We all hear about this place called “social media” where people share too much about themselves. Ever feel like the person not invited to that party? You might think that, as a lawyer with ethical obligations, you would not be able to access the good stuff. In a lot of cases, that’s true but in many, many more it’s not. Wouldn’t it be great to tap into that over-sharing for information about the key witnesses in your case? Or how about for finding potential witnesses to support your claims?
This article will share four easy techniques to search the publicly accessible part of social media.
What is Social Media?
The first step to understanding social media is to know what you’ll find there. In this humorous list, you’ll see the focus of the most popular sites and how they compare:
- Twitter: I need to sneeze.
- Facebook: I sneezed.
- LinkedIn: I’m good at sneezing.
- YouTube: Look at me sneeze!
- Instagram: I’m sneezing artistically.
- Pinterest: Others are sneezing artistically.
- Google+: We sneeze together.
Other popular social media sites are Quora, Foursquare, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat and Medium, to name a few.
Now that you can narrow down where you want to look, let’s look at how to easily find helpful information there:
Technique One: Find the person’s online identity
Most people use an online name that may or may not be the same as in their offline worlds. This name – or “handle” – is usually the same across social media. Once you identify the handle, you can search for information on social media using the handle and come up with things that aren’t tied to the person’s real name.
A good place to start looking for a handle is on Twitter. This nearly-always-unprotected site usually gives a real name in addition to the handle.
For example, let’s say you were looking for information about a Stef Michaels on social media. On Twitter you’d see her “handle” is “adventuregirl.” Searching for pages with that handle on Tumblr and Pinterest, for example, you’ll immediately get her public pages…ones that do not list her name “Stef Michaels” anywhere on the page. Oftentimes people feel safe disassociating their name from their online posts and are more honest and revealing.
If you don’t know where to start and Twitter isn’t helpful, for-pay aggregator sites like Spokeo are often good for finding handles.
Technique Two: Use connected people to find your witness on Facebook
Did you know that on Facebook you can opt for your personal page not to come up in a search? This privacy setting is unrelated to whether the contents of the Facebook page are marked as private. Here’s a technique for finding those public sites that are marked not to come up in a search:
Start with looking for family members or good friends of the person you are researching. On their pages (only if available to you of course) you can search their friends for your subject. Then, again if the privacy settings are marked to public, you can click on their page and voila.
Technique Three: Use sophisticated searches within social media
As with the above example, you can use real-language sentences to search Facebook within Facebook. Take the troubling issue of a common name. Let’s say you were trying to find information about someone named Laura Smith. Even if you know where the relevant Laura Smith lived, good luck narrowing it down on Facebook. Do you know where she works or used to work? Try a real-language request: “People named Laura Smith who worked at McDonalds.” That will narrow down your search magically.
This technique is also great for finding former employees or other groups of witnesses. Try “People who worked at McDonald’s and lived in St. Louis,” for example, to identify former employees of McDonalds stores in St. Louis.
Another great site for finding former employees or groups of witnesses is, of course, LinkedIn. With the Advanced Search function, you can narrow down the search results by employer, geography and other factors. Does your subscription level not give you last names? Don’t fear, just take the information you do have from the profile and put it in Google. The Google search will often return a link with that missing last name. One issue with visiting profiles of potential witnesses on LinkedIn is that the LinkedIn algorithm will think you know each other and might “suggest” to that person that they know you. Also, check your own privacy setting! Do you mind if people see you viewed their profiles? If so, make sure to mark your “Profile Viewing Options” to “Private Mode.”
Technique Four: Use Google to search social media
Some social media don’t have effective search tools on their sites, except to connect with your friends after you sign up. One workaround is to use the “site” search function with Google. Let’s say you want to find where a witness named Evan Smith had moved. The location-based social media site Foursquare would be a good bet. Try this search in Google:
Site:foursquare “Evan Smith”
Also, try using hashtags, handles or keywords with the Google “site” search. Let’s say you were looking for former employees of McDonalds, a generally young group with low presence on the general web. You could use:
Site:instagram #mcdonalds #job
Or even site:instagram #mcdonalds #hatemyjob or #lastday
The possibilities are endless and results are abundantly fruitful.