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 allows users to communicate via messages of up to 280 characters, called “tweets.” User’s express opinions and observations on various topics, update 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?

Twitter allows users to communicate with other Twitter users 280 characters at a time. Twitter users can access the platform via computer or through a mobile device. Twitter accounts can be public or private – users with private accounts must give approval for others to view their profiles or posts – their posts are called “protected” tweets.

Users’ tweets can be directed at specific users or include a variety of media assets, but at its core, the platform is an “SMS for the Internet.” The best example of this is the use of Twitter by protesters in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

Many Twitter users check their Twitter feeds throughout the day to follow breaking news. 22% of adults use Twitter, with many users checking their Twitter feed throughout the day. Approximately even percentages of men (61%) and women (65%) use Twitter to follow the news.

Twitter Terminology

Once users become accustomed to the 280-character limit, Twitter is easy to use. But there are a number of unique terms associated with the platform.

  • Twitter Handle – An individual’s username. (i.e., @KingJames is the Twitter handle for LeBron James). Each username must be unique, and each user is limited to one account per email address.
  • Tweet – Posts to a user’s account. The 280-character limit does not include emojis, video, photos or hyperlinks, which can be added to tweets. Tweets are limited to 280 characters and can include images, emojis, video, and hyperlinks to external websites. Tweets sent from the app can also include the user’s location.
  • Timeline – A chronological display of all the tweets posted by the Twitter accounts a particular user is following.
  • Followers – Following a public account allows users to see all tweets by that user.
  • Mention – Twitter users can mention other users in a tweet by including their handles. (e.g., @KingJames is an excellent basketball player.)
  • Retweet – Repost of one person’s tweet by another user. Retweeted content will appear in the user’s timeline along with their personal tweets.
  • Like – Expressing approval of tweets posted by other users. (i.e., @KingJames liked your tweet.)
  • Hashtag – A word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) used to identify messages on a specific topic. Hashtags are searchable on Twitter.
  • Moments – A collection of daily news which includes the following categories: Today, News, Sports, Entertainment, and Fun.
  • Trends / Trending – Topics many people are talking about around the world and in a user’s approximate location. Trending topics are often indicated by their hashtags.
  • Avatar / Avi – A colloquial term for a user’s profile picture. New user accounts often have an illustration of an egg as their avatar.
  • Direct Message / DM – A private communication that can only be seen by those in the message group. Users must be following one another to use DMs. Unlike tweets, direct messages are not limited to only 280 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. As of 2020, that number had grown to 353 million monthly active users. Twitter users are well represented in every age group. With more than 340 million users worldwide, the broad appeal of Twitter makes it an especially valuable source for investigators.

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 if that person’s profile is public. Twitter users often share information with little regard for possible repercussions. Many users view Twitter feeds as informal and temporal, even though tweets do not disappear like Snapchat snaps or Instagram stories. Twitter users often find out too late that even though a series of ill-conceived tweets might only be visible on their timelines for a matter of minutes, there is always someone ready to capture a screenshot.

How does one search Twitter?

Some users share their Twitter handles on other social media platforms or on personal blogs. However, it is also relatively easy to search for users’ Twitter handles by their names using Twitter’s search bar. A quick query will often return matching profiles (with biographical information & photographs) and any tweets mentioning them by other users. Our analysts can also conduct keyword searches to refine searches that fail to yield positive results, especially with subjects with more common names.

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. However, effective searches of Twitter profiles often require the attention of an expert.

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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