At first glimpse, you may find no harm in "friending" Kaitlyn Apfelbaum. While the images are of an actual wheelchair user, the profile is that of a troller.
As the Internet continues to grow and expand, people everywhere are finding ways to become, and stay, connected. While making new friendships on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter may seem like opening a door to opportunity, it may actually be opening a door to danger.
Erik Kondo saw social media as a great way to connect and share information with other paraplegics. The 48-year-old with a T-4/5 spinal-cord injury created a Facebook group a couple years ago to do just that—create a place for those with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) to share experiences, photos and information with each other. During his process of inviting people to join the group, he realized another group of people had already been using Facebook to tap into the disabled community not to help, but rather, to take advantage.
Kondo was running into profiles that had little to no photos, life events or information about the person, but what they did have was many female friends in wheelchairs, too many. He calls these people disability trolls, a subgroup of devotees (people who are sexually attracted to someone with a disability—commonly wheelchair users and amputees) who exhibit deceptive, coercive and stalking tendencies.
"There is a very specific reason [I created the word disability troll], because once you start labeling you inherently put everyone in the same group. It’s not the whole group of devotees that act this way, it’s a subgroup of them,” Kondo says. “I’m focusing on this behavior, it just happens to be that most disability trolls happen to be devotees, but all devotees are not disability trolls.”
The main goal of most disability trolls is to engage in some sort of intimate conversation or online relationship with people that have a disability, usually women. Through his research, Kondo has found that most of the trolls create a fake profile on sites such as Facebook to assume the identity of a disabled woman in order to get closer to other women with similar disabilities. Using their fake profiles they friend one woman with a disability, than through their friend list they're able to find more women with disabilities and it grows exponentially with each accepted friend request.
“It’s all the same: Create a fake profile, friend a couple people and find their friends and start friending them. And the more you friend, the more likely you are going to be able to find more friends and friend more people,” Kondo says.
Social media sites like "Say No to Facebook Predators," hope to educate the public to the existence and danger of these trolls.
The trolls then begin to message these women — often times vulnerable new injuries — tell them about their condition to find common ground and start asking intimate questions.
“She’s newly injured and she’s got all these questions, and this other person friends her and soon they’re having a discussion about toileting and sex and all of this stuff, which is the whole purpose of what the troll is trying to do. This is what I say about establishing an intimate relationship,” Kondo says. “People have this question like, ‘Why are they doing it? They can’t have a real relationship.’ It doesn’t matter … they’re getting what they want.”
Many times these intimate conversations establish trust and progress into photo sharing. The trolls may, for example, express that they're worried about the condition of their feet and ask their victim for a photo of their feet to use for comparison. The trolls then upload and share these photos on open forums and websites with other trolls. Another way the trolls can benefit from these online relationships is to establish two accounts. One fake one where they can get intimate information and details and then use their real account to capitalize and establish a relationship with the person they’ve connected with.
“The other thing these trolls do is they friend each other and a lot of them don’t even know,” Kondo says. “So think about how messed up this is. It’s like everyone’s gone to a costume party and they’re all wearing a mask and nobody knows who’s underneath. So a lot of them are confused as to who’s who.”
Kondo says there are several key signs to figuring out whether someone is a troll. First look at their friend’s list. A real person has a variety of friends—people they know from high school, college and work as well as people of all ages and genders. Disability trolls however usually only have friends who are disabled, and in most cases female.
“It’s really not that hard once you think about the logic of it. For the most part it’s pretty easy to figure them out,” Kondo says. “Real people have real friends of multiple genders, multiple ages, some of them are from work, and some of them could be from high school, some of them from college. They’re real people. Fake people don’t have that. Fake people never went to high school, never went to college and they don’t have jobs.”
Another good indicator is to look at their photos. Most disability trolls have few photos and either steal photos from the profile of another woman in the disabled community for their profile, or they use stock and model photography. An easy way to find out if the photos have been stolen is to save one to your computer and then drag the file into the search bar of Google Images (google.com/images). Google will bring up the photo from any location it can find and also bring up similar photos. You can then see if the photo came from a stock photography website or from another Facebook profile.
Get the full story on disability trolls and read a victim's story in Web Warning: Part II.