WRITING Online Safety

How careful are you about keeping yourself safe online? One SCBWI member tells W&P why – and how – you should post cautiously.

I always thought I was pretty savvy about keeping safe online. My Facebook and Instagram are private and only shared with people I know personally or whom I’m familiar with by name. My Twitter and blog have been my public forums but I don’t share my email or phone number on either, and while I’m happy to post (probably far too many) photos of my pet bird, I don’t share photos which show my children’s faces. However, you may have heard how author Joanne Harris recently had an issue with a person she had befriended online.  Strangely enough, as all this was unfolding, I too was having an issue with a person I had befriended on Twitter.  

Like most people, I always look at any new follower’s bio and tweets to see if they are someone I want following me and if I’d want to follow them back. This person’s bio seemed legit. Although I could see it was a new account, they appeared to be interested in writing and were following lots of the same people I was, so I followed them back. A few days later I happily gave them some advice on gaining more followers and over the next few weeks a pattern of likes and the odd comment back and forth went on – nothing alarming or out of the ordinary. At some point it did cross my mind they appeared to be reading everything I tweeted and were being particularly friendly, but again, people who are in the writing community and new to Twitter are often keen to make connections. This person had even thought to claim (falsely) on their Twitter bio that their location was the town where they knew we lived, and I can honestly say this was one of the reasons I was happy to engage with them – they were a ‘local’, after all. The scariest thing is that if they had somehow managed a casual way to say, ‘I’m based in ****, whereabouts are you?’ there is a very good chance I might have replied with ‘Oh – that’s near me!  I live in ****.' Seems pretty foolish in retrospect, but having only ever had positive encounters with other writers on Twitter, that’s how unconcerned I was and how naïve I was being about the kind of things we so often unthinkingly post on public forums. 

Then I got the personal message. They ‘wanted to come clean’ about who they really were. I have never met the person involved but they were known to me as a former work colleague of my husband’s. I blocked her but unfortunately made the mistake of not then locking down my account.  

The police are now involved.

She immediately created a new account and jumped on one of my tweets to launch a tirade of very nasty, targeted abuse that made it clear she had been reading my blog and must have been stalking me online for quite some time. I blocked and reported her, as did several other people who’d been alarmed by the poisonous tweets they were seeing. Unfortunately there is more to this story and the police are now involved.

As writers, we are told we need an online social media presence, and this is the reason I created both my Twitter account and my blog. My Twitter is now locked down – you can’t search for me and you can’t see my tweets unless I accept you as a follower – which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of my being on there. If follower numbers matter to you then it might interest you to know that in the two months since I’ve been locked down I’ve had the grand total of five new follower requests – one of whom was almost certainly my attacker trying to reconnect. My blog was created in the belief that the only people who’d bother reading it would be other writers, and it was at times a quite personal account of my writing journey. As a result of the hateful things said to me, I have deleted it, as I no longer feel comfortable sharing such information online.  

Many people have since told me this kind of thing happened to them or to someone they know.

While, granted, my stalker was known to me and not a complete random, what really surprised me was how many people have since told me this kind of thing happened to them or to someone they know. Another author who received some horrible abuse online a few years ago said that even now, every time they venture online publicly, there is someone still stalking them who will immediately begin an attack. The only advice given to us for dealing with these types of people is to not engage with them and to stay offline. Yet staying offline isn’t really an option these days.

Staying offline isn’t really an option these days.

Without trying to scaremonger, I would encourage you to think seriously about how much you share online and to be wary of what you do share. Ask yourself if you’re comfortable with someone who may not have your best interests at heart seeing what you are posting.  Is it a good idea to share pictures of your children on a public space, for example? Get familiar with your privacy and safety settings – make sure your precise location is switched off. Do your photographs have embedded info? (Look it up! I had no idea).  
The law hasn't caught up with the kind of abuse that happens online.
Do you really need to include contact details on your blog? When you receive a new follower, do you take a look at what they’re tweeting or posting before following them back? Do all of your social media platforms need to be public? I didn’t know people could find me on Pinterest until my attacker tried sending me a message on there just the other day. Sadly, the law hasn’t caught up with the kind of abuse that happens online. People feel they can say anything from behind the safety of a screen –  things they would probably never be brave enough to say to your face. Most of the time that’s as far as they’ll go, but there are some seriously disturbed individuals out there and if you find yourself dealing with one of those, as I did, then you never really know what they might be capable of. So keep yourself as protected as you can – and please don’t be offended if I don’t accept your friend or follower request.

 Anonymous is a SCBWI British Isles member.

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