Searching the Past

Internet ArchiveThe Internet Archive has received a lot of attention recently, and if you haven’t read this New Yorker article, I urge you to do so. If you’re not already in love with the Internet Archive, you will be after reading that piece, as well as this one titled “Never Trust a Corporation to Do a Library’s Job.”

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is an indispensable tool for historians, journalists, and investigative researchers of all types. One handy tool that I use often is Memento Time Travel, which provides point-in-time searches on the Wayback Machine as well as a number of other online archives. It is also available as a Firefox and Chrome add-on.

Another useful tool for searching things as they appeared in the past is the sliding time scale for Google Maps’ Street View images. Once you have your target address showing in Street View, notice that there’s an information box at the upper-left corner that shows the address, city, and date of the image you are looking at. Click on the date and you’ll get a slider showing all the available images for that address, which can date back several years. When you click on the image from a previous time, you’ll not only get the target address as it appeared then, but you can rotate the view and see the surrounding area.

Given Google’s tendency to constantly change its offerings, who knows how long this feature will last (and that’s why we need non-profit organizations like the Internet Archive!), but for now, it’s a unique and handy historical search tool.

Photo source: Beatrice Murch, Flickr

Quick Tip Tuesday: LinkedIn Activity

Ever wonder how you can see someone’s past activities on LinkedIn? While your connections’ posts and activities show up on your LI home page, when you visit someone’s page on LI, you see only their profile, not their “wall” of past posts, like on Facebook.

This is somewhat hidden on LI, but it is possible to find. When you visit someone’s profile, click on the little arrow next to “Send a message” and the first option is “View recent activity.” This will bring you to a page with the person’s recent posts, likes, and profile changes (if they’ve set their settings to publish updates about profile changes).

You can see someone’s activities from the past two weeks even if they’re not a connection.

LinkedIn activity

 

Tips and Tricks for Finding Email Addresses

At signFor a recent project I had to scour the Internet for email addresses of corporate executives. You’d think this would be a relatively easy task. After all, work email addresses are public information, and executives have assistants to sort through and filter their communication so they’re not inundated. But I quickly discovered that email addresses are precious, hidden gems to be excavated via advanced methods.

I found some direct contact information through Hoover’s and through running simple searches in Google, but not as many as I’d hoped, so I revved up the search. First, I ran a search in Google and Bing using the following syntaxes:

Google: “*@companyname.com” OR “email * * companyname.com”
Bing: email NEAR:2 companyname.com

This brought up a few email addresses so I could see the pattern for that organization’s email addresses. Often press releases have the direct email addresses of the marketing or PR team lead.

Once I ferreted out the pattern, I ran a Google search with that pattern using the target individual’s name, to see if it appeared anywhere legitimate. I also tested the validity of the email address at MailTester.com or VerifyEmailAddress.org.

Unfortunately this method isn’t foolproof, as executive email addresses don’t always follow the format for the rest of the company’s employees. (To learn about how executives hide their email addresses, see this article.) But I was able to get 90% of the addresses this way. For the other 10%, I called the company’s switchboard and turned on the charm. In a couple of cases, I had to try different methods on different days, but I finally got what I needed.

Finally, for public companies, don’t neglect public filings as a source. I found some of my targets’ contact information this way.

Do you have any tips for locating hard-to-find email addresses? Please share them in the comments.

Photo Fakery and the Challenge of Verification

Another week, another fake photo making the rounds in social media and raising outrage and/or hilarity. This time it is a photo of a gold toilet said to have belonged to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Problem is, the photo has been around since at least 2012, and while the Ukrainian president may indeed be guilty of accumulating outrageous luxuries, there’s no evidence that the gold toilet belongs to him or anyone else in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a number of Sochi Olympics photos went viral that were also fake or not attributable to Sochi. And you may remember this photo of the Egyptian pyramids blanketed with snow (for the first time in 112 years!) making the rounds in December.

pyramid-snow-grabjpeg-2929283

Pretty cool looking, but guess what? Fake.*

Hoaxes, rumours, misinformation, and fake stories and images have long found a welcoming home on the Internet, but with the rise of social media they get shared and disseminated even more quickly than before, sometimes by people who should know better. Sometimes verifying a piece of information is as simple as checking snopes.com or doing a Google search. Other times, however, it may take a bit more work to dig under the surface and confirm the veracity of a story or photo. This Storyful article is a good start for learning about some ways to verify images, such as checking the Exif data and cross-referencing with other sources like satellite images.

Storyful and a number of other news and non-governmental organizations such as the BBC and Amnesty International have released a free ebook called The Verification Handbook to help with identifying rumour and misinformation. While the book is geared toward verifying user-generated content in disaster and emergency situations, the tools and guidelines presented provide an excellent resource for all types of digital verification and investigations. And as the book’s editor Craig Silverman (of Regret the Errorstates, “We’re all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what’s happening.” Learning how to judge the accuracy and credibility of information is one of the essential skills of the social media age.

For some great examples of how a skeptical and investigative mindset can be applied to photos and videos, watch this TED talk by Storyful’s former managing director:

*Fake and staged photos have a long history, going all the back to the early years of photography. For a fascinating story about how Errol Morris uncovered what may be the first faked photo, check out this Radiolab episode.
Photo source: Snopes.com

What House of Cards Teaches Us About the Value of Good Research

House of CardsWarning: some spoilers ahead!

I’ve been watching House of Cards, and like a lot of people, I’m morbidly fascinated by Frank and Claire Underwood’s evil machinations as they connive and kill their way to becoming the most powerful couple in the free (ha!) world. One thing that has struck me is how absolutely crucial good research is to their success.

The journalists in the show, of course, do a lot of digging as they try to uncover the truth behind Peter Russo’s death, but it’s the investigative research that Doug Stamper, Frank’s trusty assistant/dirty-work-doer, does that underlies major plot points and propels Frank’s career aspirations forward.

We see this in action as early as Chapter 2 in Season 1: Stamper uncovers an anti-Israel editorial that ran in the college newspaper that Michael Kern, the proposed candidate for Secretary of State, edited. When the story gets picked up by the media, the ensuing controversy for Kern seals the nomination for Frank’s preferred candidate.

Another point at which research helps Frank outmaneuver others is in Chapter 12, when Doug’s sleuthing reveals that, contrary to what President Walker had claimed, he and the billionaire Raymond Tusk are actually close friends. He discovers this by digging up the travel schedules of each man and identifying a number of instances where both men were in the same city at the same time (the president’s schedule would be publicly available, but I’m not sure how he could’ve gotten Tusk’s schedule; we’ll overlook that unexplained detail…). With this knowledge, Frank is able to remain in control in his interactions with Tusk, who, as he discovers later, is playing him.

Doug Stamper may be inscrutable and a bit creepy, but he’s a damn fine researcher. He has that magical combination of qualities that makes a good researcher: he’s smart, focussed, diligent, and detail-oriented, but also able to think outside the box and connect the dots. Frank’s success depends as much on Doug’s ability to dig up valuable gems that he can use to his advantage as it does on anything else. I’m only a couple of episodes into Season 2, but no doubt there will be other examples of Doug’s indispensable research.

Good research can make the difference between a successful leader and an also-ran. Good research provides knowledge, and knowledge is indeed power.

Photo source: House of Cards’ Facebook page

Are You a Skilled Googler?

Most of us think we’re great Googlers. And it’s a testament to Google’s strength as a mostly reliable search engine that we do usually find what we’re looking for with a few simple keywords. But beyond the quick factual search, things can get tricky, and as a number of studies have shown, most of us miss good information on the open web due to our limited search skills (and here it’s worth noting that less than 10% of online information is actually available on the open web via search engines; the other 90% resides on the deep or invisible web).

There are a number of ways to improve your search skills. While Google appears simple and intuitive on the surface, its power can best be harnessed with some training, and Google provides a number of online training guides to help improve the search skills of its users. Two self-paced courses have been developed for power searching and advanced power searching, and this course, geared to students and their teachers, provides lesson plans and trivia challenges. Also available are webinars that guide the user through a variety of tools and techniques to find higher quality sources more easily.

But no matter how advanced a Googler you become, you’ll be missing a lot of good information if you rely solely on Google. Other search engines such as Bing and DuckDuckGo index the web differently and have different ways of prioritizing results. (See this slide deck from Karen Blakeman of RBA Information Services for some alternatives to Google.) And as mentioned before, only a small fraction of online information is indexed through search engines; countless specialized databases and indexes provide high-quality material that won’t appear in search engine results.

By the way, Google has come up with a fun way to put your Google search skills to the test. A Google a Day is a daily puzzle that can be solved by using clever search skills on Google.