Ask Alicia About Friends Online

Know Your Connections

by Derek Fisher

How many connections do you have in your social media networks? Would you recognize all, most, some, or none of them if you bumped into one of these connections at the mall or in a restaurant? We often "connect" or "friend" someone on a social media platform because there is a shared interest or a shared connection with others. For instance. If your interests are in gardening, woodworking, coffee, exercise, or any other topic, you will be able to find a group that suits you on one of these social media networks. Some of these groups can have hundreds or thousands of members, most of which you never met or ever will. But you might claim you know them. For instance, I have about ten times the amount of connections on the professional network LinkedIn vs Facebook. Most of my connections on LinkedIn I have never met. Some, I have only virtually met through online communications. However most, if not all, of the connections I have on Facebook I have met physically at least once.

The reality is that some of these friends can be a reason for concern. You may be at risk of oversharing details about yourself that can be misused by someone in your network or a connection you know might become compromised therefore putting you at risk. Have you ever shared a photo of your vacation, your house, your car, your family? This can seem to be harmless, but there are reasons to be concerned. Especially if you are being targeted by someone with ill intentions. A simple way to address this is to ask yourself some basic questions like, “Would I be comfortable with showing this person a vacation picture?”, “Would I be comfortable telling this person something about my family?”, “Would I stop to talk to this person if I met them on the street?” If you answered no to any of these, it might be a good idea to rethink your connection with that person.

On the other end of that scale is a large list of connections. Many of which you don’t know or never met. Social media influencers are one extreme example of this. These are people that earn a living by advertising products to their followers. In many cases, these influencers have thousands or even millions of followers. Don’t worry if you do not have this problem. Most people on social networking platforms don’t either.

However, having a list of connections that you don’t know can be problematic. First, it can increase your exposure to malware and unsolicited content. Have you ever received a strange request from one of your connections to click a link, watch a video, or join a game? If one of your followers is compromised by a malicious attacker, they may open you up to a compromise or at least allow your content to be viewed by the attacker. It is also not uncommon for accounts to be fake or part of a larger network of fake accounts. These are sometimes called “bots” and are used in many ways. They are used to perform an activity that normal users wouldn’t, like creating reviews, purchasing limited goods to raise prices, or disrupting normal services. They can also be used to spread misinformation for political or social influence, cyberbullying, and even monetary incentives such as fake bank accounts. It's hard to tell how many accounts are fake, but in 2019 Facebook shutdown 5.4 billion fake accounts. It’s not always clear what the intentions are of these fake accounts are. In many cases, it takes a sharp eye and a hefty amount of skepticism to even identify them.

There is also risk even if you keep your list small and only to people that you know to some extent. Cyberbullying, stalking and other threatening behavior can occur from people. Even if you know them. In some cases, it’s precisely because you know them. We all have either been bullied, or been part of bullying behavior, or witnessed bullying. Technology has allowed this type of behavior to be amplified and available around the clock.

Don’t despair. All the social media platforms allow you to do things like organize your friends into groups, or even remove and block connections. Even if you don’t know the person or they are not a connection you still have the ability to report behavior that goes against the policy of the platform. Although the lines are gray on what is allowed, and it’s different for every platform, offensive content can be and should be reported.

In extreme cases the authorities should be brought in when there is a case of bullying, harassment, or stalking that becomes dangerous. There are some basic steps to take in this case. First, keeping a record of everything. Second, making sure the account is blocked. However, understand that removing or blocking someone on one platform does not mean they cannot reach their victim on another one. In other words, blocking someone on Facebook will not stop them from searching out their victim through text, messaging apps, or other social media platforms. Lastly, inform the local police department. Again, the laws are sometimes gray, but it’s important to get an official record of the incident.

Fake accounts, not knowing your connections, and bullying behavior can drive you to stay away from social media platforms. Although most of us survived life prior to social media, it’s not going anywhere. Like anything in life, it’s important to know the risk and understand how to reduce yours.

There is a simple concept in the financial industry called “Know Your Customer”. This concept requires a reasonable effort to verify the identity involved in maintaining a relationship. In this case, it is a relationship between a financial institution and a customer. I would argue that as social media citizens, we should “Know Your Connections.” We are not going to go through the same rigors a financial institution goes through for every friend request we send or receive but we should have a basic level of confidence that who we are connecting with is who they say they are. It comes back to asking questions like “Is this someone that I would talk to on the street, have coffee with, share personal details and photos with?” Social media allows us to share the most intimate parts of our lives, ensure that the people you are connected to are worth sharing that information with.