Investigator's Guide to Twitter

Investigator's Guide to Twitter - Twitter logo under magnifying glass.

The Investigator’s Guide to Social Media introduces popular social media platforms and how information shared on these platforms can benefit investigators. In this installment, we’ll be discussing why one should be investigating Twitter.

What is Twitter?

Founded in 2006, Twitter is a social networking service which allows users to communicate via 140-character messages called “tweets.” Users can express their opinions on any variety of topics, update their followers on their daily activities, and stay up-to-date on world news & events. Twitter’s broad appeal has created a large user base and a valuable resource for investigators seeking information on their subjects’ opinions & activities.

How does Twitter work?

At its most basic level, Twitter allows users to communicate with the world 140-characters at a time. Users’ tweets can be directed at specific users or include a variety media assets; but at its core, the platform is a “SMS for the Internet.” The best example of this is the use of Twitter by protesters in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

In recent years, many Twitter users have taken to the platform in order to following breaking news. In fact, in a recent study by Pew Research Center, 63% of respondents sited Twitter as their primary source for news.

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Twitter Terminology

  • Twitter Handle – A Twitter handle is an individual’s username. (i.e. @KingJames is the Twitter handle for LeBron James).
  • Tweet – When a user posts information to Twitter, it is called a tweet. Tweets are limited to 140-characters and can include images, emojis, video, and hyperlinks to external websites. Tweets sent from a the platform’s mobile application can also include the user’s location.
  • Timeline – A user’s timeline is the chronological display of all the tweets posted by the Twitter accounts which that user is following.
  • Followers – Following a public account allows users to see all tweets by that user. If an account is private, the user’s permission is required before they can be followed.
  • Mention – Twitter users can mention other users in a tweet by including their handle.
  • Retweet – A retweet is when a user reposts information from another user. Retweeted content will appear in the user’s timeline along with their personal tweets.
  • Like – Users can like tweets posted by other users. (i.e. @KingJames liked your tweet)
  • Hashtag – A hashtag word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic. Hashtag are searchable on Twitter.
  • Moments – Moments is a collection of daily news which include the following categories: Today, News, Sports, Entertainment and Fun.
  • Trends / Trending – The most popular topics people are talking about around the world and in a user’s approximate location.
  • Avatar / Avi – Avi is a colloquial term for a user’s profile picture. New user accounts will have an illustration of an egg as their avatar.
  • Direct Message / DM – A direct message is a private communication and can only be seen by those in the message group. In order for users to direct message one another, they must first be following each other. Unlike tweets, direct messages are not limited to only 140-characters.

Who uses Twitter?

When Twitter announced its IPO in 2013, their Form S-1 claimed that the platform had 200M+ monthly active users and 500M+ tweets per day. While these numbers should be encouraging investigators on their own, it is more relevant that the platform enjoys a broad user base. As you will see in the following chart, Twitter users are well represented in every age group.

Distribution of Twitter Users by Age

Demographic information courtesy of Business Insider.


What information do users share on Twitter?

An investigator can find anything and everything on any given subject on Twitter. The possibilities of what an investigator can find are endless if they know what they’re looking for.

Twitter users will share a variety of information; often with little regard for possible repercussions. By and large, users view micro-blogging services like Twitter to be more informal and temporal. (In many ways, this is similar to what we’ve previously said about Snapchat.) However, just because a series of ill-conceived tweets might only stay on a their users’ timelines for a matter of minutes, doesn’t mean that they’re gone forever.

How does one search Twitter?

While some users will share their Twitter handle on other social media platforms / personal blogs, it’s relatively simple to search for a subject using Twitter’s search bar. A quick query for the subject’s name will return matching profiles (with biographical information & photographs) and any tweets mentioning them. If this doesn’t return a positive result, as is often the case with subjects who have common names, our analyst use an advanced search feature which allows the use of keyword searches.

SMI is typically able to gather all publicly available information about a subject on Twitter such as their Twitter account and any mention of that Twitter account by other users.

Should you be investigating Twitter?

While there is a growing trend for users to make their profiles private, Twitter remains one of the most valuable platforms for investigators. That being said, sorting through false-positives and locating a subject’s Twitter profile may on occasion require the attention of an expert.

Let us know how investigating a subject’s activity on Twitter fits into your discovery process in the comments section below. Want more information about SMI’s social media investigation or preservation products? Please contact us or call (888) 299-9921 and one of our representatives will gladly assist you.

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