‘The act of making the invisible visible.’
This one line sums up the extraordinary ability of the field of journalism. It defines something, a meaning, a purpose, a thirst for information, and courage to shake even greatest democracies. Sounds fascinating, isn’t it? From what I know, Journalism has different meanings for a journalist, and all of those definitions are very much true. But here is what it is, what drives journalism together is the truth, and only but the truth. But the job to publish that truth comes with a burden, to make sure what you write is factual.
Journalists have always followed the traditional approach to gather information; get the tip, find the source, collect information, verify it with officials, take expert opinion and publish it. Though these steps still work, digitalisation has made it complex. But to be honest, it has also opened a new dimension of information gathering, or I should say- Investigation.
- 1 What is Investigative Journalism?
- 2 Chapter 1: Maps & Geolocation Investigation
- 2.1 1. Google Map
- 2.2 2. Google Earth
- 2.3 3. Bing Map Aerial
- 2.4 4. Mapbox Satellite live
- 2.5 5. HERE WeGo Satellite
- 2.6 6. Zoom.earth
- 2.7 7. Descartes Labs
- 2.8 8. Industryabout.com
- 2.9 9. Mapilliary.com
- 2.10 10. Mapchecking.com
- 2.11 11. Oldmaponline.org
- 2.12 12. What3Words
- 2.13 Other Maps & Geolocation Investigation Tools:
- 3 Chapter 2: Social Media Investigation
- 4 Chapter 3: Image and Video Verification
- 5 Chapter 4: Phone Number investigation
- 6 Chapter 5: Investigation of Time
- 7 Chapter 6: Flights, Ships and Railways investigation
- 8 Chapter 7: Website backtracking
- 9 Chapter 8: Some more exciting tools
What is Investigative Journalism?
‘Money trail.’ Simple speaking- follow the money, and you’ll get your story. If you have any doubt, ask Bernstein and Woodward. But formally, investigative journalism is a field in journalism in which reporter thoroughly investigate or research on a single topic that has a public interest. Because these subjects are of high risk, it needs a lot of experts’ opinion, and that is why it could take months to write one unique story.
Though I can’t help you write an investigative piece, I can tell you about the tools and techniques that can be used to write a better investigative journalism story. As you know in this age of the cyber world, everything is available in the form of data, and if you have the right tool, you can utilise this data to further develop your investigative journalism story.
These tools are known as Open-Source investigation tool, they are not real covert operation, but publicly available information, e.g. government report, research paper, documents, social media profile, internet traces, image mapping, geographical location, timeline etc.
This is a list of the tools used in investigative journalism that you can go with, I’ll try to catch up with those tools in this article.
Chapter 1: Maps & Geolocation Investigation
1. Google Map
A tremendous amount of satellite data makes Google maps the winner. It’s easy to use and is pretty much accessible in any county. The only drawback of google maps is that it doesn’t have any historical satellite imagery. While investigation if you want to see a timeline of a location, you might not be able to see that.
2. Google Earth
We can say it is the extension of Google maps, though the satellite images are pretty much identical. Google earth uses few more satellites such as NASA, NOAA, USGS etc. to synchronise their data. It also adds some bonus points since you can roam around the galaxy and study the different planet as well. Though, it’s an excellent tool to observe weather patterns, because Google Earth Engine uses geospatial data from Landsat satellite that pass the same location on earth in every sixteen days.
Storm exploration menu is unique and informative, it lets you track historical data so you can analyse weather patterns. If you zoom to surface, you can measure any segment of the map via its measurement tool, it also has a function to measure the surface area as well.
It’s intuitive and excellent if you want to find something like deforestation over Africa or wind turbine over the USA. But hold your horses because if you don’t know programming languages, things might get tricky from here, though they provide an extensive how-to guide, in the end, you need technical expertise. Trust me when I say this ‘Journalism is not easy’.
Other Maps & Geolocation Investigation Tools:
Honestly speaking, there is no end to what you can do to collect satellite data. Although, I have tried my best to cover various free tools to gather geographical images, and what I have mentioned here are enough. But if you’re looking for something more professional, then there are few websites that you might want to check out. There are some non-profit group that provides free or discounted access to their tools to journalists, these platforms are excellent and have high-quality satellite images.
- Radiant.earth: This non-profit group applies Machine learning algorithm to analyse satellite data. They mostly use Jupyter IDE and have their own MLhub API. Cut short, you’ll require a python expert.
- Resourcewatch: This entire platform is in beta phase, but they do offer satellite images and pre-sets. Simply add those pre-sets into the map, it has an extensive library of pre-sets that ranges from Ocean, energy, forest, cities, climate, water, food and society. So, start exploring.
- Digital Globe: This website has a more comprehensive library of satellite imagery spanning over two decades. Their subscription-based service ‘Secure Watch’ allows user to access recent high-resolution images. They also have predefined tools for search different exploration technique. Check out their map here
- EarthData: The one and only NASA. This map is powered by EOSDIS, and provides an excellent search interface. You might have to first understand all the tools, and what satellite can give better images first. Good luck if you’re new into this.
Satellite investigation works on one crucial factor- Historical map. So, try to collect as much map of the area of interest.
I have tried my best, but in my research, I have not found any tool that I can say is perfect. The tools with historical maps need coding expertise and those who do not need money. I do realise for investigative journalism tool this list would not be perfect either, but for a beginner, this might work. So do explore, and let me know if you have found something worthwhile.
Chapter 2: Social Media Investigation
Social media investigation is pretty much easy, the question is where to find the information. Well, the manual method is to check all the top social media website and look for relatable details. However, there is a smart way to do so.
1. Tools for Facebook
Searching tools for Facebook investigation was easy, but I’ll tell you what’s not easy. The tools don’t work, they used to work but not now. Apparently, Facebook completely stopped its Graph Search feature in June 2019. Because almost all the tools were based on this sole functionality of Facebook, shutting it down gave a heart-ache to the investigative community. It’s clearly a set-back, but there are still few ways to search through Facebook data.
Hashtag: The graphs search left a void that no tool can fix. But hashtags are turning out to be a deal-breaker here. I’m not entirely satisfied with how it works, but I’ll tell you what it is. You’ll be able to see a few popular posts, but it will not be pervasive. Which is entirely against the coding behind hashtags, because hashtag was made to associate a particular post with a keyword, and if you search that keyword, you should be able to see all the posts. Technically speaking, Facebook is filtering outposts associated with hashtags for your profile. God, I hate this.
There are however few investigative journalism tools that you can use, you’ll find those tools in some of the open-source operating systems like Kali Linux, Buscador, Dora OSINT VM, Tsurugi Linux etc. I’ll not recommend them for a beginner since they’ll require technical expertise in Terminal. I can, however, explain those tools, but that’s a topic for another article.
2. Tools for Instagram
There are preliminary two methods for Instagram investigation, first and foremost is checking it manually, its time taking but it works. The second method is exporting all the target’s data into an excel sheet, it will give you more information since you can manipulate it into graphs, pie charts and search for specific keyword smoothy. But to be honest, I couldn’t find any free tool for this method, there are paid ones, and for some reason, I can’t seem to trust them.
This is a free tool that’ll let you download Instagram stories of a public profile. It will also show some previous stories or stories highlights. This tool is restricted to public user ID only, and it will not work if the target’s account is private.
2.2 Instagram Analytics
There are many tools for this part. Since Instagram has several influencers, professionals and brands, requirements for analytics tool have rapidly increased. And because these tools are professional-grade, they require a premium subscription. As of now, there is SocialBlade that can tell you something about the target’s ID for free. Try that.
3. Tools for Snapchat
This might be the most accessible tool so far. Just open maps.snapchat.com, and click on any location on the map. The map will also show a heat map of the area where Snapchat is most used, click there and find a unique video. The problem here is that these snaps are anonymous I have tried but couldn’t find the actual user that has posted the snap. Let me know in the comment section if you have though.
How to download the video?
There is a straightforward method for that, you can install any video downloading extension in your browser, and it will automatically show you the file as you browse. I have used Video Download Helper by Mig, and it works great.
4. Tools for Tiktok
Tiktok is a very much open platform as of now. You don’t even need an account to view its content. Just check out the official website and your target’s profile, this will be enough. However, if you want a little more than the usual profile tracking, then you can use some free analytics tools.
This is a marketing website that popular TikTok users use to analyze their content and its reach. It shows historical figures, followers increase, likes and Hashtag participation. You’ll get a better insight with this platform.
This is another profile analytics tool that you can use to see different insights. It focuses on historical stats, likes, followers, views, video analysis and daily progress. There is challenge statistics section that will tell you about the different trends that users have participated in.
5. Tools for Reddit
Reddit is pretty much open platform, though some posts require a user ID majority of posts are public. The easiest way to track something on Reddit is to look for a target community and join it. You’ll start getting feeds on your home page.
This is a free email notification service developed by Silo 9 Inc. They provide notification emails when your selected keyword is mentioned on Reddit, Hacker News or Lobsters. Signing up for this service is also very easy. Just create an account and input keywords for the tracker. That’s it.
Keywords tracking can be very complicated. You don’t want your Inbox to have thousands of email every hour. Try to use unique keywords rather than generic.
6. Tools for Telegram
Although Telegram is a closed community, they all are very much accessible via a simple tool- A search engine. You just have to know where to search.
Simply putting, it is a dedicated search-engine for Telegram. The interface is quite simple, just put in the keyword and press enter. The search engine will show relevant links to associates with the keyword. To my surprise, it even showed some links to private channels, but you have to join them to see the messages.
A gateway for your analytical information, this tool will help in understanding the traffic and subscriber base of a particular channel. You can filter out top channels by country, language, category and period. The website shows historical stats, subscribers, reach, a post per day, views, post frequency and many more.
7. Tools for YouTube
There is one primary ingredient while investigating on YouTube, i.e. downloading a video. I will recommend using some free YouTube downloading website, you can search on Google, the list is very long. I use a very simple free add-on Video Download Helper by Mig, it allows me to download videos from any website.
As the name predicts, it is a geographical search tool, that lets you search video in a particular location. The provided map is straightforward and helps you navigate and select a location. The platform has an extensive search function that allows you to search video, channel, topic and pinpoint a location. You can also select areas to cover, and specific keyword to search. There is many more function, and I think you’ll have a fun time exploring them.
8. Tools for Twitter
Is it safe to say that Twitter is an ideological, social media platform? I’m just asking. Despite what you think Twitter is an opinionated public space, almost all posts are public, and any individual can see it; otherwise, what’s the point. This specific feature makes Twitter the most accessible social media platform and encourages third party tool to openly access its data and analyses it. There are mostly two methods for investigative journalism on Twitter.
- Old School Searches – You would be surprised, but traditional backtracking is always good and trustworthy. Yes, it will take a good amount of your time, but if you keep digging enough on one particular hashtag or keyword, you’ll definitely find something worthwhile.
- Tools- Twitter analytics and search tools are countless, but most of them are same. I’ll list down the unique, and exciting ones further in this investigative journalism article.
It is a free website that analyses bots or automated accounts on Twitter. You just have to copy-paste the tweet URL or enter a Twitter handle, the analytics will tell you if the account is suspenseful or not. Apart from that, it also shows the most used Phrases, Hashtags and URLs used by the account, which is nice. The website also has a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox, this is a charm because once installed, it adds a ‘Check User’ button on every Twitter profile that you open.
There are alternative tools like Botometer, which requires app permission to check the user’s account. Although the tool is authentic, I’m sceptical in giving app permission for privacy reasons.
It’s is a free live Tweet tracking website that analyses and showcases live tweet on a geographical map. This is the most fantastic tool so far, it can track specific keywords and Hashtags, and show heatmap of Tweets. One of the most exciting analysis is Sentiment View, which highlights Tweets based on emotional quotient, it has three categories Negative, Neutral and Positive. This will come very handy in analyzing the sentiment of people on politicians.
This is a unique visualization tool for twitter threads and retweets. It creates a graphical chart that connects one tweet to another. In a nutshell, it represents threads in a graphical manner. It is a browser add-on available for both Chrome and Firefox. Once you have installed this Add-on, just open a Twitter post and click on its icon in the address bar. Fair warning, try to be specific while expanding every thread because it gets clustered very soon.
8.4 Twitter Analytics tools-
These tools are social media marketing tools and provide quality analysis on the user’s profile. Because the majority of tools are used by professionals, they have paid features and require app permission or account sign-up to analyze anyone’s account. Try them yourself and let us know in the comment section, some of these tools are TweetBinder, Twilert, and Tweetreach etc.
A sweet tool but requires app permission to work. Basically, this tool can tell how many fake followers you have, it also gives analyses and on followers counts as well. The only drawback is that its usages are limited to one person, so if you want to audit anyone else’s account, you have to buy the premium subscription. If you happen to know an alternate free tool, then let us know in the comment section.
It’s nothing but an advance search option integrated into twitter itself. Just click on the link and check-out by yourself.
It is a very simple tool that stores anyone Twitter data into an excel file. This concludes tweets, likes, followers, following, lists, retweets and replies. The tool also has a Chrome extension as well. It might not look very usable at the beginning but have patient and analyze these data via graphs or algorithm. There is other Twitter data downloader as well, such as Vicinitas.
8.8 Professional Investigative Tool for Twitter-
In this investigative journalism tool article, I’m trying to focus on open-source investigative tools that are easy-to-use and can be beneficial as well. Most of these tools require little to nothing technical knowledge, however, if you have a knack for programmings like Python, R and Ruby, you can check-out Github for APIs. I have found some interesting ones if you want to take it to your test.
Chapter 3: Image and Video Verification
The idea of a digital investigation tool is to simplify your task, something that can minimise the time taken to complete the report you’re writing. And when there are multiple tools to do the same task, you kind of lose the purpose of using a digital tool in the first place. So, hold on for a moment because this might be the mother box of all the tools yet. Widely used by news fact-checkers and researchers to verify content like images and videos, this might be the only tool you need.
Indeed there are some other application and tools that you can use, but I have found InVid the most competent one in the case of Digital investigation. I’ll still mention a few tools that may come around to be helpful.
It’s a small windows/mac application that completely removes EXIF metadata from multiple image files. This may not come handy always, but in case if you want to transfer a super-secret image file this software may come as a boon, It’ll protect your identity.
It is just another tool to detect Digital Image Tampering within a media file. It’s widely used in Digital forensics and works very much similar to the InVid forensic tool. You can simply upload an image file or paste a URL, it will tell you many technical details about the file, e.g. metadata, hidden pixels, colour correction etc. Though this tool can detect tampering or editing into an image file, its authenticity is questionable in some low-quality images files. To be honest, it requires expertise to point out an error in a perfectly edited image file. My recommendation would be to take baby steps with this tool or any digital forensic tool.
6. More digital image forensic tool
It’s a Github package that will require a little bit of technical knowledge to begin with, but it can analyse different file apart from media files and can give you metadata about the file.
Chapter 4: Phone Number investigation
In the age of Spam calls and Scammers, it’s hard to keep track of unknown numbers these days. Though it seems easy, it also comes with a burden of limited datasets on phone number, we are simply not in the age of yellow pages. We are in the age of information warfare, So, how can you find details about an unknown number, or find the phone number of individual people from a certain background. Doing a phone number investigation is tricky since it requires much more public data than traditional social media. But I’ll try my best.
Pro tip: Never install TrueCaller in your smartphone, always use a separate email-id (non-Gmail) to login TrueCaller via a computer. You’ll get 4-5 searches per day.
3. Some paid tools
It’s a premium people search tool, where you can find details of a person if in case, they have it. You can cross-reference your searches on multiple parameters, like demographic, email, social media account. It’s a useful tool for researchers and digital investigators, and they also provide a trial version. So, try them out.
Chapter 5: Investigation of Time
Finding the captured time of an image file might seem like a tricky task, but if you have the right tool, then maybe it’s not. Obviously, you’ll need some sort of technical knowledge to be with, but trust it will grow with you.
If you have the right image file that has enough metadata, it’s very easy to identify the time. Just check its properties, or find EXIF metadata website and upload the image file. However, if the metadata is not present, then it gets tricky to identify time, where night shots are almost impossible to predict but the timing of morning shots can be indicated via a sun clock.
Pro tip: Reading and positioning a sundial might be tricky and will require a bit of practice. You can check out this medium article for a detailed walkthrough.
Chapter 6: Flights, Ships and Railways investigation
There is no trick to track flight path or see rail route, it’s just simple public data available for travellers to keep track of their train or flight, sometimes metro or subway. These public data are easily accessible on municipal websites, national train route of the countries, flight plans, subway apps etc. I’ll be listing few websites down below, where you can track these things.
These are some of the alternative websites to track flights path.
6.3 Train tracking
Live train tracking is subject to the origin country, there is simply no singular database for the entire world. You have to go through the public transport website of the location, city or the state to find information. Countries who have state-owned rail network have a centralised database, thus making it easier to track trains. I’m listing few governments/non-government websites from where you can track train network.
|Country||Live train tracking website|
|India||Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Company|
Indeed, this list is not sufficient, it requires more websites from where you can track or book train tickets. If you know any, feel free to drop in the comment section about the country or medium to track or book train tickets.
Chapter 7: Website backtracking
Backtracking any website or any prior URL is a piece of cake, you just have to have an understanding of some analytics tool. I’ll mention a few websites where you can find such information.
7.1 Alexa ranking
Chapter 8: Some more exciting tools
Please do drop your suggestion and ideas about any Investigative Journalism tools, let me know in the comment section below. If you want to keep tabs on a more explain series like this, subscribe to our website. Thanks.