Social media trolls often use real people's profile photos to create fake accounts.
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.
Disability trolls, a subgroup of devotees (people who are sexually attracted to someone with a disability—commonly wheelchair users and amputees) exhibit deceptive, coercive and stalking tendencies by creating fake profiles to engage in an intimate online relationship with people with disabilities.
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.
Rachelle Chapman was a victim to this type of photo robbery first hand. The 28-year-old sustained a C-6 injury over three years ago, making her a quadriplegic. One of Chapman’s friends found a profile with the name “Kaitlyn Apfelbaum.” The profile only has five photos posted on it, and they are all photos of Chapman.
“[It’s] frustrating,” Chapman says. “Facebook doesn’t really help you out … It just says oh report it here and that’s it. There’s no number to call, there’s no customer service or anything … I’ve seen my friends post some things, exactly the same problem.”
There are two ways to start working toward a solution to this problem. Kondo categorizes them into the bottom-up methodology and the top-down methodology.
“Bottom-up is pretty simple,” Kondo says. “Look at your friends, figure out who you know, who you don’t know. If you don’t know them and you still want them to be friends, take a look at their profile and see if they are a high-risk person. Why be friends with someone who is high-risk? What’s the point? Not only are you putting yourself at risk, you’re putting your real friends with disabilities at risk because you’re endorsing that high-risk person.”
One of the biggest problems with spotting and stopping disability trolls trends from the mutual friends finder on Facebook. When a troll friends someone with a disability, the troll can now access their friend list. As the troll adds people from that list, the innocent bystander sees that they have at least one mutual friend and thinks they are okay. The troll gains credibility when they have more friends, especially friends that many people in the disability community would know, like athletes and people with popular press stories.
“One of the major problems with this is you have people who are high-profile in the disability world … who have very low criteria for who they friend on Facebook,” Kondo says.
“They friend everyone in the world because they’re trying to build up their social network and then you’ve got somebody else that’s like ‘Oh look, if the [high-profile people] are friends with this person, that’s social proof that they’re OK, I’ll friend them too.’”
Chapman’s story is one that reached the media, making her very well connected in the disability world. Called the “Paralyzed Bride,” she was playful pushed in a pool at her bachelorette party, causing her injury. She now uses her status to help Kondo warn other women about disability trolls.
“I’m pretty hyper vigilant, and I’ve always been like this, of not friending anyone who I do not know,” Chapman says. “But there’s nothing to stop somebody from making these pages like [Kaitlyn Apfelbaum] did.”
Then there is the top-down methodology, which involves the social media sites, like Facebook, to police these profiles themselves.
“I have reported hundreds and hundreds and hundreds [of profiles] and Facebook never gets back to me and the profiles do not go away. So Facebook doesn’t do anything about it,” Kondo says.
Another top-down approach involves disability organizations pushing the information out to the public to increase awareness among the community.
“Nobody except for me, literally, is actually saying something about this,” Kondo says. “I’m like this guy who’s standing in the corner jumping up and down and screaming, and for the most part, for something that’s as pervasive as it is, nobody’s doing anything about it.”
Kondo, unable to get help from many others in the community has taken matters into his own hands for now by creating a blog (saynotofacebookpredators.org) and a Facebook page where people can share information on which profiles they think may be fake. He also makes several public service announcements and plans to keep pushing information out to try to help people from becoming victimized.
“My facebook page, that blog and stuff, that’s all consolidating information so that I’m trying to educate people as to what’s out there. Because my thought is, if you have no idea this is going on, then you don’t protect yourself from something you don’t know exists,” Kondo says. “You’re never going to put a stop to it, but at least you can reduce the rate of victimization.”
For more information on disability trolls read Web Warning: Part I here.