When most people speak of social media, the have the ‘Big 3’ in mind: Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. But social media is so much more than just these three platforms, especially when it comes to OSINT on intelligence targets that don’t speak English.
In OSINT investigations we often end up scavenging social media to find information on our intelligence targets. Who are they connected to? Where have they been? What are their interests? These and many more questions can be answered by having a look a person’s profile. However, social media is constantly evolving and platforms that were relevant yesterday may not be relevant tomorrow. When I ask my daughter about Facebook, she says: “Facebook is for old people”. Thus, she does not have an account there. You would most likely find her dancing in TikTok videos, as with many other Generation Z youths. So age clearly defines which social media platforms are used. Another defining factor is the cultural background someone has. Maybe Facebook was never that big in that person’s country. The following graphic shows the evolution of social media worldwide and how Facebook became the most used platform. However, in some countries other platforms still have the upper hand and not all ‘legacy’ platforms overtaken by Facebook have been shut down. In this article I would like to give a brief overview of some of the lesser known platforms that may be useful for OSINT investigations.
VKontakte & Odnoklassniki
If your intelligence target is from a Russian-speaking country or has a Russian cultural background (or is a right-wing idiot that thinks he is being censored on Facebook), chances are high you might find this person on one of the Russian Facebook clones. The platforms VKontake (‘in contact’) and Odnoklassniki (‘classmates’) are very similar to Facebook when it comes to the functionality offered and the basic OSINT research techniques that can be applied here.
Above you can see a VKontakte profile. A profile picture, some more detailed information including a birthdate and current residence city, a friend list as well as posts and pictures. Pretty much what you can find on an average Facebook profile. As with other social media platforms, a user can choose to alter the privacy settings to hide information, so some profiles may not have an open friend list or may not share all posts with the overall public. An interesting feature on VKontakte is in the top right of the image: information when the profile was last active. In OSINT this is really helpful to figure out if a user is still active on the platform, even if no current content is posted. In many cases this last activity will lead back to the use of VKontakte as a messenger. People might not post content anymore, but will stay В Контакте (in contact) with others through this platform. The search functionality of VKontake is in some ways superior to what we now have on Facebook. At the top of the page is a search box. Filling in a search term here will enable us to browse through different categories of results and narrow these down by adding additional filters.
As you can see, you can filter people by age range, birth date information and even their views on smoking an alcohol. Posts can be sorted by the number of likes or the mentioning of specific links. All in all, there are some pretty neat filters in here.
Odnoklassniki is very similar, having friend lists, a date of birth on most profiles and information when the user was last active. The good thing with both VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, is that they accept multiple language settings, so you can use the platform in English and also a couple of other languages. If you search for names in Latin script, it will also show you corresponding results in Cyrillic script.
The last activity is right underneath the profile name and the searches in Odnoklassniki offer filters just like in VKontakte. They even allow users to add holiday destinations, which are also a filter criteria.
As I mentioned, this article is just a quick overview of some foreign social media platforms. There lots of other cool OSINT techniques that can help research here, including third-party sites to search by profile pics or sites that help with geo-referenced searches. But let’s leave that for future blog posts. Another example I want to show is very popular in the Persian-speaking community.
Facenama is a big social media platform mainly used in Iran. At quick glance on SimilarWeb shows that this site is also accessed from other countries, as there are Iranian communities throughout the world.
Facenama looks very much like Facebook. Even the coloring scheme is identical (to the old Facebook UI).
Unfortunately, there is no way to change the language settings, but luckily the Google translate browser extension works quite well here.
The search bar in the top right of the page will enable you to search for user profiles. Just remember that the default language is Farsi, so most profiles will be in Arabic script (including profile names) and typing will occur from right to left.
The profiles will have the same type of information we have seen in the Russian sites: date of birth, friends, posts and much more (if these aren’t hidden due to privacy settings). Remember that dates will be shown in Persian, so you’ll probably have to use a calendar converter to make sense of these dates.
I could go on for hours listing and showing social media platforms: Gab for right wing nut jobs, Stayfriends for old German people, NK for Polish people and don’t even get me started on Chinese social media. The bottom line is, that there is more out there than just the ‘Big 3’ (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Before you start investigating someone, you should figure out where you might find these people online. Their age, culture, language, country of origin and personal taste will affect their choice of which web platforms they use and these might not always be in English. So, in the ongoing discussion of what I would like to get better at in OSINT, I didn’t choose to learn programming languages such as Python to automate tasks. I’d rather get a better grasp of languages (Arabic, Farsi, Russian, etc.) in general and master tools that help translate to help bolster by research efforts.
Matthias Wilson / 04.10.2020