The Hack’s Toolbox: Exploiting hot tweets, geo-tagging, Flickr and more
These days it seems everyone is on Twitter. From presidents and CEOs to the average citizen on the street, people are increasingly turning to the micro-blogging service to have their say in 140 characters or less, or offering a thousand words with a picture.
Whether you’re an avid Twitter user or someone that doesn’t see the point, there are good reasons for journalists to familiarize themselves with the service. Twitter can and has proved an invaluable reporting tool when news is breaking.
A recent example came in November, when a Qantas Airbus A380 had to make an emergency landing in Singapore. News agencies scrambled amid reports the plane had crashed in Indonesia.
A tweet from Singapore-based businessman Ulf Waschbusch set things straight: “Just emergency landed back in Singapore after engine two blew up at take-off and parts ripped through wings. Damn.”
The tweet was accompanied by this picture, http://yfrog.com/0quh4dj, and tagged with a location from Singapore’s Changi Airport. Waschbusch’s Twitter profile pointed to his website, which in turn featured his resume and phone number. Several media outlets managed to locate him thanks to his tweet, and he was one of the first to appear on CNN with details of the incident. You can see his tweet here: http://twitter.com/ulfw/status/29637787592.
So how might you have found the tweet and then found the tweeter? Here are some options:
The easiest and quickest way is through Twitter’s dedicated search page. A well-constructed search should help you find the information you need, especially in the initial moments of a breaking tale. “Singapore emergency” might have picked up the Airbus tweet, but only before thousands of Twitter users began relaying the news from media outlets.
Sometimes those repeated tweets can help, however. Twitter users love spreading information, so a hot tweet like Wasch-busch’s might have been quickly copied and repeated, making it easier to uncover.
Google has its own social media search engine, Google Realtime, located at www.google.com/realtime. Google Realtime doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as some other sites, but its Twitter search interface is fast and clean and allows users to restrict searches to a geographical area.
The latest buzz-tech in social media is geo-tagging – embedding an exact or approximate location alongside a message or photo. Many cell phones include a GPS satellite-positioning chip, and that data is typically used to pinpoint a location. A reporter looking for sources can use the location data to differentiate between people close to the action and those simply repeating information from other sources.
Perhaps one of the quickest ways to dig into Twitter’s geo-tagged tweets is through Microsoft’s Bing Maps, which you can access at www.bing.com/maps/explore/. Click on “maps apps” in the lower left-hand corner to find the Twitter app. This will show geo-tagged tweets in the map area displayed. You can move around the map and it will update dynamically. You can search local tweets or choose to display just those with images. There’s also an archive.
Another site that exploits geo-tagging is the photo-sharing website Flickr. Access www.flickr.com/map/ and take a virtual tour around the world to check it out.
As with any reporting from a distance, you should take extra care when mining Twitter to make sure you’re not falling prey to pranksters or misinterpreting a message. It’s easy for people to say they are in one place when in fact they are somewhere else. It’s also easy to get a Skype phone number in one country and pretend to be there. Fortunately, such instances are rare.
To help guard against these unforced errors, get to know Twitter before you use it for reporting. Starting an account and sending out tweets is a perfect way to do that. Even if you don’t want to send out tweets, you can create an account and follow others.
Your organization should have a policy on Internet and social media-sourced reporting (and if it doesn’t, you should push for one). Familiarize yourself with those guidelines and with social media, and you should find the latter an invaluable way to reach sources when news breaks. ❶
Martyn Williams is Tokyo bureau chief for IDG News Service and covers the vibrant IT and consumer electronics industries in Japan and South Korea in both text and video.