Research Clinic
supporting open source investigation
Saving online evidence - pt 2
by Paul Myers

In part one of this article I discussed the need for journalists to save evidence found online and some of the techniques for recording this information. In part 2, I shall focus on saving information from social media and mobile devices.

Social media and mobile devices present unique issues from journalists wishing to record information. How, for example, do we record exchanges that take place on Whatsapp or Skype? How do we capture a live medium like Twitter?

Protecting your privacy
One tip, before I forget. If you are saving information from a social network that requires you to log in, you may want to consider protecting your own privacy. Imagine you wrote an artcile about the social media antics of a violent extremist groups and illustrated it with a screengrab from Facebook. If you had logged under your private login, your user name and possibly the names of some of your friends and colleagues may be visible on the screengrab. Before you use any screengrab, check that any comprising details have been obscured.


Saving information from Facebook

When a story breaks and you need to investigate a person who will be grabbing the headlines, it's important to get in early. Social networks are notorious for removing controversial content.

When Andreas Lubitz, a German pilot, deliberately flew a plane full of passengers into the alps, his Facebook account had been deleted even before his name had been released. I suspect this was at the request of the police. Lucky a basic version of page existed in Google's cache and it provided us with a low resolution copy of his profile picture.

That's all we had until the page reappeared. Family of a deceased Facebook member can apply to have their account preserved as a "memorialised" page. This gave us a brief window to grab more details, before the page was eventually taken down for good.

In that window I saved his timeline, the pages he liked, the photos he had posted and, since his friends list was private, a list of the people who clicked "like" on his photos.


Andreas Lubitz's "memorialised" Facebook page. Notice I have pixelated my Facebook username, to avoid identification.

Facebook can be searched and manipulated into providing a wealth of information beyond what is normally provided on a user's account. You can, for example find a list of people who "like" a company you are investigating. You can find mutual friends of two Facebook members. You can find their mutual "likes". You can trace the movements of an individual, find the comments they have left on others' posts, the photos they like etc. When you have conducted the search, save the results page for later reference. A previous article explores how to perform these enhanced searches.

An advanced Facebook "Graph" search for mutual friends of John Prescott and Alastair Campbell


Beware of the Filter Bubble
The above example highlights a problem of using your personal Facebook account to conduct research. The Facebook search has skewed the search results by putting the accounts it thinks are of most interest to me, at the top of the list. It assesses this by looking at my interests, friends and likes. This personalising of search results is often referred to as a "filter bubble" and can be an unwanted feature. Most researchers prefer search results to be ordered by relevance rather than any personal connections. To avoid this, search Facebook using a blank, generic account with no friends and no likes.

Check saved pages work
Whenever you save a page from the Internet, it's a good idea to open it up immediately to check that it saved correctly. Recently, some saved Facebook pages failed to render properly when opened and looked an unformatted mess. Older versions of Internet Explorer had a nasty habit of saving the wrong Facebook page. If you have problems with saved pages, try switching to a different browser. It's always best to try and save a webpage as an html file (by holding down control +S), however if the worst comes to the worst Chrome will allow you to save a webpage as a PDF document. You can do this by typing control +P (as if you were printing the page). Then choose PDF as the destination.

Chrome allows you to save web pages as PDF files. The formatting may not be perfect, but at least the links are preserved.

Use third party websites to save Twitter info
Many fine third party websites exist, displaying content from social networks in imaginative, useful formats. Followerwonk, for example lets you compare the followers and people followed by two Twitter accounts. This might be easier than saving two sets of follower lists.


Followerwonk Venn diagram showing the people followed by David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn

If you just need a record of every tweet sent by a Twitter user, AllMyTweets will list them on a single page. Of course, it might be a good idea to take a copy of the original social media accounts for evidence reasons and because this is usually the most familiar way of illustrating a story.

All of the author's Tweets displayed on one page, using allmytweets

Scroll to the bottom before you save.

When saving a page from a social media account like Twitter or Facebook, make sure that all the required content has loaded, before saving. A friends or follower list will often keep growing as you scroll down. Keep scrolling until all the names have loaded, then save.

As you scroll down a Facebook friends list, more and more friends appear.


Saving from mobile devices and their apps.

Most mobile devices and their apps are a little unfriendly for those wishing to save evidence. An iPhone will not, presently, allow you to capture video from the screen. Instagram won't let you zoom or save images. Capturing a Whatsapp conversation can be cumbersome and the images, rather small if captured on an old iPhone.

Don't despair. More modern devices capture larger images, so find a rich friend and borrow their brand new iPhone for your screenshot. Modern iPads produce even larger screenshots.

Some apps have a web version, Instagram, for example. There are also third party apps and webpages that make it easier to use and save evidence from Instagram. There's also a lot of cross posting of images between social media accounts, so if an image on a mobile device-only app might have exposure on a different social network site's web page. Many apps have software versions for computers. I was recently surprised to learn that the secure messaging app Telegram can be run on a PC, making it easier to grab evidence and communicate securely. It might be tricky to capture your Skype conversation on your mobile device, it's easy with a screen recording program if you switch to your PC.

Finally, remember that like  stuff you find online, social media content is subject to the usual copyright restrictions, so be sure to secure the relevant permissions before saving any of the material you have saved.


(c) Paul Myers 2015. The views expressed on this site are the author's own. The links do not represent an endorsement.