In the world of social media, just as in real life, a lot of people pay attention to protecting their children and loved ones but don't give enough thought to insulating themselves from scams, snake oil salesmen, and worse. We tell young people not to share too much personal information and to be especially skeptical about the people they meet over the Internet... but how many of us adults follow that advice ourselves?
The sad fact is that not everyone is who they claim (or seem) to be. That's especially true when they're hiding behind carefully crafted social profiles and often engaging posts. And, while they might not all be out to do us physical harm or empty our checking accounts, that doesn't mean there aren't risks, or that we shouldn't be on the lookout.
I saw this firsthand recently when I encountered an engagement opportunity in Google+. It sounded like fun so I signed up and eagerly awaited the details.
When the details came, I noticed that a few things didn't quite add up. Everything still seemed "fun" enough, but there were some odd choices when it came to the messaging around the activity and participation requirements. Being the cautious person I am, I did a bit of digging. Sure enough, it didn't take many clicks for me to find that the "fun activity" was a carefully crafted viral marketing campaign - a form of social-based advertising.
I'd like to think that I'm a fairly sophisticated Internet user, yet I was one of the first to see the candy and crawl into the van, so to speak. By the time I noticed it, dozens of others had done the same.
My first instinct was to reveal the deception, and so I did, although in an admittedly not-that-gentle way (oops). This led to some particularly harsh responses. Fans disagreed with what I had to say, even though it was easy enough to demonstrate the issue. When that didn't work, they considered me a troll and started blocking my replies, marking my messages as spam, and finding other ways to dispute my assertions.
All in all, it wasn't really worth the trouble to keep up the good fight. The scam (my word) was a pretty minor one, and even those who had been duped weren't taking any significant offence. Still, the experience served as a reminder that a lot of online offers aren't always what they appear to be.
Here are a few more lessons I picked up from the experience:
Question everything. I don't want to turn you into a skeptic, but the fact of the matter is that you have to look carefully at the fine print (or the motivations of the person or company in question) before you register or participate in online offers or activities.
Protect your own credibility. As unfortunate as it is that any individual would dupe others, such arrangements aren't likely to go undetected for long. It takes a lot of time, work, and effort to build up a strong social media following. Don't kill the golden goose by participating in questionable efforts just to make a few dollars or gain influence in the short term.
Watch out for the gang mentality. Online or off, there are those who will follow others in a blind, mindless way. It's up to each of us to think critically about our opinions and not simply pile on to the most popular sentiment. And, look out for "angry mobs" on social media sites because they can do significant damage to your online reputation very quickly.
There are always going to be people who want to hide the facts or take advantage of us in life, and that's particularly easy to do online, especially when you've already gained someone's trust and we're all just another profile (stop thinking that way). So, keep your head up - and your eyes and ears open - so you can look out for the people and situations that aren't what they seem to be.