Researchers have developed a method of identifying the physical location of users on Twitter, even when they have the social media platform’s geotagging feature switched off.
“[S]ocial media users rarely publish location information,” researchers from HRL Laboratories wrote in a paper published in the IEEE BigData conference and spotted by Business Insider. “In this work, we provide a method which can geolocate the overwhelming majority of active Twitter users, independent of their location sharing preferences, using only publicly-visible Twitter data.”
By looking at users’ followers and those they include or mention in their tweets, researchers said they are able to identify the physical location of 80 percent of public tweets to just over six kilometers, or less than four miles.
The assumption is that the majority of Twitter users mention fellow users in close proximity in their tweets, and that by tracking the small number of Twitter users with tweet geotagging enabled, researchers can infer where those with the feature turned off are.
While the algorithm becomes less accurate for users with a larger national and global group of followers, the researchers said they were able to identify the location of 101,846,236 Twitter users, “the largest and most accurate dataset of Twitter user locations.”
Tracking the location of Twitter users can provide valuable data on insight into “understanding regional flu trends, linguistic patterns, election forecasting, social unrest,” and help plan for “disaster response,” according to the researchers. Were they to sell their dataset, it could become valuable tool for helping local advertisers target users in their area online.
Researchers at IBM developed a similar method for locating twitter users last year based on the content of their last 200 tweets, proving how powerful and effective metadata can be when collected and collated to track users actively withholding sensitive information. (RELATED: IBM Develops Formula To Reveal Home Location Based On Tweets)