People born after the 1990s will typically find it difficult to imagine a time or world without the internet and often take social media services and smartphone apps for granted; however, the world before the introduction of these services and inventions was a very isolating and challenging time to live through, especially for those that did not fit the conventional norm. Even though there have been many positive aspects since their introduction, many of the providers of these services have been slow to react or have failed in areas such as online bullying and fake profiles. For many within the LGBTQ+ community, these services have been a lifeline and helped them connect with others who think and feel similar to themselves, including increasing their personal safety when you compare the traditional ways of meeting and hooking up with others from within the community. So, anyone that wants to venture online, what can they do to protect themselves?
#1 Knowing more about the service
Before signing up for an account or downloading an app, the first thing you should do is to carry out some basic research. Finding out information such as where the service provider is located, where your data will be stored and how your information is used and protected. It is not a long process, and you will find most of the answers by looking through the service's privacy notice or terms and conditions. Knowing where the service provider and data are located is essential. It adds protection around stopping your data from getting into the wrong hands, especially in countries that are hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community. According to the United Nations Trade and Development (UNCTAD) website (https://unctad.org/page/data-protection-and-privacy-legislation-worldwide), as of September 2020, 19% of all countries worldwide have no laws in place relating to data protection, 10% have no regulations in place; however, have legislation drafted and 5% it was unable to establish whether laws were in place or not. Meaning 34% (79 countries) currently have a draft or no legislation in place and offer no protection for your data in those countries.
#2 Looking for the signs of a fake profile
To encourage more people to sign up and use social media services and apps, registrations are typically straightforward, often only requiring an email address and/or mobile phone number. With free email services which are easily disposable, such as Gmail, Hotmail, etc., and contract-free SIM cards, creating a new or fake profile online is relatively easy. Not all fake profiles are made with the sole purpose to mislead; instead, people afraid for their safety might use a fake profile to protect their identity. Whatever the reason, a fake profile is still misleading, and you must establish quickly if the person you are speaking to is real or not. One key sign would be professional-looking photographs, especially if the pictures displayed seem to be from the same photoshoot. Often, using photos of good-looking regional celebrities that might not be known internationally and even images obtained through tricking unsuspecting people could all be used to create a fake profile. If contacted by someone from a fake profile, you will quickly see signs, for example, making excuses as to why they cannot provide additional photographs or by what they are asking of you. If you are unsure, speak to them without sharing too much and see what they ultimately want. If they are fake, they likely want something from you, and the more you decline, the quicker they will be frustrated and move on. If you are sure you have discovered a fake profile, you should report them to the service provider immediately.
Catfishing relates to a person or persons pretending to be someone that they are not hoping to trick somebody online. Whatever the reasons or motivations, such as lack of confidence, confusion about their gender or sexuality, or merely being unkind, catfishing is a cruel and horrible practice. Signs relating to catfishing are similar to the ones outlined in point 2; however, some catfishers will play the long game, forming a connection within someone over a long period of time. They might speak regularly and even create convincing backstories; however, they will typically make excuses as to why they cannot talk on the phone, cannot do video calls, or even meet in person. Disappearing for days without any messages or any form of communication and becoming agitated, aggressive or evening ignore the person when confronted. It is vital to end contact with a potential catfisher early in the relationship before investing your time and emotions into someone that might not be what they seem. If a person repeatedly refuses to meet via a video chat or in person, tell them your concerns and watch their reaction. If negative, it is a possible sign that they are not who they seem to be. If someone is contacting you via a smartphone or pc, it is unlikely that they cannot gain access to a camera.
#4 Real Identity
Suppose you have ever created any social media profile. In that case, there is a good chance you can be found online easily from just your full name and location. Though you might have nothing to hide, there is still a risk that someone could share intimate details about you with your friends or family through various platforms. Though sensitive material can be quickly taken down on most of the major platforms, it can still do a lot of damage in the meantime, with people taking screenshots before it is removed. The point is not to create fake profiles or use false names; just to not make your full name public or link your social media profiles and other personal information until you know who you are speaking with and are sure they are who you believe them to be.
#5 Too good to be true
If someone sounds amazing, whose looks are appealing to you and generally seems perfect, then it is likely that they are too good to be true. Ask questions, speak to them for a while and avoid giving away too much of yourself. When you are physically attracted to someone, you might do things that you might not normally do. You might be afraid of refusing their requests in case they lose interest in you. If someone is genuinely interested in you, they will take the time to get to know you, and they should not lose interest that quickly. Think about the facts and that things might not be all that it seems, photographs from when that person was much younger, or worse a fake profile. Follow the examples in steps 2 and 3 and see what happens.
#6 Online bullying
Bullying online is not just children taking it from the playground; it also frequently happens amongst adults. Bullying is where a person or persons make mean or harmful comments towards another individual to make them feel bad or upset about themselves. Bullying in any form is wrong, but you must not engage. A bully wants to know that they have affected you somehow, so the more you react, the more they will keep up the bullying. Engaging with them adds fuel to the fire; if it is a real or fake profile, report them immediately. If you are part of a group and more than one person is bullying, leave immediately and report the group. Reporting users inside most services is easy, and telling friends, family, school, or an employer is equally important. Bullies often operate in the shadows, attacking people that they feel will likely not get them into trouble or those that will not report them, so shine the light on them any way you can.
#7 Resisting extortion
Extortion is one of the worst. The risks are high for those committing the crime; if they are caught extorting, as they will likely receive hefty sentences and fines if prosecuted. It is important to note that 80% of countries worldwide have laws in place relating to cybercrimes, so if someone is trying to extort you, it does not matter if they are not in the same country as you, as they will likely be prosecuted in their own country if reported. Now for the scenario, you meet someone online, you get to know them over a period of time. After a while, you feel you have a connection and can trust them; at that point, they ask you for intimate photographs, and because you have feelings for them, you agree. Shortly after sending the pictures, you receive an ultimatum, pay them a certain amount of money or perform some other horrible task. Failure to do as they ask, you are told that they will share the photographs with your friends, family, and online; what do you do? The first thing is not to panic; you need to think rationally and evaluate the situation. Are you visible in the photographs, or would people know it was you? Ultimately could you claim that they are fake? In countries that are hostile towards members of the LGBTQ+ community, the stakes are indeed much higher. Still, if the extorter is in the same area as you, they likely face the same risk. The added issue is that once you do as they ask, what is to stop them from coming back again with further requests in the future? Instead, devise a plan. If it is safe to do so in your country, contact the police and tell them what is going on. The most important thing to remember is not to panic and that we are all human. Most people would understand that you had trusted someone and that your trust had been betrayed. In this scenario and many other similar stories, the person has nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by, just that they made a mistake. Ultimately, the extorter should be exposed for what they are.
#8 Care what you share
The simple rule to follow should be in the form of questions that you ask yourself, what is the worse that could happen if I share this? Would I be embarrassed if others saw it? Why does the person want this so badly? How will they react if I say no? You will likely know the answer already; however, you will quickly see a person's true intentions by saying maybe or even no. If you do as they ask, what would it mean? If it results in you losing money or sharing intimate pictures, stop and think about what you are doing, think rationally, and take how you feel towards that person from the equation.
#9 Location Matters
Where you are physically located can also raise concerns. There were stories back in 2020, allegedly that a police force in a Muslim country was using a popular gay app to speak with and meet up with gay men. Upon meeting, they would immediately arrest them on indecency charges, and, in some cases, there were reports of victims being tortured. Many of the victims would not complain or even go public because of the impact it would have on their lives and their families' lives. If you go online in a hostile country, do a few basic things. Start by turning off your GPS location when you travel around and when at home. If you meet someone in the same area as you, ask to speak via a video call before meeting them. In extreme situations such as entrapment, the police would likely be using fake profiles, so they would probably make up excuses and refuse to show themselves via a video. If you fall victim, go back online, even under a different account, requesting that the service provider blocks the offending user and warn others. If you are a foreigner in that country and fear what might happen to you next, visit your country's embassy or consulate for support and guidance. Lastly, when traveling abroad, it is always important to understand that country's rules and laws.
#10 Real World
It is incredible how often people view their behaviour, both in-person and online, as something different. The reality is that both have consequences, but most people are not aware of what steps they can take when someone is abusive to them on a forum or within an online group. The reality is that if everyone reported abusive and vile online behaviour, especially by reporting them to the service providers or the police in extreme situations, people would think twice before posting their hurtful comments. If you are subject to abuse, take screenshots, in case they attempt to remove the comments if alerted about your complaint, record any information you can find about them on the service, such as their IP address, any clues in whatever they publish, basically as much about them as available. Once you have all of the information, report them immediately to the service provider. If it is a person that you know, talk to someone close to you and, in extreme situations, report them to the police. The police worldwide often have specialist units and are now much more adept at handling these types of cases. People will one day learn that what they say hiding behind a screen has the same impact on an individual as doing it face-to-face. They should face the consequences when they are purposely being hurtful or causing harm.
Using social media services and smartphone apps often seem daunting to some. The tips may appear scary at first; however, by stopping and thinking about what you are doing, you will usually be able to navigate online safely. Whenever you encounter fake and horrible people, block and report them to the service provider or police if needed. Do not be afraid to tell people close to you what is happening, and never be ashamed of trusting and creating close relationships with people. How we behave in person and online is the same; though some people get a false sense of security sharing their views and opinions, it does not mean that you have to listen to them. Many hide in the shadows, so shine the light on them and remember there are many ways you can block, report, and obtain support online.
Please stay safe, and I hope that you have fun whilst online