Last week one of the students on my MA in Online Journalism was looking to find French people based in the city for a local angle on the presidential elections taking place in France. “Ah!” I thought. “That’s a job for a Facebook Graph search”. It’s the sort of situation that arises regularly in the newsroom — so here’s how to do it:
What is Facebook Graph search — and why is it useful for journalists?
Facebook Graph was launched in 2013 as a specific tool for finding people based on their interests. The ‘graph’ part refers to its ability to find people based on intersecting qualities: combinations of their likes, places of work, friends, and where they live and come from.
The tool itself was dropped in 2014, but the ability to search based on intersecting qualities remained, as part of the general Facebook search. You just have to know how to use it…
Finding people in a particular place
You can search Facebook for things like “People who live in Birmingham, United Kingdom” and it will understand what you mean. A close look at the results, however, and you might notice something they have in common:
Each mini profile says ‘Lives in ‘ followed by the location. If you hover over that location you will see it is a link to the page for that location.
This is important: because Facebook treats ‘Birmingham, United Kingdom’ as an entity just as it treats ‘Paul Bradshaw’ as an entity.
And the way that Facebook Graph works is by looking for connections between entities: Paul Bradshaw is connected to the entity ‘Birmingham’ and the entity ‘Birmingham City University’ and the entity ‘male’, and so on.
The nature of the connection between each of those entities is a separate piece of information: I ‘live in’ Birmingham and I am an ’employee of’ Birmingham City University and I ‘have the gender’ male.
Those connections can be different, or can change: I could have lived in Birmingham in the past, but no longer, or I could ‘like’ Birmingham, but not live there, and so on.
Every entity has a number
When you click on that ‘Birmingham, United Kingdom’ link you are taken to a Facebook place page with this URL:
That series of numbers at the end is the unique ID that refers to that entity ‘Birmingham, United Kingdom’. By contrast, Birmingham, Alabama is:
You can delete the ‘Things-to-do-in-Birmingham-United-Kingdom’ part and it will still work:
Sometimes the ID number isn’t visible in the URL — but it’s still there. To find it you can use a tool like Find your Facebook ID. Although this is designed for finding a person’s profile ID, you can use it for Facebook places, pages and other entities too.
So, if we need to know the ID number for France, you can paste this URL into Find your Facebook ID:
And not surprisingly, you will be told that the ID is the same as the number on the end:
Finding people who were born in France
The URL to search for people born in France is this:
This URL is different to the keyword-based version for people who live in Birmingham shown earlier: this URL is much more structured, which makes it a bit trickier – but also more powerful.
There are 4 parts to the URL:
- The base URL for Facebook.com
- The ID number for an entity (the ID for France identified earlier)
- The property
You can use this structure to find people born in any particular country – all you need to do is find the ID for that country’s Facebook Page using the process above.
The structure is broadly the same when you want to look for other sorts of properties, like people who ‘live in’ a place.
For that, you need to use
residents instead, like so:
Putting the two together
So far so good. But what about looking for people who match two criteria, like the question we began with: people who live in Birmingham AND were born in France? For that you need to add something extra at the end:
intersect. Here’s an example:
Constructing this URL begins with the ‘search for people born in France’ URL from earlier:
But then it adds the ID code and property of a second search – ‘people who are residents of Birmingham’:
And finally, to specify that you want to see those people who meet both criteria, add
/intersect at the end:
In other words, which entities (people) exist at the intersection of those two searches.
Again, once you know this URL you can adapt it for residents of different towns (find the ID number for the town or city’s Facebook places page) and those born in different countries (find the ID number for the country’s Facebook page).
The dawning realisation of how much Facebook knows about you
At this point you might be realising just how much information you and your sources share with Facebook (and the apps, pages and bots on it).
Around a year after Graph’s launch the Electronic Freedom Foundation published a guide to protecting your privacy on Facebook Graph – it’s well worth a read.
Ethical considerations in using Facebook Graph
Journalism faces a problem at the moment (or rather, is becoming increasingly aware of a problem that has existed for some time, and has worsened) of not reflecting the communities that it serves.
There are many voices which are absent from our newsrooms, and communities which journalists struggle to access. Techniques like these can help you access those communities more easily and quickly, and increase the likelihood that they are offered a voice in your stories. (My colleagues’ free ebook Everybody In provides a brilliant series of tips on other techniques for broadening the range of voices in journalism).
Note, however, that search results are ordered based on your own social graph: topping the results will be people that you are already connected to, or those who are ‘friends of friends’. So you may need to consciously move beyond the first few pages of results in order to ensure that you are seeking out contacts beyond your existing social circles.
If you use these techniques in a story, please let me know — it would be great to add some specific examples.