Search, collect and analyse social media for data to inform your research.

Social media platforms allow users to create and share content. The content can include text, images, video and audio. There are a range of sites that contain social media content, including blogs, forums, image and video sharing sites, and platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Many news sites allow users to post comments and are, therefore, a source of social media data.

Search social media to find:

  • public knowledge and awareness
  • opinions or developing ideas
  • reactions to events
  • social trends
  • key people in different fields - researchers use social media to disseminate and comment on their research

Comprehensive, systematic searches of social media platforms can be challenging due to the:

  • vast amounts of data
  • limits of the search tools available
  • use of non-standard terminology and expressions
  • poorly described audio and video

Check our guide on planning your search before you start. Think about the main concepts and identify synonyms, alternate terminology and variant spellings for the topics you are researching.

Tools for searching social media

It is easier to search for current social media content at the time it is created. It may be very difficult or impossible to locate all past social media on a topic because:

  • the data is posted privately to a select group
  • the posts or accounts may be deleted and the data no longer accessible

If one tool does not give you the results you need, try another tool to see if it returns better results.

Google tools

Google advanced search

Use Google advanced search to find current and past results from a particular social media site. Google advanced search:

  • won’t limit the number of results
  • returns results from farther in the past than many other tools

Note that you can only search one site or domain at a time. See our web searching guide for tips on how to search Google.

Set up an alert

Set up a Google alert on your search to monitor for new results. Adjust the alert settings, including how often you receive the alert.

Investigating trends

Google trends is a useful tool for examining interest in a topic over time and by region. Use the Explore topics field to search on your topic. The related queries and comparison tool can help you determine which terminology is commonly used in your area of interest.

Social searcher

Social searcher is a social media search engine with free and paid plans. You can search without logging in for publicly posted information on social media sites, including Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and more.  

Social searcher:

  • lets you pick which social media sites or types to search or you can search all at once
  • has limits on the number of posts and dates retrieved
  • offers an email alert feature. Set up an account to use it
  • allows results to be exported to a CSV file

Analytics on Social searcher

Social searcher has interesting analytics features, including:

  • listing hashtags and keywords used within the posts. These are useful for extending or focusing your search.
  • identifying popular and active users. This may help you find key people or groups.
  • a sentiment analysis - dividing the posts into positive, negative and neutral.  Check the accuracy of the analysis of the posts. The use of sarcasm and parody accounts may lead to incorrect categorisation.

Other ways to search social media

Use the search function of the particular site you want to search. You can identify social groups, forums or key figures associated with your particular topic and follow them to track the data.

Examples:

  • Twitter advanced search - researchers often use Twitter to post comments on their research and publications. You can search without an account.
  • Facebook search tool - requires you to log in to use the search function. Facebook has many groups associated with a particular interest or common activity.
  • Examine the comment threads on popular or high quality news platforms such as Mamamia or The Conversation

Tools for collecting and analysing social media data

Your searches may lead to a large amount of unstructured data to collect and analyse.

Collecting the results

Start with the easiest technique to collect the data. If that is not useful enough try the next method.

Methods to use to gather the data:

  • Copying and pasting into a word document or spreadsheet
  • Import.io is a web scraping tool for collecting data from websites. See how to use Import.io to extract and export data. Some websites do not allow web scraping of their data so check the terms of use or contact them to ask for permission
  • Web APIs can be used to request data from a site using a URL. Usually, some programming knowledge is needed to use APIs.  Web APIs for non-programmers explains how web APIs work, gives tips on using them and lists some popular free APIs.  

Analysing the results

Tools you can use to manipulate social media data for analysis:

  • Spreadsheet tools, such as Microsoft Excel. See our training page for sessions on using Microsoft Excel.
  • Data analysis software, including information on R and RStudio (free applications)
  • Text analysis software, including -
    • OpenRefine - an open source tool to clean and transform data
    • Leximancer  - a text analytics tool available to UQ students and staff

We recommend the Introduction to Data Science course available on Lynda.com to learn more about collecting and analysing data.

Evaluating and referencing social media

Evaluating

It can be difficult to verify the validity and accuracy of social media posts, including shared news items. Some individuals and organisations deliberately post misleading or incorrect information to try to sway public opinion, promote their own agendas, earn money, or as a prank or trick.

Criteria to consider:

  • Who does the account follow and who follows it? - the account’s “friends” may indicate that the account is legitimate or a fake.
  • How long has the account existed and have they regularly posted? If it is a new account it may have been created to take advantage of interest in a topic.
  • Where are they located? - the account may provide details on who they work for, where they live, and where they go that can reveal the motivation behind the account.

How to spot fake news from Factcheck.org lists eight criteria to check the verifiability of news.

See our guide to evaluating websites as it also applies to social media posts.

Referencing

You must comply with copyright when using the data you have found in your social media searches.

See our guides on: