Annique Mossou is a trainer and researcher at Bellingcat. Previously, she was a member of the OSINT team of the Dutch National Police, specializing in online jihadist propaganda. At Bellingcat, she focuses on the world of error and false information. Johanna Wild is an open source investigator from Germany, who is particularly interested in digital investigation technology and tool development. She has a background in journalism and has previously worked in East Africa. She also focuses on work in the Middle East. You can find her on Twitter @Johanna_Wild
TikTok videos have become more and more popular in the past few years. Short videos show people dancing, pretending to sing, performing viral challenges, etc. This relatively new platform allows users to share short video clips and play them in loops. It is similar to the now-defunct Vine.
Compared with other video sharing services, TikTok videos are much shorter-currently, the app supports 15-second and 60-second video options. Although users can choose to make videos less than 15 or 60 seconds, they cannot exceed 60 seconds. The ultimate limit-more focused on jokes and music, such as this viral clip:
In September 2016, the Chinese company Bytedance created a video sharing application called Douyin. The application has achieved great success in China. Within a year, it has 100 million users in China and has more than 1 billion daily page views.
In September 2017, TikTok, an international variant of Douyin, was launched. In 2018, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, another popular video app in the United States.
TikTok has achieved great success. According to Sensor Tower, the app has over 1.5 billion downloads in the App Store and Google Play in the last quarter of 2019. It is the most downloaded in India and has been successful in many countries around the world.
With so many users around the world, the open source research community has many opportunities to use the platform in surveys. In this guide, we will introduce TikTok's investigation approach in detail and discuss the limitations of the platform.
When you view your profile, there are several features that will attract all the attention, namely the username and profile picture. We will take a closer look at the profile picture later in the guide, but remember that many people on TikTok tend to use their faces on their profile pictures.
The TikTok profile will contain the following details, some are unique, some are not:
The username (enzoknolyt, below) will also be used for the URL of the account. Before April 2020, the smaller name below (Enzo Knol) was the username, but TikTok changed this in the user interface.
As shown in the following example, the display name "John Smith" can belong to multiple different users on TikTok, but only one username with "johnsmith".
The number of followers and the number of people followed by a person are also part of the user’s profile, as are the number of likes the user receives from other accounts. The last piece of information (not always filled in) is the user profile. You do not need to log in to view this information.
Depending on whether you use a web browser or a mobile device to access your TikTok profile, the platform will allow you to see different information and options-in particular, this includes the search function and the ability to download profile pictures.
Like Instagram, one of the tricks we use to download higher resolution profile pictures is through the "Check Elements" feature on the web browser. This technique can be used in Chrome and Firefox without any external websites or tools.
Use a web browser, Chrome or Firefox, and go to the profile you want to investigate, right-click the profile picture, and select "Inspect Element" (On Chrome, just "Inspect"). The developer window of the browser will open in the right half of the screen, and you need to find the specific code set that should appear.
With Chrome, the code you are looking for is'img src=' and the URL after it.
Using Firefox, the code will start with'img class' and after src= is the URL you need.
After you find the URL in the code, you can right-click it and select "Open in New Tab".
To get a larger profile picture, you only need to change the number or URL at the end:
If the picture size does not change, it may be that no larger picture is available. It depends on the original size of the image at the time of upload.
If you want to download a video posted by someone and you are using the online version of TikTok, you can use the same principle.
Go to the video you want to download and right click on it. The developer tools will open again and you need to search for "video source" as shown in the screenshot below.
Right-clicking on the link will give you the option to open the video in a new tab, and right-clicking again will give you the option to save the video.
If you want to ensure that videos and pages are saved the way you find them, you can use Wayback Machine to make page snapshots. Although Wayback Machine is struggling on some social media, it works very well with TikTok.
Just copy and paste the URL of the video into the "Save Page Now" section of the website. The page will be saved as shown below:
Another option for downloading videos is to use extensions, but you need to decide for yourself whether you want to use third-party tools. One extension that can be used to download multiple videos at once is the Instagram and TikTok downloaders, but please note that this extension is only available for Chrome.
TikTok aims to be a mobile application. Even if you can use a web browser to investigate the account, its functionality is limited.
Using a web browser, you can view the video, username, unique ID, music used, and the number of likes and reactions. Can't see what the comment is.
If you log in to your TikTok account with a browser, you can upload a video, and you can also see user comments next to the video. This feature is useful for investigations because it can give you insight into the discussion surrounding a particular video.
How to use search engines to search for users or keywords will be further described in the article.
The mobile application will provide you with more information for use. You need a mobile phone to create an account.
If you created an account, there are different registration options; you can use your mobile number or email address. You can also choose to register using one of the other social media accounts.
If you register with your email address, you will not be able to contact other users on TikTok without linking your phone number to your account in an extra step. However, if you only want to search on the app, an email address is sufficient.
Check an account with a mobile phone, you can see the following information:
After creating an account, you should check TikTok's privacy settings. The platform is accused of multiple privacy issues, but as a researcher, you might consider creating a dedicated research account.
In fact, we recommend that you do this, especially because until recently, TikTok also had a feature that allowed users to see who has accessed their profile. This feature seems to have disappeared in TikTok's recent redesign, but we cannot guarantee that it will not be restored at some point.
To adjust your privacy settings in the app, click "Me" and then click the three small dots in the upper right corner. Here you will find a section called "Privacy and Security".
If you only use your account for investigations, you can choose to make your account private and turn off "Recommend your account to others".
If you scroll down, you can use other options, but if you also plan to publish your own content to the platform, they are the most relevant.
The internal search function in the app allows you to choose to search for a variety of content.
If you press the discovery icon at the bottom of the screen, you will see a series of hashtags. These are currently the most popular hashtags.
You can start searching for keywords at the top of the page. After entering keywords, Douyin will give you different tags.
You start with the "Hot" page, which is an overview of trending hashtags, videos, and users related to your keywords.
The next tab is users, where you can search for all users who use your keywords in their username or unique ID.
Tag videos provide you with all the videos that contain your keywords in the description or are tagged with hashtags corresponding to your keywords.
If you click on the video, the app will also give you the option to download it. If you click "Share" (the small arrow), and then click "Save Video", you can find this option:
Tag music shows you the music corresponding to your keywords and the number of times the short music clip has been used in the video. If you click on a song, you can see other videos where people use the same music clip.
If you do this, you might see a video with the "original" tag, which is the user who made the music clip and used it in the first place.
The last tab is for hashtags, here you will see hashtags containing the keywords you are looking for. Search will give you variations of hashtags. If you use the keyword "fake news," it will give you #fakenews and hashtags such as #fake_news or #nofakenews.
If you put the keyword in quotation marks, it makes no difference. Usually, enclosing your keywords in quotation marks tells the website that the selected keyword must appear as an exact phrase.
Later in this guide, we will also show you how to search for hashtags by manipulating the URL.
If you don't want to use the TikTok mobile app, you can search the platform from outside in a variety of ways. Compared with other platforms that focus on mobile applications (such as Snapchat), TikTok is very easy to access what types of information can be found when searching the Internet without an account.
Many users share TikTok videos on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, and we recommend that you check these (and possibly other) social networks in any survey. Let's take a look at the best search methods:
To find TikToks on Facebook, enter tiktok.com and keywords in the search box. Then, select "Video".
You can even limit the results to a specific time-for example, "last month"-or sort them by "recent". However, you may get false positives, especially when using the "recent" option. We noticed that when sorting the results by the most recent date, we often get results that do not contain keywords.
In addition to searching for tiktok.com, you can also combine keywords with m.tiktok.com or vm.tiktok.com. Each of these options will give you different results.
The vm.tiktok.com URL indicates that the user shared the video in the TikTok application. They clicked the "Share" button on any TikTok video and selected Facebook, which would prompt them to open the Facebook app on their phone and suggest an automatically generated post, which can be adapted and shared directly from there.
However, if the user clicks "Share", selects "Copy Link" (this is the URL of vm.tiktok.com) and manually go to Facebook to post the link to a new post, that is, the m.tiktok.com URL has been created . You can see it in the video preview:
Only in rare cases will you see both vm.tiktok.com and m.tiktok.com URLs in a Facebook post:
This can happen if the user posts the vm.tiktok URL directly at the beginning of the Facebook post without writing some text first.
By searching for different URL types, you will not only get different results, but you can also get information about how users share TikTok. It is important to note that if Facebook does not find any content related to your keywords, it will often show you random TikTok videos. If you don’t get any useful results, just try another keyword.
Search on Twitter works very similarly. You will find the same tiktok.com, m.tiktok.com and vm.tiktok.com URLs, and you should definitely try all of these URLs. However, we found that when using these different options, the search results were less different than Facebook. Sometimes the results are even the same.
There is another search technique that is particularly useful on Twitter. If a user decides to share TikTok on Twitter through the TikTok app, they will see a tweet suggestion as follows:
Tweet text can be changed, but many users keep the suggested hashtags. Therefore, you will find many Tiktok videos on Twitter with the hashtag #TikTok. When searching on Twitter, you can simply combine the hashtag with your keywords, run a search, and select "video" to get a list of TikToks for your specific search term.
You can also use #TikTokviral, #TikTokChallenge, #tiktokexposed, #tiktokhot, or #tiktokers to try it out, because users will often recommend these to them when they start editing #TikTok hashtags.
When investigating cases of errors and false information, another particularly relevant tip is to always pay attention to the TikTok logo in videos shared on social networks.
As it happens, users "stole" TikTok videos and share them on other social networks with completely different backgrounds. However, TikTok videos contain the TikTok logo and the unique username of the creator of the video. Many counterfeiters are unwilling to delete this information, especially because it is not prominently placed in the video and can easily be ignored. In some cases, this can help you trace the original source of the viral video.
Our colleagues Charlotte Godart and Chantal Verkroost used the same technique in their article "Monitoring and debunking the COVID-19 panic: "Haarlem Aldi" scam to find out the source of the video circulating on Whatsapp. Although they The Whatsapp video originally sent did not have the TikTok logo, but they found the same video on Twitter, this time it contained the TikTok logo and username. This eventually led them to make a viral TikTok video. In this case , They must look at the TikTok username "@ihanaids" very carefully:
There are many ways to find TikTok content through search engines. Let's start with a less obvious one: music.
Songs and sounds play a vital role on the platform. Almost every TikTok contains some kind of sound, and if these sounds spread-this happens often-every TikTok user suddenly wants to add the same song as background music to their own video. This is the case in March 2020, "It's Corona Time", which was added to a large number of videos that show how the corona pandemic affects the lives of TikTok users.
Each TikTok has the name of the song:
Click the song title to get a list of all TikTok based on the same song (if you don't see any TikToks, it may be because TikTok is currently in conflict with the music company on copyright issues, see this Financial Times article for details). Each song has its own URL, starting with www.tiktok.com/music.
The URL also contains the name of the song, which is very helpful for online surveys because we can use this mode to search for TikTok sounds on a specific topic.
In order to find songs about weed, we use the website operator to search for the keyword "weed" on Google, and specify that we only need to include the result of our keyword in the TikTok music URL:
Website: tiktok.com/music inurl: weed
Although the best way to search for music is to make Google commands as specific as possible, it is recommended to use the opposite method in hashtag searches.
To find the TikToks of a specific hashtag, we just need to add the hashtag at the end of the following URL:
For example, if you want to view TikTok about Donald Trump, you can use:
However, when investigating a specific topic, you usually know which keywords are relevant to your survey, but you don’t know which exact hashtags are common on TikTok. If you are interested in TikToks about Donald Trump, it is almost certain that #trump is not the only hashtag related to Trump. How do you find out which other hashtags are used?
The trick is to perform a website operator search, limited to tags with the keyword "Trump":
Website: tiktok.com/tag trump
Through this search combination, you will not only find "trump" hashtags, but also related hashtags such as "trump2020", "donaldtrump" or "babytrump":
TikTok users tend to become very creative when choosing hashtags that contain emojis. One advantage of using site operator search tags is that you will find hashtags with one or more emojis, which are otherwise difficult to find. Look at the various emojis that appear when searching for hashtags related to Corona:
One of the most critical questions when investigating TikTok is how to find TikTok that contains a specific word or phrase.
Not only can users add hashtags to their videos, they can also write short texts. For example, in the example below, the text is "Protesters in Santiago, Chile", along with the #chile and #protest tags:
To search for specific keywords or phrases in TikToks, you can use the intext operator. The Google command to find TikToks with the term "flying drone" is as follows:
Website: http://tiktok.com Text: "Flying UAV"
You can even limit Google results to a specific time frame by clicking "Tools" and selecting "Custom Range".
Please note that search engines will not index all videos posted on TikTok. Since different search engines index different videos, it is recommended to use not only Google, but also other search engines, and combine all the results.
For example, on DuckDuckGo, you can use exactly the same operators as on Google:
However, on Bing, the intext operator does not work. Nevertheless, there is a way to search TikTok content: the trick is to replace intext with inbody.
Now you can scroll through the results of these different search engines to find such a social media treasure: a user who explained "how to fly a drone in a restricted area".
If you are investigating a specific topic for a longer period of time, please repeat these searches regularly. Not only will the content on TikTok change, you will also find that search engines will index different videos at different points in time.
The most important component of any social network is its users. This also applies to TikTok-fortunately, there are several ways to learn more about the user during your online survey. Remember, every user has their own URL, as shown below:
If you know someone’s username, just enter it at the end of the URL and you will be directed to the user’s profile page.
However, in many cases, you do not know the exact username at all. This is the source of the ideas of Twitter user @petruknisme-I suggest using the following Google command to provide you with a long list of TikTok names:
Website: https://m.tiktok.com/h5/share/usr File type: html
This is especially useful if you already know what type of username someone usually uses, but you don't know if he/she has slightly changed this common username, for example by combining it with another word or adding a number. If you add a suspicious username to a Google command, you will receive a list of related usernames, which may lead you to identify the correct username. In our example, we let various users have the word "manu" somewhere in their names:
Now, we can simply browse all their profile pages to check if the manu username we are interested in is among them.
However, the information on the profile page is not always sufficient to obtain a satisfactory picture of the corresponding user. If we want to learn more, we need to expand the scope of our search.
For example, it can be very helpful to know what other TikToker thinks of a particular user of interest. If you want to read what others have said about TikTok user @maxdressler, you can use the following search operator combinations:
Website: tiktok.com Text: @maxdressler -intitle: "maxdressler"
You will get a list of TikTok posts, where the user @maxdressler is mentioned in the text area, but these posts are not from the user himself. In this way, we can find that a user named @curlydaddy101 wrote "@maxdressler is interesting":
Since @maxdressler has many fans, many comments about him are from his fans. However, when investigating a less well-known account, some users who commented on that person’s account are likely to actually know the person in real life. Therefore, it is recommended to also check whether the connection between these same users can be found elsewhere.
If the interested user has a private TikTok account, the site operator search shown above may even work. This means that in some cases, this technology will show you only pieces of public information about a particular user.
We hope our guides give you a deeper understanding of the search possibilities on this fast-growing platform, and we encourage you to try them and see where they lead you.
If you prefer to use tools, you can also check the TikTok search tool provided by OSINT Combine, which can automatically perform some (but not all) of the above techniques.
Do you have any other TikTok search techniques? Please leave your comments in the evaluation section!
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