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Elliott VerreaultAug 22, 2023 3:52:06 PM7 min read

The Advantages and Challenges of Using Social Media in Investigations

Social media platforms are essential for open source investigations due to their widespread use and real-time nature. 

They allow for the collection and analysis of large volumes of user-generated data, which is invaluable in public and private sector investigations. 

This article will explore the advantages and challenges of using social media, the tools and techniques for extracting relevant information, and several case studies.

The Role of Social Media

Social media has emerged as an invaluable tool for gathering information in open source investigations.

By utilizing social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, investigators can gather valuable information about a particular subject or event.

This can include real-time updates, eyewitness accounts, and even visual evidence in the form of photos or videos.

Additionally, social media can help investigators identify potential witnesses or sources of information that they may not have otherwise known about.

One notable example is the Boston Marathon bombing case in 2013, where social media played a vital role in identifying the suspects.

The images and videos posted by witnesses on social media were analyzed to determine the location and movements of the suspects and ultimately lead to their arrest.

Similarly, social media played a significant role in tracking disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US Presidential election.

The campaigns were traced back to social media accounts, which were used to spread false information and manipulate public opinion.

Advantages of Using Social Media in Investigations

When conducting open-source investigations, utilizing social media platforms can provide numerous advantages that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the investigative process.

Social media platforms offer a vast array of benefits, enabling investigators to gather relevant information and insights in a timely manner.

One significant advantage of using social media for open-source investigations is the abundance of user-generated data available.

As mentioned before, this wealth of data can be invaluable for investigators, enabling them to piece together timelines, identify key individuals, and gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject or event under investigation.

By monitoring discussions, comments, and user interactions, investigators can uncover valuable leads and contacts.

This ability to tap into a vast network of individuals can significantly enhance the investigative process, providing additional perspectives and insights that may prove crucial in solving complex cases.

For example, Twitter has been used as a source of multimedia witness accounts by BBC journalists investigating the Khartoum massacre in June 2019.

bbc twitter reporting on Sudans Khartoum 2019 massacre

Another advantage of using social media in open-source investigations is its cost-effectiveness.

Unlike traditional methods of investigation that often require significant financial resources, social media platforms offer a wealth of existing data that does not need to be produced or obtained at an additional cost.

This cost-efficiency allows investigators to allocate their resources more effectively, focusing on the analysis and interpretation of the gathered information rather than its acquisition.

Furthermore, social media platforms act as aggregators of multiple micro-sources or authors, providing investigators with a comprehensive understanding of events and concepts from various perspectives.

This multiplicity of viewpoints is particularly valuable when investigating complex issues that require a nuanced understanding of different factors at play.

By analyzing and synthesizing information from diverse sources, investigators can gain a more holistic view of the subject matter, enabling them to uncover hidden connections and patterns that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

However, it is crucial to exercise caution when utilizing social media for open-source investigations, as these platforms also present several challenges.

Challenges of Using Social Media for Investigations

One of the most significant challenges of using social media in an investigation or research is information overload.

With the vast amount of data generated on social media platforms, it can be overwhelming for investigators to identify relevant information and focus on what truly matters.

The sheer volume of posts, comments, and interactions can make it difficult to sift through the noise and extract valuable insights.

Furthermore, the prevalence of misinformation or fake news on social media poses a significant challenge to open-source investigations.

False information can quickly spread and be mistaken for the truth, leading to potential false positives.

Investigators need to navigate through this minefield of unreliable information and carefully verify the authenticity of sources and claims.

On the other hand, the volume of social media data can sometimes create a false sense of importance.

Researchers and investigators may be tempted to believe that if something is not mentioned on social media, it didn't happen.

This can also lead to false negatives, where valuable information or evidence is overlooked simply because it wasn't shared on social media.

It is essential for investigators to recognize that social media is just one source of information and should not be solely relied upon.

Lastly, privacy and ethical concerns surrounding the collection and use of data from social media platforms must be taken into consideration.

Investigators must be careful not to infringe upon individuals' privacy rights or misuse personal information obtained from these platforms.

It is crucial to adhere to legal and ethical guidelines when accessing and analyzing social media data, ensuring that the rights and privacy of individuals are respected.

To overcome these challenges, investigators should employ robust methodologies and verification processes.

By cross-referencing information from multiple sources, conducting thorough fact-checking, and using reliable tools and techniques, investigators can mitigate the risks associated with misinformation and information overload.

Additionally, staying updated on the latest trends and technologies in social media analysis can help investigators navigate the ever-evolving landscape of online information.

In conclusion, while social media platforms offer valuable insights and data for open-source investigations, they also present significant challenges.

The sheer volume of data, the prevalence of misinformation, the risk of overreliance, and privacy concerns all need to be carefully addressed.

By being aware of these challenges and implementing effective strategies, investigators can harness the power of social media while ensuring the accuracy, reliability, and ethical use of the information obtained.

Tools and Techniques

In open-source investigations, several tools and techniques are used to extract relevant information from social media platforms.

Advanced search tools filter and narrow search results based on specific criteria, such as keywords, hashtags, sources, geolocation, etc.

Data scrapers can be used to extract large volumes of data from social media platforms, which can be analyzed using software tools such as media listening and sentiment analysis.

Image analysis tools are also sometimes used to analyze images and videos posted on social media.

Lastly, Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a technique used to identify connections between users on social media platforms, which can help analysts understand how propaganda travels the web, for example.

Investigating the Tigray Conflict through Social Media

The Tigray conflict began in November 2020 between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.

The conflict has resulted in widespread violence, displacement of civilians, and human rights abuses.

Social media analysis played a critical role in fact-checking and verifying information related to the Tigray War.

Due to the conflict's remote location and the lack of traditional media coverage, social media became a key source of information for journalists, human rights groups, and other organizations investigating the conflict.

One example of how social media analysis was used in fact-checking the Tigray conflict is the work of our client, Vigil Monitor (formerly known as DX Open Network).

Vigil used satellite imagery and social media to document and verify reports of atrocities committed during the conflict.

For example, Vigil analyzed satellite imagery, fire data, and social media posts to gather evidence of crimes such as the burning of a United Nations facility, school, clinic, and homes.

A timelapse shows the WFP building being destroyed at Shimelba campA time-lapse shows the WFP building being destroyed at Shimelba camp. Source: Planet Labs Inc.

In addition to research organizations, social media analysis was also used by journalists to verify information related to the Tigray conflict.

Journalists analyzed social media posts from witnesses and satellite imagery to confirm the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, which had been denied by the Ethiopian government.

Overall, social media analysis played a crucial role in fact-checking and verifying information related to the conflict.

The remote location and lack of traditional media coverage made social media a key source of information for journalists and human rights organizations investigating the conflict.

By using social media analysis, organizations were able to corroborate reports of human rights abuses, confirm the presence of foreign troops, and document the scale and evolution of the conflict. 

In Summary

In conclusion, social media platforms have become indispensable tools for open source investigations, offering advantages such as the abundance of user-generated data, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to access diverse perspectives.

However, challenges like information overload, the spread of misinformation, and privacy concerns must be addressed with caution and ethical considerations.

By employing robust methodologies, and verification processes, and staying updated on social media analysis techniques, investigators can harness the power of social media while ensuring accuracy, reliability, and ethical use of information.

Real case studies like the one on the Tigray conflict, highlight the vital role social media analysis plays in fact-checking and verifying information, particularly in remote locations with limited traditional media coverage.

As social media continues to evolve, it is crucial for investigators and researchers to engage further with the tools, techniques, and ethical considerations discussed in this blog post to enhance their open-source investigations.

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Elliott Verreault

I'm passionate about helping public and private sector organizations navigate fast-changing and hard to predict environments with powerful no-code information management software.