Do you know how to power-search Twitter?

By Eoghan Sweeney, June 13, 2019

Simple operators can supercharge your searches, helping you find more of what you want and less of what you don’t

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In a week of unpleasant surprises for anyone involved in open-source intelligence — with Facebook making drastic changes to search functions and Pipl ending free access to its people-search tool — we’re all on the lookout for the earth to shift under our feet again.

One of the sharpest practitioners I’m aware of, @kirbstr is always on the ball, and pointed out what could just be an important development on Twitter:

To most people, it’s safe to say Twitter resembles a giant garbage fire or, at best, an unending source of random snippets of diverting comment and content. Used in a targeted and intelligent way, however, it can be an extremely powerful tool for news- and information-gathering.

Assiduous creation and curation of lists (more at another time) is one way of cutting through the fog and noise, but even if you’re never going to take things that seriously, knowing how to search the platform effectively can be of great benefit. Fortunately, Twitter has search operators to simplify that process.

Up to now, Twitter has helpfully provided a page where you can simply enter your criteria in a series of boxes — it then formulates your search, complete with operators.

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Twitter’s Advanced search tool

It’s always prudent to assume that if you find a tool useful to the point that you’re almost dependent on it, it will at some point disappear or stop working suddenly, just when you need it most. With that, and Kirby’s warning, in mind, lets take a look at the operators; fortunately, they’re pretty straightforward. There’s really no excuse for not learning them, or at least noting them somewhere in a way that you can understand them later.

Now, it may well be that this latest development is simply design-driven. While the Explore page does appear when you type that url, once you enter a search, you are provided — admittedly, not in a very intuitive way — with the option to go to Advanced search:

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Regardless, it’s well worth familiarising yourself with operators: Once you understand them, these operators can be entered directly in the search box on Twitter. You can them quickly adjust them without having to go back to the Advanced search page.

The operators

All of these words

Say you want to find tweets that have both “Australia” and “election” in them — simply enter the two words in the search box. (The normal way of carrying out this search would be to enter Australia AND election — but Twitter makes the assumption that you are looking for both and behaves as if you had entered the query in this format)

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This exact phrase

If you want to search for tweets about the Green Party, but don’t want lots of “Wow, I’m green with envy” and “OMG, what a great party!”, put the phrase in quotation marks. This will return results with that exact phrase.

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Any of these words

You could be searching for tweets about a protest, but realise many people may refer instead to a demonstration. In this case, insert OR between the two terms; your results will be tweets containing either one.

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None of these words

Used to weed out false positives. You’re looking for tweets about an avalanche, but your results are full of references to an ice hockey (OK, just “hockey” if you’re north American) team. In this case, put a minus sign in front of the term you don’t want to be used.

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These hashtags

This places a hash # before your search term. * It’s actually of limited use, because if the person tweeting omits the hash, the search will miss that tweet. The opposite is not true; searching for the term without the hash will also return instances where it is present.

I have, however, had some questionable results with searches of this kind:

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Solution? Put quotation marks around the word.

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Written in

This allows you to specify the language the tweet is in.

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It’s important to understand that it does not translate the term into the target language for you. For example, if you search for “cat” and specify Japanese, you will get tweets that are mostly in Japanese, but with the English word “cat” in them.

The formulation for this does not appear in the search box, so in order to create it yourself, you need to insert the short code for the language in the url (Manipulating urls to speed up operations is another useful skill that we will look into later)

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l=ja specifies the language must be Japanese

From these accounts

If you want to find tweets from the US president containing the word “fake”, you use from: and then the Twitter handle (Important: do not put a space after the colon).

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To these accounts

Using to: returns tweets addressing a specific account, or replies to tweets from that account. Note that it also currently returns tweets from that account itself that are part of a thread — it interprets them as replies.

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Mentioning these accounts

Using an @ symbol should return tweets mentioning an account, rather than addressing it directly. In my experience, it doesn’t work particularly well, as it seems to get filled largely with tweets from the account itself.

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Near this place

This searches for location-tagged tweets. It allows only single-word placenames…

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but you can narrow down the location by instead entering latitude and longitude coordinates.

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You can also specify a radius, using mi for miles, or km for kilometres:

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If you do not enter a value, the default radius is 15 miles.

(Note: In order to carry out these searches, the account being used must have its own location setting turned on)

From this date… to

This allows you to specify the time within which the tweets must have been posted. It follows the format YYYY-MM-DD

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Being familiar with these should significantly increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your Twitter searches. Keep in mind also that these operators can be combined to form very complex targeted searches. Give it a try, and please let me know if you have any tips or have had any interesting experiences with searching Twitter. You can find me here.

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