How to prevent cyberstalking while using social media
While becoming famous on social media is fun, there are downsides like loss of privacy, bullying, and stalking. To stay safe, you could always quit the internet and turn into a hermit. Most of us don’t want to do that, though. Let’s take a look at how to prevent cyberstalking while still using social media.
What is cyberstalking?
Although precise definitions vary, cyberstalking is the use of electronic communication to harrass or stalk an individual. Frequently, this involves collecting information about a person in order to embarrass, blackmail, or just plain hurt someone. Cyberstalkers use threats and lies to make the target fear for her personal safety, social reputation, or mental health. In many cases, cyberstalking translates into real world actions, such as identifying the someone’s home address or calling them using a work phone number. Of course, the risks are even greater for children who are online.
Cyberstalking occurs over extended periods of time with or without planning. In this sense, cyberstalking is different from more common trolling or one-time harassment. Someone might leave a crude comment on your Instagram post just once. Or maybe an idiot would send you an offensive picture in the email one time. That’s just harassment. A cyberstalker would contact you over and over again to ratchet up the pressure and anxiety. Both one-time harassment and cyberstalking are harmful. However, while a single incident can be forgotten, you cannot forget a cyberstalker. A cyberstalker will not let you forget.
A cyberstalker’s weapon: free information
A cyberstalker uses information about you to hurt you. They want to know how to contact you, how to contact your family and friends, where you live, where you work, what school you attend, and so on. Every piece of knowledge is leverage that they will try to use to 1) hurt you and 2) gain even more knowledge. For example, maybe a cyberstalker finds out what school you attend. The cyberstalker could try to hurt you by posting harmful comments on the school’s Facebook page. He could also start scanning the online school newspaper to see if he or she can figure out your full legal name. Information is the cyberstalker’s weapon, so you will need to learn how to disarm him or her.
How to prevent cyberstalking through privacy
If freely available information is a cyberstalker’s weapon, your defense is privacy. You can still be active on social media, but you should be very careful and savvy about what private information is let out. Privacy is not just about keep information offline. It is about keeping connections offline.
Let’s explain this last point. Say that you have a professional LinkedIn account. It lists your degrees and work history. That can be quite useful when looking for jobs. A recruiter will google you, see your LinkedIn account to confirm your details, and perhaps notice some additional professional notes that make you a good candidate. That’s great.
Let’s say you also have a personal Instagram detailing your love for parties. You have a lot of pictures of your parties, and sometimes things get a bit, shall we say, unprofessional. Of course, you could only post boring photos, but that’s not always the right answer either. There’s nothing necessarily dangerous with sharing your party pictures online.
What’s actually dangerous is someone connecting your personal Instagram with your professional LinkedIn account. That is the connection that a cyberstalker uses increase the amount of hurt he or she can cause. That’s what we mean by keeping connections private, not just information.
Privacy means keeping your connections offline
We want to stress that it is the connections that are dangerous. Take another example. Let’s say you have an embarrassing medical condition. You join an online forum to discuss the problem and find a support group. There’s nothing with that. The problem occurs if a cyberstalker can connect your personal Facebook account with that forum. Now the cyberstalker can tell everyone you know about your private problem. There’s nothing wrong joining the medical forum. It’s the connection to your other information that is the issue.
What does that mean for preventing cyberstalking? You need to keep our connections offline. Compartmentalize your online activities, and be vary careful about information that creates connections. An obvious connection is your name. If you use your full name everywhere, clearly, it is easy for someone to connect the dots and figure out everything about you online. What if you only use your first name everywhere? Assuming the name isn’t obscure, it will be much harder, if not impossible, to connect all of your online accounts. Or you could use your full name on your professional LinkedIn account, but use a nickname on all of your personal accounts.
Cyberstalking prevention checklist
Keep in mind that many pieces of information like an email address, school history, or hometown, can link your accounts. Here’s a checklist to make sure you protect yourself.
- Names. There’s usually no reason to list middle names, maiden names, or other esoteric information online. Also, be wary of listing the names of your family and friends. A cyberstalker can find your friend’s information, and then find out more about you.
- Locations. If you live in a large city like Los Angeles, listing your location may be okay, but for most smaller cities and towns this can help a cyberstalker pinpoint you. Similarly, be careful listing the names of schools, workplace, malls, tourist attractions, restaurants, or other specific busineses that are unique to your location. Posting an Instagram from In and Out is not a problem. Posting an Instagram from Jack Stuart’s Somerville Family Diner is the same as posting your town’s name.
- Contact information. Do not post your cell phone number or personal email address online. There are online services that connect your cell phone number to your full number. If you post your email address online, people can also google for your email address and connect your Facebook page to your Craigslist ad from last week and a forum comment from 3 years ago.
- Email and account names. If you must list your email address, use a different email address for each property. With Gmail, you can easily setup mail forwarding to your main account so that you do not need to check each individual email. Also, it might be obvious, but don’t put extra information in your email address. [email protected] is bad, as is [email protected], [email protected], and of course, just [email protected]. Avoid putting your year of birth in your address as well, which reveals your age. If you need a professional email and [email protected] won’t cut it, just consider using initials or your first name. [email protected] is reasonably professional. Be careful using your last name, because if your Instagram is called @Jane31 and your email is [email protected], it doesn’t take a genuis to guess that your full name is Jane Smith.
- Face and body features. This one is tricky, because of course you need to show your face for many types of social media sites. However, if there is no need, don’t show your face. That means if you are a forum user on a site for dog lovers, there’s no reason to use your face as a forum avatar. If you do use a picture, make sure that picture is unique so that someone cannot reverse image search on Google to find your other profiles. If you have other identifying body features such as hair color or tattoos, be careful showing those as well. There’s nothing dangerous about showing off your new tattoo on Facebook with your friends. Be careful, though, especially when posting potentially embarrassing or compromising photos somewhere else that you do not also show the tattoos. Of course, we recommend that you don’t post such photos in the first place, as they provide ammunition for cyberstalkers, but if you insist, at least be careful about this.
- Unique and specific details about you. Be careful posting any specific, uncommon information about yourself. If you post on Reddit that you are a Table Tennis olympic medalist, it won’t be hard for someone to find a list of possible names. Or perhaps you are an avid Stephen King fan and have read his books 10 times. You mention this on a dating profile with the nickname bunnies31. Meanwhile, a cyberstalker looks through Tumblr accounts called bunny31, bunnies31, and mybunnies31 and finds an account that is clearly a Stephen King fan. Clearly, there is a balance between revealing too much and not using social media, but just be aware of these precautions.
- Unintended information. A lot of information cyberstalkers collect is not shared on purpose. For example, perhaps you post a selfie. In the background of the picture, there might be an award hanging on your wall with your full name. You would never share your name online, but you did it by accident. Be careful and check what you post carefully so you do not reveal more than you intended. Video is particularly dangerous because it’s much harder to check every frame of a video.
- Other users posting comments. Read your comments and monitor them for private information as well. If you take pains to hide your name, and a friend posts on a picture “Looking good Miss Smith!”, your friend has compromised your privacy. Other users may also tag you in photos with your location and so on. You can’t police all of your friends, but you can at least monitor your own social media sites for problems.
- Privacy settings. Manage your privacy settings differently for each social media site you have based on what you need. You might set your professional LinkedIn account to be public in order to get more exposure to recruiters. However, your personal Twitter could be set to private, since you only use it to communicate with family and friends. It goes without saying that once you set an account to private, you shouldn’t accept friend requests from random strangers.
Do you want to be famous or anonymous?
If you create a public Youtube channel or Instagram page, you probably want more viewers and followers. At a certain point, you will eventually need to decide whether you want to be famous or anonymous. That includes revealing your face and your name. For the sake of safety, staying anonymous is always better. Or perhaps you want to dip your toe into social media. While you can start anonymous and reveal your identity later, it is impossible to regain your privacy once you have made yourself public. In this case, it’s a good idea to go slowly.
Here are some ideas to start using social media without having to compromise your privacy.
Focus on your work, not yourself
If you are a fashion photographer, your Instagram can be filled with photos of your models and portraits. There’s no reason to post your identity and face. A very famous example of this is the street artist Banksy. Most people have heard of his name and seen some of his works. However, no one knows his real name or what he looks like.
There’s no need to show yourself for many topics. A food blogger focuses on food. A travel blog can focus on the sights and attractions. A pet lover can show pictures of her cats and dogs.
Mask your identity
For some types of social media, you have no choice but to show yourself. Maybe you are a dancer that wants to show off your dancing prowess. Maybe you are a fitness freak or model that wants to show off your sculpted tummy. Of course if you want to eventually turn your skills into a business, you will need to reveal your identity, but for starting out, you could always mask yourself. Literally.
Using face or surgical masks has been popular in parts of Asia for a long time now. In some countries, you can walk onto streets and subways and see plenty of people wearing face masks. It might seem a bit weird, but it’s perfectly fine for posting youtube videos if you don’t feel comfortable showing your face. Plus, there are some very cute face masks just for this purpose, like this bear mask and this Hello Kitty Mask (Amazon links).
Start with pictures rather than video
Video is much harder to edit and also reveals much more about yourself, whether you wanted to or not. The sound of your voice and your accent already tell a cyberstalker something about you. You can’t control your image either. On the other hand, you can always use photoshop, insert animal nose filters, darken selective parts, or do other editing to control the information in your pictures. As we mentioned above, it’s easier to make a mistake and reveal too much with a video clip.
In addition, you can search for your images online with reverse image tools. No such tools exist for video. If you search for your image, you may find that is being used in a way you do not like. For example, if it is posted on a forum that harasses women, you might become a target for cyberstalkers. In online slang, doxxing is revealing personal information about someone. It is not uncommon for people to post pictures of women online and ask other forum users if they know personal details. With images, you can check regularly to make sure your pictures are not being stolen and reused without your permission. This helps to control the flow of information and reduce the risk of cyberstalking.
Avoid being catfished
Catfishing occurs when someone pretends to be someone that they are not. For example, you may receive a DM on Instagram from a supposed modeling agency asking for your contact information. Or an extremely attractive stranger may message you on Facebook and ask to be friends.
Be very careful giving out personal information online and in particular, information that can connect accounts. A professional recruiter on LinkedIn is not going to ask you for your Twitter account, unless you are specifically applying for a social media position. Likewise, there is no reason for an Instagram fan to ask for your cell phone number.
For the same reason we caution against using video, be very careful video chatting online as well, or even using Snapchat with people you do not know. Again, the risk of revealing accidental information is high. If you must participate, try to use text chat and exchange carefully chosen images, not video.
Also, be aware the people create fake Facebook accounts. Just because someone shares his Facebook and full name does not mean that you need to do the same. If you feel pressured, think again, why exactly do you need to share personal information with this individual? Why does he or she want it?
To prevent cyberstalking while still being active in social media, you don’t have to give up taking and posting selfies. You do need to be smart and vigilant, though. Everyone’s personal comfort and risk level will vary. Still, the general principle giving out the least amount of private information and disconnecting your personal and private life should apply to all. These can go a long way in making it harder for a stalker to target you.