🎵 "Welcome to thе internet! What would you prefеr? Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?" 🎵
The internet can be a sketchy place sometimes. Aside from malware and spam, sometimes people don't have your well-being in mind. Some online spaces can be unhealthy or hazardous. When trying to stay safe online, it's good to know how to think critically about the people, places, and situations you might find yourself in. Spotting problems before anything becomes too serious can save you a lot of pain.
Whenever possible, keep your offline and online selves separate.
- Consider using a pseudonym. At the very least, don't share your full name with people you don't know offline.
- Avoid sharing your address with people if you don't feel comfortable having them knock on your front door. On a similar note, avoid telling social media that you're away from home. Burglars look for this.
- Avoid sharing photos of your face online. A face photo links your online identity to your offline self, and the background/metadata can give away information about where you live.
- Keep your date of birth private, especially if anyone knows your real name.
- Don't share a list of your medical conditions, medications, etc. It takes very little effort to use this against you.
- Assume that whatever you post is public and permanent. People save more things than you'd expect, and it's not hard to bypass some privacy restrictions. If you don't want your boss or mom to see it, then post with caution.
Learn the warning signs of grooming and exploitation.
- An excellent explanation of what grooming is and how it happens
- Any person can be groomed regardless of age, gender, race, etc.
- The stages of grooming (and a paper describing the same stages)
- Even if someone is your best friend or life partner, you need to be able to say "no" to anything that you don't want to do. If you feel unable to refuse something that they want you to do, then it may be good to seek outside help or back off from that relationship for a while.
- If you're a minor, then any sexual behavior from someone else online is a red flag. Get out of there.
- A website where you can report sexual grooming of minors
- Life after grooming
Keep an eye out for scams.
- If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
- Always look at URLs before clicking on them. Watch for misspellings, character substitutions, junk added onto the end, and incorrect sites (e.g. google-docs.com is fake; docs.google.com is real). If it seems even slightly sketchy, then don't click on it. Type the link in yourself if you really need to go to a known website.
- Always navigate to your bank and other financial websites yourself.
- If someone needs you to pay them in gift cards, then it's a scam.
- If someone needs you to pay them a "small" sum to get a big payout, then it's a scam.
- Never reply to scam emails. It tells the scammers that your email address is active and a good target. Avoid opening them at all if possible; when you view an email that has an image, your email client has to ask for the image from the sender's server. The sender can use this to tell if you opened the email, which tells them that your email account is active. Again, that makes you a good target.
- Use strong passwords. Length is the most important: make it as long as possible. Randomness also helps. Using a password manager makes this much easier.
- Use different passwords for every account. If someone breaks into one account, then your others will still be okay.
- Use multi-factor authentication. Even if someone gets your password, they'd still have to bypass MFA. Most attackers aren't dedicated enough to bother when there are thousands of easier targets out there.
- Be careful what you click. Downloading anything is a risk; make sure you're getting files from legitimate, non-sketchy sources. If it feels suspicious, then it probably is.
- The first Google result isn't always legitimate. Stay alert.
- Stay up-to-date. Install updates as soon as possible. They often fix bugs and security holes.
- Use an antivirus. Microsoft Defender counts.
- Keep your firewall enabled and block incoming traffic. Incoming traffic is when other computers try to connect to yours. On a home computer, this is usually because someone wants to take control of your computer in some way. Don't let them!
Think critically about information.
- Check sources. Do they actually back the claim? Are they recent? Does the author have the knowledge to speak on the topic? Are they biased?
- People sometimes lie on the internet. The person making a claim is the one that has to prove it; if there's no proof, then there's no way to know where the information came from or whether it's true.
- Avoid confusing your emotions with moral sentiment or rightness/wrongness. Disagreeing with something does not make it morally or factually wrong. When in doubt, research multiple sides of an issue to see what the consensus is.
- Try to form your own opinions on topics.
- Nothing is black and white. Look for shades of gray and nuances.
Community Safety: Litmus Tests
Every now and then, it's a good idea to critically evaluate the people that you spend your time with. Supposedly, you're the average of the five people that you spend the most time around. Do you like your average, or does something need to change?
There are a few questions that I find particularly helpful for testing this. It's doubly important to ask these if you like the people involved, as problems tend to go unnoticed otherwise.
- What do I want to get out of this community? Self-improvement? Social approval? Friendships? Validation of my behaviors/worldview?
- What are the overt beliefs held by this community? What are their covert beliefs (the ones that no one says out loud)?
- If I showed this list of beliefs to a stranger outside of the community, what might they think? Could any of this be alarming?
- Do any of these beliefs contradict known facts about the world?
- Do any of these beliefs go against expert advice on the topic? If so, what reasoning is behind that advice?
- If there's a group that opposes this community, then why do they feel that way? Do they have any good points?
- Assume good-faith argument when possible; reading with the intent to disprove won't help you evaluate anything. Don't try to disprove them. Try to understand.
- Does my life improve if I step away from this space for a week?
- Am I afraid of this community in any way? Do they make me feel like I have to monitor myself to stay within their belief system?
- If I read this community's arguments from a hostile viewpoint, do they still hold up?
Every community has its own biases and misbeliefs. No one is 100% free of them. Some of these beliefs tend to be covert: no one says them outright, but they're a core part of the belief system nonetheless. It's hard to decide whether to accept or reject these covert beliefs when they tend to float unspoken and unquestioned until someone calls them out. It takes poking around for them to be noticed.
When trying to notice biases and covert beliefs, I find that it helps to talk to people outside of a community and get their honest opinion on topics. It's especially effective if they disagree with you. Sometimes that added perspective is all it takes to realize that something's not right.
TL;DR: The beliefs that you need to question most of all are the ones that you agree with.
If you want to learn more about what to watch out for, then I'd strongly suggest reading this article on culty beliefs. Critically examine your own communities every now and then, and don't assume that agreeing with something makes it true. Try to understand other sides of the issue.
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