Social Media Investigations

Harnessing the social web has become an integral part of work for any investigator. So much information is being shared with smartphones and social media that it’s absolutely impossible to ignore. And the amount of data is growing every day.

Social media content was at the forefront of a large-scale investigation we just wrapped up relating to an executive of a public company. In fact, if it weren’t for social media, we wouldn’t have had much of a case. In all, a team of investigators spent more than one hundred hours putting together the pieces from various social media websites that put together a compelling story.

While there is no “magic bullet” or “secret sauce” to conducting these social media investigations, there are some tools that can help with the process.

Reverse Image Search

With Google’s reverse image search, you can scour the Internet for any instances in which a particular photo has been published. It will find the exact matching photo or any similar photo that has been posted on Facebook, Instagram, blogs or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter.

It’s not perfect, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool if you are trying to find social profiles of individuals or websites in the deep dark web.

How can this help you? Most people don’t bother changing the profile picture for the various social networks they use, often using the same exact photo and posting the exact same pictures.

Over the course of the past several years, I have found people on pornography websites, people using pseudonyms and even a collection of completely fake profiles to try to scam people out of money.

[Tineye is also another reverse image search, but I have found it to be much less successful at finding photographs than Google’s reverse image search.]

Facebook Graph Search

Facebook is the thousand-pound gorilla of social media sites. Luckily for investigators, Facebook has done a really poor job explaining their privacy policies in plain English, leaving heaps of information available to the public, unbeknownst to them.

Last year, Facebook announced Facebook Graph Search, which is effectively a search engine within Facebook to help find information more easily. So, for example, if you need to find someone with the name Lucinda who lived near Canton, Ohio, you would type “People named ‘Lucinda’ who live near Canton, Ohio” in the Facebook search bar. Simple as that.

To find someone, you can use a variety of search terms, such as:

  • Friends of people named “first.name last.name”
  • Photos of people named “first.name last.name”
  • People who have visited “place name”

It’s an incredibly powerful tool, one that has come in quite handy lately. [SMI Aware has a great primer on how to utilize Facebook Graph Search more effectively.]

Bonus tip: Even if the person you are looking for has blocked himself or herself from public view, you may be able to find him or her through family members.


Spokeo has been around the block for a few years. Its main benefit is that it can search 60 of the top social media sites to determine whether a particular email address or person is linked to a social media profile utilizing an email address. This is especially helpful when the person may be using some type of pseudonym.

Spokeo doesn’t always work. In fact, it rarely does. But when it works, it can be an absolute gold mine.


This may come as a surprise to you, but not everyone uses his or her real name on the Internet. People use an alter ego, so to speak. While the person you are searching for may go by Tom Jones in real life, he may go by MrLions100 on the Internet. It certainly makes it more difficult to track down these people, but one thing we have going for us is that people are creatures of habit. Once they’ve got a username, they usually stick with it. So if a person is known as MrLions100 on Instagram, there is a good chance that he is known as MrLions100 on many other sites as well.

That’s where Knowem comes in. With Knowem, you can search over 500 popular social networks to see whether that particular name has been taken. If you get a hit with Knowem, you’ve now got a whole new rabbit hole to go down.

Instagram Search

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Instagram, with more than 20 billion photos, is worth 20 trillion words. With more than 200 million active users, Instagram is a phenomenal (and growing) source for investigators. The trouble is that Instagram was built as a mobile platform, and unlike Facebook, it doesn’t have a very good “desktop” version to search and review with.

That’s where a tool such as Instagram for Chrome can harness the power of searching Instagram on your desktop. We recently conducted an investigation to try to find individuals who were connected to a particular individual and a particular address. Utilizing Instagram for Chrome, we were able search hashtags, GPS tags and user tags in order to develop a full picture of close confidants and groups of individuals who were a regular part of this individual’s entourage.


Everyone loves the magic bullet or the secret sauce. But you know what? It’s not always that easy. Sometimes you just need some good old-fashioned time and sweat.

The social web is not structured in a way that lets you click a few buttons and have everything at your fingertips.

If you really want to know what someone has been saying in his or her 42,301 tweets, you are going to have to read them. All of them.

Join the Social Media Party

The only way you are going to become a good social media investigator is to join the party. Know how people interact, get attention, post, like/heart/retweet, friend, etc. If you don’t know how the individual social media sites work, it’s really hard to know what their capabilities are.

In Closing …

There are hundreds of social media sites, each with its own intricacies. And they are changing every day. There really is no magic bullet, but in order to have a better understanding of social media investigations, you really need to know how each of them works.

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6 replies
  1. Deb Young
    Deb Young says:

    I have just spent this evening trawling through your vast library of blogs. I am a licensed private investigator in New Zealand and a one “woman” band. I was not a Police Officer and I am not a male – two things which I am frequently told are the cornerstone of an effective PI. (Don’t worry I don’t listen – when their lips start moving my ears close off) :-)

    My specialties are covert surveillance and investigative online checks and I have learnt so much from tonight from reviewing your blogs. In particular the online researching tips in this blog.

    In addition I take great encouragement from reading how you have built up your business and I can see myself in your position when I celebrate my 5th anniversary in 2.5 years.

    Thanks so much. Take care.
    Debra Young

  2. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    Good job fleshing out some of the benefits of facebook graph. This is indeed a powerful tool. If your subject keeps a lot of his information off his public page, then the “photos liked” option proves particularly useful. As always, your information is timely and useful.

  3. Forrest
    Forrest says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the 6th point. I break more than my fare share of cases through social media (I’m in my early 30’s and grew up in the digital age) and the one problem I commonly face is that people think I spend 15 minutes searching the internet before a case and call it a day when in reality I usually spend all night looking up relatives facebook pages, instigram feeds, and twitter accounts because parents, children, and friends over-share more than would make most people comfortable if they knew someone was compiling intelligence reports on them based on those third-parties comments and photos. This work takes time, but nothing beats showing up at a claimant’s house already knowing where they are going that day and who with.

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