Safeguarding Your Online Presence: Tips for Safer Internet Day
In an era where the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, it's crucial to prioritize online safety. Safer Internet Day, observed this coming Tuesday (February 6), is yet another day to raise awareness of an issue. As I looked more into this day, I noticed that their stated aims were very nebulous, citing goals like making the internet “safer” (obviously), “inclusive,” “positive,” but I never actually found any specific guidelines or recommendations. I was further unsettled when I found an equally-vague teaser for the 2019 event with sponsors like Microsoft and X (Twitter at the time) – who as of this week expressed support for the highly problematic Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) – as well as Meta (Facebook at the time), Snap, Google, and other problematic figures who’s efforts to make the internet “safer” can – at best – be described as misguided and controlling. The only unambiguous content to be found anywhere in the official online presences of this movement is a blog on the official website that discusses some of the various online legislation going around regarding online safety. So ultimately, it seems to me that – at best – this group is about campaigning for better “online safety” laws and – at worst – it’s a front for various Big Tech lobbying groups to control the narrative and conversation surrounding online safety.
Despite all that problematic context, let’s be real for a moment: the internet can be a toxic wasteland (heavy emphasis on the “can be” part), and at face value I do agree with the overall (alleged) mission of this day. So regardless of who’s behind this day, I think it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the idea of a safer internet and some of the steps we can take to protect ourselves and create a better online experience. For some context, today I will be focusing on the threat model of “other users” as opposed to companies, governments, or even insider threats like sysadmins and employees. I’m talking about cyberbullies, trolls, and other common threats who make our online experience less enjoyable.
Of course, staying safe online starts with all the usual privacy and security basics. Among the top-priority, “most-bang-for-your-buck” recommendations we have all the greatest hits: use strong passwords on all accounts, use two-factor authentication where available, keep good backups, turn on automatic updates, secure your home network, stay updated on the changing landscape, avoid phishing and malvertising, so on and so forth. This is the same information you can find on any given blog post, and all of it (and more) is covered in-depth on the website so I won’t rehash it all here, but of course I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give it a quick mention. Security is the way we enforce our wishes: if we can’t secure our accounts, settings, and data then we have no way to force people to respect our data or our online selves (and remember that the proliferation of free, legal online hacking tools and YouTube tutorials makes these a credible threat in the hands of even the most novice malicious actor) .
One criminally underrated strategy starts at the beginning of using a website: your public username. Most people prefer to use the same “handle” online. This can be great if you’re building a brand like a website, YouTube channel, or other influencer persona but for personal accounts it can be an easy way for a troll or harasser to easily locate you on other platforms and attack you on multiple fronts. I strongly recommend that you use different usernames on each platform – and for the record, I mean really different. Don’t just be JohnSmith on Instagram and JSmith03 on Reddit. My recommended trick is to use your password manager’s passphrase generator to pick two random words (or Bitwarden’s username generator if you prefer), so you can be
CrepeCity on Mastodon and
Unbent4141 on Lemmy. This will make it way harder for a troll to find you, and your legitimate friends and associates should have no issue just reaching out to you to find you on other platforms if they’re interested (in the case of mainstream services like Instagram, they make this process automatic and even easier).
Next, you’ll want to block access to what people can see about you. It’s incredibly easy for someone to see a single post or comment out of context, and for some reason the internet’s favorite pastime seems to be assuming malicious intent. Few people rarely take the time to click on your profile or even the thread you’re replying to to get more a complete picture, they just assume you’re an awful person and respond accordingly. Hence, the classic “reply guy” problem prevalent on every platform. Most online platforms provide privacy settings that allow you to control who sees your information including posts, followers, and other information depending on what’s collected. Take the time to review and adjust these settings on social media platforms, email accounts, and other online services. Limit the amount of personal information you share publicly, and be mindful of the permissions you grant to apps and websites.
Be Generous With The Block Button
Believe it or not, I consider myself a free speech advocate (a real one, unlike some celebrities). For years, this manifested in a metaphorical allergic reaction to the “block” button. This was a mistake and one I encourage you to learn from me instead of by experience. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of reach.” Imagine someone standing on a street corner on the proverbial soapbox and yelling into a megaphone. Freedom of speech means that nobody comes by to turn off the megaphone, take away the box, or otherwise stop them from speaking. However, some “free speech” types seem to think that this also entitles them to have everyone stop what they’re doing and listen. This is incredibly wrong and narcissistic. Nobody is required to listen to you, just as these hypocrites never seem interested in hearing out other people. People are perfectly free to keep walking by or – believe it or not – to call you names, boo you, give you the finger, etc as they keep going. I believe in everyone’s right to (pardon my language) be an asshole, but I don’t think that gives you a right to an audience or protection from disagreement. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
These days, I’ve learned to be liberal with both the “block” and “mute” buttons online. Saying something that isn’t technically problematic but I just don’t care? Mute. Got a literal swastika in your slur-riddled profile? Block. You have a right to be an asshole, but I don’t have to put up with your abuse. Don’t be scared of the block button. Abuse it. Trust me, it makes the internet a much more pleasant and experience. And again: no, you’re not infringing on their free speech. They still have a profile where they can complain about you (or whatever they’re complaining about), they’re still free to speak, and if they keep getting “censored” they can always go create their own website or instance. There's lots of places on the internet for even the worst of people. You are not obligated to listen to their garbage under any circumstance.
I’ve really been harping on this a lot lately but an underrated aspect of privacy, security, and digital well-being is simply not being there in the first place. I’ve been very open about my belief that X/Twitter has become a Nazi site in the last year or so. Perhaps you disagree. That’s fine. I don’t care. I know that X has become a place full of takes, people, and opinions that I find to be annoying, enraging, low quality, and full of disinformation. I’m not afraid of differing opinions, but I’d like to at least get them from someone who’s arguing in good faith with some degree of factual information and not a Photoshopped image from an unrelated event in 2019 who’s main goal is to get engagement and “own the libs.” Therefore, I choose not to hang out on X. I also choose not to follow or engage with accounts that annoy me on Mastodon (see the previous section) for the same reason. I strongly believe that you should keep your accounts to a minimum because an account that doesn’t exist can’t be hacked, but it also helps your mental health. If you don’t have an account on a platform you disagree with, you can’t be constantly exposed to things that annoy or stress you out. That goes for all sides of the political spectrum: I wouldn't encourage a hardcore conservative to go hang out on an extremely liberal social media platform. Again, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about living life in a bubble, but there’s a vast difference between a meme account and an actual journalistic outlet from the opposite side of the aisle. One will – if you’re willing to let it – challenge you in positive ways or at least keep you informed of opposing narratives and ideas. The other is probably half-true at best and only exists to confirm biases and paint the other side in bad faith. Quality content is the key. By extension, I believe this also means picking and choosing the aspects of any platform that work for you. One thing I always liked about Reddit was the ability to pick which subreddits to subscribe to. This meant I avoided the large, low-quality subreddits (like r/funny which, despite what the name implies, is rarely funny) in favor of subs that either catered closer to my specific sense of humor or simply weren’t aiming for mass appeal from bots. This also translated to smaller, friendlier communities and a much more pleasant overall experience compared to larger, more divisive subs. I recommend applying this to your minimalism strategy: have fewer accounts on fewer platforms, and seek out those that are high quality with a high signal-to-noise ratio in both the content and community.
Last but not least, I want to encourage us all – as I did last week – to disconnect more often. Look, I’m not an “outdoorsy” kind of guy, okay? The most gardening I do is picking out a good-looking onion at the grocery store, and I’m pretty sure I would die if I was internet disconnected for more than an hour. I’ve literally got music streaming as I write this (“Carousel” by Flobots if anyone wants any music recommendations). That said, I find that the more I disconnect from the massively social aspects of the internet, the more I enjoy technology again. Going for a walk while listening to a podcast or music energizes me and makes me excited to get back to work. Playing video games is a great stress relief. Watching movies and TV shows is fun again. Even one-on-one or small group conversations are energizing. I can’t overstate the value in unplugging from the massively social sides of the web – getting off Reddit, Facebook, even Mastodon – and doing something more individually focused or intimate. When I quit Facebook, the most immediate benefit I noticed was that all my interactions were suddenly more meaningful. Even a thumbs-up reaction on Signal means more to me than a thumbs-up or heart on Facebook because I know that person took time out of their day to navigate to my message (even if it was just clicking on the notification itself) rather than just having it passively served up to them by the algorithm.
The internet has a long way to go in being safer – more secure, more private, and overall more pleasant. That last one, I think, is the trickiest one of all to achieve because it’s so subjective. Some people find dark humor abhorrent while others are fans. I find the vast majority of content on TikTok to be low quality and asinine but I’m sure plenty of people who find it hysterical would argue that Futurama – my favorite comfort show – is boring. Everyone has different standards for what’s fun, safe, and positive. I don’t foresee that part especially being resolved any time soon. So until then, it’s important to take matters into your own hands and craft your own experience. Secure your accounts, then focus on reducing the noise and boosting the quality of your online interactions.