city) for describing where they are, so it’s worth looking on Google maps for local landmarks and streets they might reference.

You can save a search in Twitter, by clicking on “more options” and then “save this search” on desktop.

NOTE: Twitter introduced a new timeline in February 2016 which shows you the “best tweets first” when you login.

I find it quite helpful, but it’s worth knowing that you can opt out, and see the standard chronological order with most recent first, as follows:

On desktop, go to settings, account, content, and untick “show me the best tweets first”. On mobile, click the gear icon for settings, then timeline, and untick “show me the best tweets first”.

Here are some of the search operators for Twitter (if you can’t remember all this, you can go to Advanced Twitter Search page). Quotation marks and the OR operator are particularly useful:

happy hour— looks for exact phrase “happy hour”.

love OR hate — looks for either “love” or “hate” (or both)

beer -root — looks for containing “beer” but not “root” (you can also use -rt to exclude retweets)

from:cordeliaheb — tweets from @cordeliaheb

to:JSKstanford — tweets to @JSKstanford

near:NYC within:15mi — looks for tweets sent within 15 miles of NYC (more on searching for social media from a specific location in the locate section of this guide)

since: 2016–01–02 searches for tweets from 2 January 2016 onwards

filter:links — just searches for links related to a given term

filter:verified — will just pull up results from verified accounts

Update: In September 2016, Tweetdeck made it much easier to search for tweets by date and by location — by integrating these options into the Tweetdeck filter bar. For more info on Tweetdeck, see the Organise section of this guide. For more on this update, here’s a quick summary from First Draft.

Finding people/searching Twitter

Please see the organise section of this guide for info on ✳️ Tweetdeck, using lists, Tame, twXplorer and other tools.

The ✳️ beats section of Muck Rack (which is free) can be useful for finding journalists who are active on Twitter, by country or specialism.

You can search the ✳️ bio section of Followerwonk to find experts/interviewees by keyword.

The ✳️ amplification section of Buzzsumo is useful for finding influential people on Twitter by topic, keyword, city or country.

✳️ SnapBird is a handy free tool for searching within your own tweets and DMs (direct messages). You can also search within another person’s public timeline, and see their favourites.

✳️ Allmytweets is another way to quickly search your own tweets, which can be very handy.

This is very extensive and useful list of third-party tools from Twitter’s Joanna Geary


I’m a big fan of Buzzsumo, and use it almost like a google search when beginning to research a subject. It’s also great for finding guests/interviewees and experts. Really it’s a tool for marketing, but it has some uses for journalists too.

The ✳️ free version has many of the main functions, though you very quickly get prompted to upgrade for more. For the advanced features, you need a subscription. Subscriptions start at $99, so it’s not cheap, but it’s definitely worth taking up the free 14-day trial to try it out.

To do a quick search on the most shared stories on a subject, make sure the tab across the top is on “content research” and “most shared” on the left and then type the search term you want between inverted commas. You can combine terms to make a big boolean search (anything up t0 1,000 characters). And you can also search for shares on a specific domain.

You can adjust the time frame on the left (past 24 hours, last week, last month, last six months, or last year), select your language, and choose which country you want results from.

On the right, you can opt to see most shares overall, or re-order them by specific social media network (it covers Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+).

You can see who has shared the story (view shares) and who has linked to that story (view backlinks). The paid version allows you to export this data, and add people to a Twitter list.

To find journalists, bloggers, “influencers” (in the social media sense of the term), companies or regular people on a given topic, click influencers across the top of the page, and type your search. This pulls up the top Twitter accounts on that search. You can get results just from a specific location too (cities work better than countries). This is really helpful for building Twitter lists (more on Twitter lists in the Organise section), and you can add people direct from here.

The paid version allows you to set up alerts on any given subject, and also includes reports which analyze how you and your competitors are doing (as I said, it’s a tool designed for marketers really).

They also have a good “Trending” tool — for info on this, please see the Trending section of this guide.

Buzzsumo has a great help/resource section and they also post their webinars on YouTube.

✳️ LinkedIn

Don’t forget about LinkedIn! It’s one of the fastest-growing social networks, and if you’re a journalist you can get a free 1-year upgrade to a premium account after taking a short web tutorial (repeat it a year later to renew the premium account). The dates for the tutorials are posted on the LinkedIn for Journalists group page. It’s well worth doing as the upgrade otherwise costs $75 a month.

A premium account allows you can to send “InMail” to people you are not connected to — perfect for those times when you are trying to get in touch with a potential interviewee/contributor, but can’t find their contact info listed anywhere.

Another very useful thing is LinkedIn’s advanced search (click “advanced” next to the search bar at the top of the screen). Make sure you are searching “all” rather than just your connections.

The keyword search is helpful when you are looking for an expert on a certain topic. You can also refine by location, by company and more.

If you don’t want people to know you’ve looked at their profile, click on the small picture of yourself on the top right (to bring up the drop down menu) click “privacy and settings”, then “select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile” and choose the anonymous option.

It’s worth knowing that while most US-based social media sites are banned in China (including Facebook, Twitter, Google, SoundCloud and others) LinkedIn is not, and it’s fairly widely used.

✳️ Reddit

You can search Reddit at

You can filter the results by time and by most recent/relevant/commented upon etc.

To see what stories from your news organization are being discussed on Reddit, type url:NAME into the search (e.g. url:BBC). This is a useful IFTTT recipe which gives sends email alerts when your site gets mentioned on Reddit.

This link shows all the search operators that work for a Reddit search.

To find subreddits (discussion groups on a specific theme), type subreddit:AND THEN WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.

MetaReddit tells you which subreddits are popular.

A couple of ones worth checking are Explain it Like I’m Five which gives a good idea of common questions people have on the news/current events. For example, after the US Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage legal, this was the top question.

The World News subreddit is also very active.

Tracking people down via social

People often use the same usernames, and/or profile pictures on different social media accounts, which can help you gather more info on them.

Free tools

This is exactly what Channel 4 News did to track down the person behind @ShamiWitness, one of the biggest pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, which — it turned out — was run by a young man in Bangalore. They found him by following up on the history of the @ShamiWitness Twitter handle account (which had changed names). That lead them to his Google+ and Facebook accounts. The @ShamiWitness account was shut down as a result of their investigation.

✳️ Pipl let’s you search by username, as well as email, name and phone number.

✳️ Spokeo is similar and also allows for a search by address.

✳️ WebMii is great. If you know the person’s name, it will quickly search for all associated social media accounts.

To see if a profile picture has been used elsewhere, check it out on TinEye or do a Google Reverse Image search (see the verification section for how to do this).

Other useful tools

✳️ International White and Yellow Pages

✳️ AnyWho (only covers US)

✳️ Reverse Whois This looks up info on who has registered a domain name

✳️ Wikipedia Live Monitor shows, in real time, which articles are being edited

✳️ Internet Archive includes The WayBack Machine and lots more

✳️ Rapportive is an add-on for gmail that pulls in information from LinkedIn

This is a useful example put together by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) of of US-based search and all the ways you can track someone down online.

✳️ More from the Social Media Reporter ✳️

  • How to organise your feeds
  • Locating video, images and sources from a specific location, and the ethics of using eyewitness material
  • Verification. How to spot fakes and scams
  • How to find out what’s trending and dig to the bottom of trends
  • More resources

This guide is a starting point. I’d love others to contribute to expand and improve it. Please feel free to leave a note here, or get in touch at or @cordeliaheb



Cordelia Hebblethwaite
The Social Media Reporter

Commissioning editor for @bbcideas — short films for curious minds. Via @BBCNewsnight, @JSKStanford, @BBCTrending and more. Wrote