We’re more connected to each other now than ever before—at least online. And it’s all thanks to social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat or one of the millions of personal blogs, there are a multitude of ways we can share our every thought with the world while keeping track of what others are up to on a minute-by-minute basis.
For all the flack it takes—it’s too intrusive! It’s not a real representation of people’s lives!—social media gives many of us a sense of community. Survivors, especially, can find this online support instrumental in helping them navigate escaping and healing from an abusive partner. In fact, the DomesticShelters.org Facebook page has experienced more than 1 million likes, comments, shares and clicks since the outset in 2014.
But with this gift of connectivity comes some danger, too. Not everyone uses social media to share cute kid photos, crockpot recipes or their daily workout. Abusers can, and have, used social media as a way to stalk, harass and manipulate survivors. If you’re trying to escape an abuser or have already escaped and are trying to eradicate them from your life, you’ll want to be careful how open you are online.
When Social Media Goes Awry
Behavioral Scientist Nicole Prause, Ph.D., is a researcher and the founder of a Los Angeles biotechnology company. She’s also a continual survivor of an online stalker. For years, he’s tried to prevent her from doing research in a subject he opposes—sex. While she’s never been involved with him, or even met him, his presence is overwhelming in her life.
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“His obsession is unnerving. My name is on his website over 3,000 times. He has posted over 30 images of me, uses misogynist language and has posted hundreds of conspiracy theories about me over hundreds of websites. He takes screenshots of my social media activity within minutes of anything I post, despite my having blocked him, and reports every single post just to try to prevent my speech.”
She says he once sent her a map tracking the route between his home address in Oregon to her lab at UCLA.
“I absolutely fear he can find me. It is terrifying.”
Despite reporting this behavior to both local police and the FBI, as well as serving him with no-contact orders from her attorney, there hasn’t been any change. Stalking is considered a crime in all 50 states, but it is notoriously hard to stop because of its unpredictably, and the fact that it’s considered a felony in only a third of the states. Some 7.5 million people in the U.S. are victims of stalking each year.
As a result, Prause has had to learn how to circumvent her stalker in order to keep herself safe.
“I don’t share anything personal that I feel might endanger my family or friends or reveal my physical location. For example, I never talk about dates or partners, do not post my dog's photo and make sure I keep geo-tagging off,” she says.
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How to Make Your Social Media Less … Social
Obviously, the safest way to stay hidden from an abuser is to stay off the Internet, but what kind of life is that? We get it: You want to be on social media, but you don’t want to put a target on yourself for stalkers or your abuser. Below, some ways to stay safe while still having an online presence.
- Keep photos vague. Never post photos that show the location of your home or office. Prause says she posts a fake address for her work and never posts about her home neighborhood. If you want to post photos say, of your Disneyland vacation – an easily recognizable spot – wait until after you’ve left that place.
- Turn off geotagging. When we take photos with our phone, metadata is embedded in the photograph with details including the date, time and exact location of where it was taken. Our phones are automatically set to have geolocation turned on and a lot of people don’t realize this. When we post the photo, a savvy enough person can access this geotag and find us. See details for how to turn off geotagging in “High-Tech Stalking Tactics.”
- Keep It Private. Make your security settings on social media are set to private. Require permission for people to follow you or add you as a friend. Only those in your trusted circle should be able to see that photo of your kids.
- Promote a business, not yourself. You might have to make a public profile if you have a business that needs an online presence. In that case, make sure your business is the focus, not you. Keep the business address private (secure a P.O. Box instead of listing a street address) and create an email address that doesn’t include your name. Keep your name and personal information off the page and don’t hesitate to use a plural “We” when talking about your company or product, even if you’re the sole employee. It will be less alluring for a stalker to harass an entire company than one person.
- Don’t overshare. On that note, posting an inspirational meme might be a better call than posting family pics. Make sure that what you post doesn’t include identifying information, like your children’s names or the school they attend, the church you go to or where you and your best friend have brunch every Saturday.
- Pick a vague nickname. If you’re on a dating or other social app, pick a nickname that’s vague, not a spin-off of your real name or exact location. Same thing if you’re leaving comments on a message board or blog. Instead of “AndreainHouston” choose something like “TexasMom29.”
- Switch it up. After you have your vague nickname, don’t use it on more than one site. It’s harder to track you if you keep your usernames different from site to site. Same with passwords—don’t repeat a password on more than one site.
- Be selective. It’s up to you how much or little to interact on social media. Just because someone messages you, especially if you don’t know them, doesn’t mean you need to “be polite” and message them back. You don’t have to respond to a comment or feel the need to comment on every friend’s post. Trust your gut and be cautiously suspicious of online interactions.
Suspect you being stalked? Read “If You’re Being Stalked” for tips on what actions to take next.
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