A recent spate of trolling on paralegal groups reminded me that people I meet online are a lot like people I meet in “real life.”
It may seem at first that this is someone who is already part of my professional circle. It may look as if someone I know invited them. They may proffer relevant qualifications and titles. Perhaps they claim membership in an organization I support.
It may seem that this is someone who is, at best, good to know, and at least, harmless. Too often, it is all an illusion. Too often, I discover that I have let a troll in to my online professional life.
The interloper may start spamming groups with unwanted deals on shoes, offers of easy credit or weight-loss stuff. Some will exploit their connection to lend credibility to their profile. Others post defamatory comments about licensees and organizations, under cover of a fake persona.
My Friends are Your Friends and Your Friends are Trolls
From the mere embarrassment of having been duped, to a diminished professional image, to time wasted scrambling to remove defamatory comments and spam posted at sites, pages and groups — connecting with a fake or bad-intentioned person online can be one little click of trouble. For Facebook and LinkedIn group administrators, trolls take time away from productive things, and can make a site seem less trustworthy.
Asking for government-issued photo ID to verify identity is sensible and necessary for a new client — but not practical for online dealings.
That does not mean there is nothing a paralegal can do, but click “Accept” randomly and hope for the best. Simple steps can help to restrict trolls and their trolling tricks. Age-old techniques, the same ones our ancestors used to assess the relative risks of letting strangers into their lives and homes, apply just as well to life online today.
Here are some suggestions for keeping your groups, pages, blogs and websites troll-free.
Step One: Trust Your Instincts
The human brain is an amazing tool, honed over millennia. Our brains chronicle information our entire lives, storing details, making decisions, revising estimates, assessing risk. What we call “hunches” are actually the output of that database, continually analyzed below our consciousness.
Trust those hunches, those “spidey-sense tingles,” those seemingly baseless suspicions.
If a deer in the forest hears a twig snap, it does not stand still, wondering whether it is overreacting, whether some creature’s feelings will be hurt if it runs. No. It bolts, sounding an alarm as it flees the perceived danger.
I always ask myself: who is this person, what do they want, and what are the risks if I let the wrong one in? This is particularly important with Paralegal SCOPE. I want to make sure that people who comment on posts, or submit articles, are doing so in the full light of day and in compliance with LSUC Rules.
Anyone who wants to post anonymously has ulterior motives. The only issue is what those motives are; but that is not my concern. Someone who does not want to put their real name to their comment has something to hide, plain and simple.
The same is true of fake job ads, or people offering legal services or immigration consulting. If something seems out of place, it is more likely than not that trouble-making is afoot.
Spelling and grammar mistakes are a big clue that something is not right. Sometimes the wording of a job ad or professional profile indicates a background other than what the person claims. Vague or silly job titles pique my curiosity. Following hunches, I look up names at governing bodies’ directories. As an example of hunches panning out, I have found that most people who call themselves “legal services providers” are not licensees.
Step Two: Do Some Research
If you have any suspicion at all about a person online, whether it’s someone looking to join a group, make a connection, hire an paralegal, or join your Friends list: act on it.
Look with a critical eye at the information the person has provided. Use what you know. Start from the theory that this is a fake profile and try to disprove that theory. This is what you would do with a stranger at your door. You would check on a home renovator, nanny, or service contractor. Treat your online home the same way.
It takes just a few minutes to follow a hunch, but a troll in the “house” can take up hours of your time.
Some things to look for:
- Look at the information they provided. Are the details vague, irrelevant or non-existent?
- Google the name and any other information that is readily available. Does the person’s website resolve, with relevant content? Does this person or company appear in any directories? Are they posting from another country? Is the phone number real?
- A profile created in the last few days is a red flag. Whose online presence started yesterday, especially if they claim to have professional and educational credentials?
- Check the person’s friends and connections. Are these real people, folks you know? Has this person been vetted by any closed groups or organizations? Are their connections suspiciously crafted to create an impression?
- Check the profile photo. Is it generic? A gender mismatch? Does it look like it came from a stock image service? Is it a party-girl photo, pulled off the web? Right-click on the image, copy its URL and paste in the box at images.google.com, to see where it likely came from.
- Google the email address to see if it exists, if it has been flagged, and what other comments the person has made. Does the email address differ from the profile name? (“Phil White” using the address “firstname.lastname@example.org”) Does it originate in a country mismatch? (Canadian employer listed, but an email address that ends in country codes .in, .ro, ci – India, Romania, China)
- Look up the IP address for an emailed message. Has the address been flagged by spam-busting sites? Does it originate in another city or country than the one the sender claims? If you have a website, have you had suspicious messages from this address before?
Step Three: Take Appropriate Steps
Taken alone, a trollish sign may be simply a careless mistake. If it looks like mere sloppiness, or that the person may not understand the importance of using their real name, you could just send an email explaining your position. But if too many things don’t add up, if someone is making claims that are not true, keep your distance and sound the alarm.
Some folks will be upset and try to strong-arm you into accepting them into your group, or site — but what does that say about them? A good person, a real person, will understand your caution and politely take steps to address your concerns.
If you see the same fake name popping up in groups or pages, alert the administrator. If the troll seems to be targeting a certain type of person — female licensees, paralegals who practise in Provincial Offences, for example — let others know, either privately or in the group. You can’t defame someone who does not exist.
Like an elk herd crossing perilous terrain, the paralegal community can protect its own from the wolves that seem always to be lurking under cover. We just need to trust our instincts, stick together, and take sensible steps.
More about online safety:
RCMP information on protecting yourself online