The Dig

An investigative reporter’s candid advice for uncovering life’s everyday truths

T. Christian Miller

A brief recap. When last we met, ProPublica had just launched a bunch of fun new features, of which this is allegedly one. The idea of this column is to share with you, dear readers, some of the digging skills that investigative reporters use on a daily basis. After all, we’re not the only ones that need to find out stuff.

We threw the door open to questions: what magical investigative reporter superpowers would you like to possess? The ability to bring evil corporate polluters to their knees? To expose corruption on some school board failing our children?

No, you said. It was how to research your Tinder match. [1] How, many of you wanted to know, can I find out more about this right-swiped, photo-ready Prince or Princess Charming with the cute smile?

I decided the way to figure this out was by reporting — a solution to many of life’s most important things. Not being a user, (happily together, same amazing woman, almost 27 years), I figured that Tinder veterans would have the best advice.

So I set up an account and created a profile that identified me as a ProPublica reporter looking for tips on how people background their matches. I got scores of responses, which made me feel artificially liked. But the responses also generated some excellent tips.

As it turns out, Tinder provides an interesting problem to an investigative reporter. The app provides precious little information. You might get a match’s first name, maybe a last initial. Perhaps a job title or company name. Maybe a few details in the user profile. I came to believe that hiring editors at investigative shops should make the Tinder Test part of job interviews: “How many facts can you turn up on this guy’s swipes in 30 minutes?”

When in doubt, I recall a favorite all-time movie quote, from A Fistful of Dollars: “A man’s life in these parts often depends on a mere scrap of information,” Clint Eastwood’s character, Joe, tells a family gang member. It’s a great thing for an investigative reporter to keep in mind.

It nicely emphasizes just how valuable real information is (versus whatever is on the front of a Kardashian page today). But it’s also key to my own process. Each little bit of information adds up. And each bit of information can lead you to more, like a divining rod with some aptitude. In the end, it’s the accretion of information, those layers of multiple sources and multiple pieces of data that produces the gold.

The first scrap you need in researching a stranger is obvious: their full name, or at least enough of it so you can use it. Then, you need one other detail, a year of birth, a college name, to get you on your way. But how?

Today’s installment will focus on the tips that I got from Tinderites. For some, this may be old hat. But I was enlightened. Next week, I’ll talk about what I might do as an investigative reporter with a few additional tools in my tool box.

What became clear is that most people I chatted with did basic web searching to figure out if somebody’s “coffee-worthy,” as one respondent put it. If that’s as far as you want to dig, I’d add that Google, LinkedIn, Instagram and other sites have advanced search tools that are far better than the regular search box. If you know your match’s Twitter handle, for example, you can find out where and when he’s been sending his 140 characters of genius by using Twitter’s advanced search.

But some Tinderites were more hard core. Among their tricks:

  1. Google’s reverse image search — modified

    You may be familiar with Google’s image search page. Go to google.com and click on the camera icon in the search box. From there, upload a photo of your potential mate, and Google searches for similar photos across the Internet. Tin Eye offers a similar service. You often get back search results that reveal the person’s full name, or workplace. Hopefully not mug shots from the county jail.

    There’s only one hitch. Tinder works on your phone. Google’s image search works on your desktop. Uniting the two requires some work. One weird trick that really works: Screenshot the image of your Tinder match on your phone. Then upload that image from your phone via this cool little tool, developed by tech guru and blogger Amit Agarwal. It sends the photo to Google’s image search and you get the results back on your phone browser.

    I found the link a little buggy, requiring you to use it a couple of times to get it working, for instance. And the image searches work best on professional photographs — real estate agents, attorneys and sales folks who display pictures on corporate websites. It’s less accurate for purely social media snaps, that Instagram pic of your besties on the beach. But in the end, at least one user wrote that she used image search to discover that her match had posted a recent picture of himself on Facebook — with his girlfriend. Nice catch!

  2. LinkedIn

    LinkedIn came in as the second most used tool because it turns out that not every guy is really a Goldman Sachs partner. So if your match lists a company name,

    LinkedIn’s advanced search is a highly recommended truth detector. If you have only a company name and first name of your match, use the “Past Company” or “Industry” search box to triangulate to make sure you’ve found the right person.

    Not every professional is on LinkedIn, of course, so I’ve found it helpful to type in a person’s name and use Google’s special site: search term. If you search “T. Christian Miller” and “site:propublica.org,” Google will search just our website for my name. So put in your match’s name and restrict your Google search to his or her company’s website to find out if they’re job posing.

  3. Facebook

    About the only substantial piece of info that Tinder provides is whether you have a Facebook connection in common with your match. Many folks reach out to the connection first, before deciding which way to swipe. “The Facebook connections help me to figure out if someone is worth knowing,” one Tinderite told me. “It also helps to sort out the real from fake or ‘catfish’ profiles.” My biggest continuing complaint with Facebook: I find their graph search tool lame.

  4. The Chat

    Once you’ve matched up with somebody, you get to chat with them via text. Here is where you can do some gentle sleuthing. Ask for a cell phone number, for instance, and do a Whitepages reverse phone search to see if you can find a full name. Or ask what they do for a living, and perhaps get a job title or company name that will allow you to go back to LinkedIn. A casual remark about a recent business trip could lead you to search Instagram by dates, to see if they’re telling the truth.

    However, many respondents warned me that people are on guard during the chats. Asking for a last name can be fraught. “There is some tension about when to ask for someone’s name,” one correspondent wrote. “Too early and it’s weird and too late and it’s well, too late.” And an office Tinderite colleague just rolled her eyes when I asked if she would use the chat to inquire whether their match had recently visited any countries that were, say, plagued by the Zika virus. “Marrieds,” she said.

Those are tips from the Tinder users who responded to my callout. For the next column, I’ll discuss some of the tools that an investigative reporter uses to do a full deep dive. Tinder for the Truly Paranoid.

And, in response to last week’s column, an additional tip surfaced for a tactical way to get a response from someone via email.

Paul Giblin at The Arizona Republic wrote that he’ll email the politician he’s trying to contact, and the legislator’s social circle: the policy director, the secretary, colleagues on the committee, party spokeswoman, etc. The idea, Giblin said, “is to let Legislator Jones know that his attempts to dodge my questions won’t stay a secret between just us. Usually, one or two circles will do the job.”

Fun experiment! Combine this social pressure with the psychological pressure of last week’s trick of adding #1, #2, etc. to each email, and see if it improves the response rate from your source or your spouse.

Finally, the answer to last week’s quiz: My first name is Thomas. Congrats to Ethan Wolff-Mann, a reporter at Money, who did some serious Googling. His path — birth records in Baltimore to browsing my high school to random websites — eventually led to a DocumentCloud page of an article that I had purchased from Harvard Business Review. The FOIA request is his for the taking.

Next installment: the pro-tip Tinder column. In the meantime, send questions, ideas, and ribald insights to t@propublica.org, or @txtianmiller. All welcome.

  1. My editor made me write this for those not familiar with Tinder. This is what we call context for the reader. Tinder is a matchmaking service that runs as an application on smart phones. You download the app and link it to your Facebook account. After that, Tinder presents you with photos of other Tinder users. If you swipe right on the person’s picture, it means you’re interested in them. Swipe left, and you reject them. You get matched when people swipe right when your picture comes up on their screen. Tinder connects you via text chat.