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Social Media Monitoring: How Does It Work?

In this article, I will cover how social media monitoring works, the common use cases, and some of the myths and misconceptions. Let’s start by defining social media and social media monitoring.

What is social media? Social media is content found on the Internet allowing creation and sharing of information, content, ideas, and interests, as well as any form of expression via an open public platform. Open public platforms can be categorized as blogs, news sites, photo-sharing sites, forms, message boards, and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Social media differs from traditional media such as newspaper, TV, and radio. With social media, the reach and frequency are unlimited. The ease and usability allows anyone, from any age group, to report news or information regardless of its accuracy or merit. Just imagine that a large portion of the population walks around with high-definition cameras in their pockets and the ability to broadcast live video in real time to an audience of billions.

What is social media monitoring (also referred to as social media listening)? Social media monitoring is capturing data, via social media sources, for information. Often it is monitoring multiple content sources such as blogs, news sites, photo-sharing sites, forms, message boards, and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The three most common types of social media monitoring that I will review are social media monitoring for brands, location-based social media monitoring, and social media monitoring to manage crisis.

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Social Media Monitoring for Brands

This is generally used by public relations or marketing teams to measure the impact of campaigns, marketing tactics, and customer sentiment. Here’s an example of social media monitoring for brands—a food-borne illness is associated with one of your restaurants, so you monitor your customer base for what is being said of the illness and your business.

Location-Based Monitoring

Almost all social media networks allow people to add locations to their posts or comments. Information is gathered about this geolocation, to help businesses make decisions related to hours of operation and staffing. Some governments and city agencies use geolocation information to determine traffic patterns and predict transportation delays. Law enforcement and security professionals use geotagged information to track suspects and protect civilians.

However, as of 2016, less than 3 percent of Twitter’s data is geotagged, and studies show that total non-commercial social media traffic has less than 10 percent geotagged information. In the past, this was a valuable resource, but as privacy concerns become more prevalent, less and less information is geotagged, and people need to opt in to share location information.

Geolocation monitoring can be used when a law enforcement agency or business entity become aware of plans for protesting on the same street as your store location. You can create a virtual fence around the area and monitor any activity on social media.

Law Enforcement and Security Professionals

Local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as security and loss prevention professionals, often use social media monitoring for criminal investigative purposes, monitoring civil unrest, managing crisis, and responding to natural disasters.
Generally, law enforcement and security professionals have used social media monitoring specifically designed to link individuals and track activity. One example you can use is simply the name of your organization. Let’s say you wanted to see every time the words “XYZ Company” and key phrases like “gun,” “bomb,” and so forth were used in a post. Social media monitoring could help you to identify threatening or informational posts regarding your business. Social media is used by 81 percent of terrorists.

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How the Technology Works

The three most commonly used technologies to monitor social media are scraping, the “fire hose” or application program interface (API), and free open-source tools.

Site Scraper. A site scraper, sometimes referred to as a web scraper, is a type of software that is used to copy most or all of the content from a website. Most websites or media providers prohibit scraping. In some rare instances, a website will work out an agreement to allow a third-party to scrape its data. More often than not, it is a violation of the terms and in some cases could be illegal.

An example of web scraping is similar to copying all of the text from a site, pasting it into a Word document, and using the “find” function for keywords. Scrapers take all the information from a website, index it, and place it in a database to search at a later date. Essentially, scrapers steal other people’s data and then usually attempt to sell it. This would normally be a third-party solution but could be done in-house with the help of a developer.

The Fire Hose or API. The term “fire hose” refers specifically to Twitter’s API, but other services have API options. Twitter’s fire hose can allow all of Twitter’s data to be indexed and searched via a third-party provider. The third-party provider will pay for the information, and depending on how much they buy, they could have all the data from Twitter’s start in 2006. Throughout the article, I will reference Twitter due to the amount of data that’s available daily. Twitter has 500 million posts daily. The fire hose is effective, but it requires using a pay-by-use, third-party entity.

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Free, Open-Source Tools. Lastly are free open-source tools. There are several limitations with free open-source tools. As an example, Twitter only allows one percent of its data to be searched for free via open-source tools. I often talk to other asset protection professionals who say they monitor social media for free. Nothing is free. The cost is often that the information you’re receiving is lacking. Missing 99 percent of the data from Twitter is not a good approach when it comes to crisis management and life safety. What will you miss? You also must pay someone to sift through that one percent of data. Free open-source tools do have a place for departments with limited budgets. Just keep in mind that there are several million posts that you will never see.

The Myths of Monitoring

Now that we’ve covered the definitions of a basic overview of how the technology works, here are some of the myths related to social media monitoring:

  • You can monitor social media effectively for free. As we discussed earlier, nothing is free.
  • Geotagged information is extremely useful. While there is some truth to the statement, with the limited amount of geotagged information available, this is a misconception.
  • My provider can get me private data from social networks. While scraping will give you some private info, private is private and not truly available. Scrapers can only pull out what is directly available from the site.
  • My provider won’t miss anything. With the amount of data out there, things will be missed. Have a plan that focuses on what’s important. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

I hope the article helps answer some of the questions about social media monitoring. In my next article, I will cover some of the statistics around social media monitoring and new privacy roadblocks.

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