Using Facebook To Investigate

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Facebook has become an important tool for investigators, but journalists need to learn unique search tools to navigate the system.

For example, when the CIA arrested Russian spy Anna Chapman, reporters around the world started to look for information on her. “I knew that her Facebook account contained information about her movements around America, but I also new that Facebook was minutes away from closing her profile,” says BBC Internet investigations ace Paul Myers. “I saved her timeline, saved her friends list. After an hour the profile disappeared.”

These and other tips were shared during the session “Facebook Tricks, Tips, and Secret Hacks” at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference last weekend. For more on Myers’ search techniques, check out his 15 Secrets of Facbook on his site Research Clinic. Among the tips:

Phone Numbers: Facebook can look up telephone numbers. Tap the phone number into Facebook’s search box to find the account associated to a phone number. Or find a profiles by entering email addresses into the search box.

Email Addresses: Email address are not as private as you might think. Log into Facebook in incognito mode, a tool offered by Google Chrome. Then, by pretending to be the person you are investigating, click on “forgotten your password.” If you paste a user’s name, Facebook will give you a reductive version of an e-mail address: Fill in the blanks and guess the email address.

Friend’s Lists: A private friend’s list is also not so private. You can find email addresses of a list of friends by creating a Yahoo account. Next, associate the Yahoo account with the Facebook page, import the Facebook contacts, and you can see the email addresses (if they don’t have a strict privacy setting).

Sending a Message: You can pay to get a message delivered to someone, even if you’re not friends with them. It will cost you a dollar.

Graph Searching: By using Facebook’s search engine, you can find various bits of info. For example, people can view a list of publicly viewable photos people have “liked” and read comments you’ve posted. Also, by using the unique ID code that every page on Facebook has, you can do additional kinds of research beyond just word searches. For more on this, check out Myers tutorial on the topic.


Luigi Serenelli reports on this event as part of the IACC Young Journalists Initiative, a network reporting on corruption around the globe. 

luigiLuigi Serenelli is a Berlin-based reporter and features writer with a background in foreign policy. His recent focus has been on immigration to Germany and Europe. His multimedia work includes stories of suburban tensions in Milan and social engagement in Scampia, a stronghold of the Neapolitan mafia. He works in Italian, English, and German.

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