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Primary Sources: Social Media

What are they and how do you find them?

Social Media as a Primary Source

Where once people wrote letters to each other and kept paper journals and diaries, they now write blogs and communicate with each other via e-mail and on social media.  Consider searching blogs and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to find posts from people at an event.  As you should with all your research, be sure to evaluate social media sources to make sure the information is authentic. 

Evaluating Social Media

History 2.0: Social networking and mobile devices enable anyone to become participants in history as it happens.

Twitter posts and other social media products are primary sources of twenty-first century history as it happens. How can a researcher validate these sources?

Timestamp: When an event occurs or news breaks there may be hundreds of posts.  Try to find the first posts about the event, by trying various keywords and paging back. Social media users may be among the first to have knowledge something's up and may offer additional context depending on the story.

Contextual posts: Immediately check the user's page for related posts. Frequently someone posts a follow-up post or precedes the "breaking post" with pertinent information. This could provide additional context for the event as well as helping to verify a person who may be posting pictures or other content from an event scene.

Authority: Check the user's bio. Is this a journalist? Is it a random person off the street? A prankster? See if you can find a web site or blog to learn about them. It's important to have some idea who the user is as you assess the validity of the information.

Check for related posts: If someone says they heard an explosion in Lahore, what are other people in Lahore posting about? Check that and see if anyone else is reporting this. Chances are if a series of diverse people are posting about it at the same exact time, an event is occurring.

Talk to them directly: Get a conversation going, ask for more information and, if possible, build a relationship. This will help with creating a profile of the person who posted and assist in piecing together their connection to the story.

Example: Travel Blogs

When researching a country, you might look for travel blogs of people who have visited those places to have a first-hand account of what the country is like.

Example: Twitter Hashtag Reveals Black Student Experience

When writing a paper about the experiences of minority students attending universities, you could quote the #BlackOnCampus tweets of students to add first hand information about the experiences and opinions of minority college students.
Screet shot of #BlackOnCampus page from Twitter

Examples: Social Media in Scholarly Papers

Here are several scholarly journal articles demonstrate how Twitter might be used as a primary source.