Getting Social The use of Social Media in your novel (Part 2)
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip. Last week's blog post discussed whether or not to use Social Media in your novel. It covered some of the issues to be considered and described some of the most common services and applications, focusing initially on the Facebook-owned services, including WhatsApp and Instagram.
This week, I am going to look at some of the darker issues raised by Social Media that may provide you with inspiration for your story.
After the read more cut, I will describe non-Facebook-owned services, such as Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and some more niche services, such as Telegram and Signal. For accuracy, don't forget to check when these services became widely available (and where) and when they implemented different features. My earlier posts (34 and 35) on using mobile phone technology in your books can be read as a companion piece to this articles .
The Dark Side of Social Media. Social media, or social networking, can be a lot of fun. For many of us, these services provide an easy way to maintain contact with friends and loved ones, network with like-minded individuals, read and share media or news articles, and laugh at rude memes or pictures of cats. The enforced loneliness of lockdown has made these services all the more popular.
But it does have a dark-side.
Echo-Chambers and Rabbit holes The way that social media is designed to work, means that it can be an echo-chamber, as we tend to like and follow those we agree with. The network's algorithms will then serve up more content that it thinks we will enjoy. This amplifies views that we agree with and can distort our perception of what the majority of society think. Many people are shocked at the outcome of elections and referendums, because all the people that they interacted with prior to the ballot intended to vote the same way as they do, with those who disagreed hidden from view. YouTube is very good at predicting what videos you will most like, based on those you have already watched and others with apparently similar tastes have also seen. This can lead to bias and the amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Search for videos on 5G conspiracies linked to Covid and after watching a couple of videos by conspiracy theorists, YouTube will soon start recommending other videos outlining outlandish theories, whilst steering you away from sources that debunk them. Anti-vaxxers have been especially good at harnessing this effect to spread myths and lies about vaccines. There is good evidence that hostile states and dangerous groups such as QAnon have used this tactic in an attempt to spread confusion and mis-information about everything from election results to vaccine side-effects; their motives aren't always clear, but destabilising public confidence in our democratic institutions seems to be one goal.
Could characters in your book be influenced by what they see or read on social media?
End-to-End Encryption and Self-destructing Messages. As mentioned last week, many messaging apps now use End-to-End Encryption. The encoding of messages to make them unreadable if intercepted goes back to ancient times; the Romans and Ninjas of ancient Japan routinely encrypted information before giving it to messengers to deliver. If the message was intercepted by their enemies, then they needed to work out how to decipher it before it was any use. The breaking of the Enigma Code by the Allies during the Second World War started the practise of using computers to break such codes. To counter this, the encoders made their ciphers ever more fiendish, requiring more and more computing power to break them. Despite the exponential increase in processing power over the past few decades, modern encryption is so strong that it would take computers an impractically long time to crack just a single code, especially given the billions of individual encrypted communications sent daily. Therefore the only way for governments etc to peek at an encrypted message is to demand (with a warrant) that the company that supplied the software or app used by the communicators hand over the digital key used to encrypt that message.
End-to-End Encryption has now stymied that. The message is encrypted by the device of the sender, the encoded stream of information transmitted over the internet through the messaging app provider's servers, and then decoded by the receiver's device. At no point does the provider of the messaging app have the keys to decrypt the message. Law enforcement can compel the company that runs the messaging network to hand over the message, but they have no way of decrypting it, and neither does the company. This technology has been a game-changer, for both good and ill. On the one hand, oppressed groups in police states can safely communicate with one another and we can use our mobile phones to pay for items securely or bank safely, but on the other hand, paedophiles, criminals and terrorists can plot and share information with no way for the police to track them.
How could your characters use secure communications? Are the police blocked from accessing valuable intelligence?
Self-destructing messages. Many apps now allow users to stipulate that a message 'self-destruct' after a set time, meaning they permanently disappear. For apps such as Snapchat, this is part of its core functionality. Sometimes it is possible to take a screenshot of the message before it vanishes for good, although the sender may be notified that the screenshot has been taken. Photographing the screen with a second device would circumvent this. Combined with encryption, this makes it extremely difficult for police to retrieve these messages as evidence.
Could your characters use this to plan their skulduggery? What challenges would this pose for your police or victims?
Cyberstalking The willingness of people to share lots of information about themselves publicly has played into the hands of people with dark motives. It is known that paedophiles use social media to harvest innocently-posted pictures of children, which they share with others to feed their fantasies. People who become obsessed with an individual can use social media to build a profile of that person and use it to work out where they live and work, stalking them online; inevitably, some will move off-line and try and make contact in the real world. Again, paedophiles are known to use the classic "standing in front of the fridge in the new school uniform" picture to identify which school a child goes to.
Geotagging is the way that mobile devices automatically add location data to posts. These days, it is a feature that you have to choose to turn on, and rightly so. You may as well just post a large sign outside your house saying "I'm on holiday in Greece, now would be a good time to burgle me." Plenty of fools do choose to turn it on however.
Similarly, many people use apps to track their running or walking. These use the phone's GPS and map features to plot your running routes, which you are then encouraged to share with other users. If you do this in real-time, they provide a helpful way for stalkers to follow you. But even if you don't, instead sharing them after you have completed your exercise, stalkers can learn your regular exercise routes and find a nice, quiet spot to wait for you...
Of even more concern is the use of social media by abusive partners to track down former victims. How many times have you seen a Facebook post imploring you to share the image of a missing person and let the poster know if you see them? These pictures can be spread far and wide, until eventually, a well-meaning person contacts the abuser and confirms where they now live. Unless the plea comes from the police or similar source, don't share. There are many legitimate reasons why a person may go missing, and this can place them in danger. Related to this, Face tagging is the use of Artificial Intelligence by a social media service to identify people appearing in photographs posted by others. In Europe it is turned off as a default. Again, this feature could potentially be used to track down former partners, perhaps by scanning posted images to identify new acquaintances.
Could you use this in your book? What sort of profile might an attacker build of their victim from publicly visible information? Might they use social media to track down a person?
Revenge Porn, recently made a criminal offence in the UK, is the dissemination of intimate images - gained either illicitly or with the subjects agreement - without the person's permission. It is often done to shame the victim and may be triggered by revenge after a break up, an attempt at blackmail, or for the sexual gratification of the poster. It can also be transactional, with the poster selling the images for money or payment in kind, such as using them as a de facto currency with others doing the same. Some closed groups for paedophiles or voyeurs only allow potential abusers to join them if they too share images.
Could this be a motive in your book?
Identity theft/Bank Fraud/Targeted Scams Social media is a gold mine for those wishing to impersonate a person, usually for financial gain. Dates of birth, addresses, full names, even online banking passwords can be gleaned from careless social media usage. Criminals will use a range of different tactics to gain snippets of information from millions of people. Taken in isolation, each of these pieces are of limited use, but the nature of social media is such that all of these pieces of information are indelibly tied to the person who originally posted them and can be pieced together like a jigsaw, until the criminal has everything they need to know about an individual. Even if you are careful not to fully complete your Facebook profile etc, you can still give away a lot of the clues necessary in quizzes etc. Remember this old favourite? Your stripper name is your mother's maiden name followed by the name of your first pet! Congratulations, you've just posted two of the most common questions used in a password reset for your online banking account!
Romance scams involve a criminal identifying somebody who is likely to respond to romantic (or more sordid!) overtures, then convincing them to meet up and, eventually, ripping them off financially. They can use social engineering to convince them that they are a like-minded individual by trawling information in their social media profiles and answers to quizzes. "Oh, you are a big Star Trek fan also, what a coincidence!" "That's my favourite album as well - what do you think of track 3?" "I can't believe were both in Alicante in June 2017, we could have been sitting next to each other in a bar and never even realised (although I'm sure I'd have remembered someone as handsome as you!)"
Could your victim be duped by their attacker using information that they posted online?
Cyber Bullying Bullying has always existed, and human nature is such that it won't be disappearing anytime soon. Years ago, it was possible to escape bullies by leaving the place where you normally interacted with them. Generations of school children have breathed a sigh of relief when they finally made it home from school, leaving their tormentors behind for the day. Unfortunately, the advent of mobile devices that make you always contactable have ended that. Even if you choose not to answer a phone call from a bully, social media applications will typically send you notifications whenever you are mentioned by someone - now you can hear people speaking behind your back. For the always-connected generation, a fear of missing out on legitimate interactions with friends, can make turning off the device difficult, and make turning it back on a source of dread. The practise of bullying a person by posting unkind content that they can see is an example of Trolling and when others join in, this is referred to as a pile-on.
Could cyber bullying be a motive for a crime? Or perhaps a way of identifying potential suspects?
Thank you for reading this far, I hope that you have found this useful. If you want to learn more about specific, non-Facebook-owned social media services, click below to read more.
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Come back next week for my Christmas special!
Best wishes, Paul
An overview of common Social Media applications. Twitter Twitter is a 'microblogging service'. Originating in 2006, it experienced rapid growth from 2007 onwards. Users post short text messages (later incorporating pictures and videos) onto their Twitter Feed. These are called tweets. These are publicly visible by default, but can be restricted to a user's followers if desired. You can like a tweet by hitting the heart-shaped icon. Sharing a tweet with one's own followers is called a retweet (RT). Liking and retweeting are seen as a measure of how popular a tweet is. When a tweet suddenly becomes extremely popular and is retweeted by thousands (or millions!) of users, this is called going viral. You can tag the tweet for the attention of another person by including their twitter handle in the message.
Initially, the messages were limited in size to 140 characters (including spaces). Since 2016, photos, videos and names no longer counted against this limit; URLs (Website addresses) are automatically shortened to stop lengthy web addresses eating into the 140 characters. In 2017, the character limit increased to 280.
Users have an account with a Twitter Handle - a unique name preceded by an @ - you can follow me on Twitter using @DCIJonesWriter. The person's real name (or the moniker they have chosen) is displayed alongside this handle, to make it easy to see who the author is. Hashtags (#) added to a post allow it to be searched for, or serve as a pithy means of expressing the sentiments addressed in the tweet. A search for #DCIWarrenJones will bring up any tweets with this hashtag (Accessibility tip: Hashtags can't include spaces, but if you capitalise the first letter of each word, screen readers for the visually impaired will read each word individually).
Twitter is banned in Iran, China and North Korea. In China, several similar Chinese-language services are used instead, they are referred to as Weibo services.
Snapchat This is a multimedia messaging app that allows users to share videos and pictures with other users, or groups of users. The key feature is that these messages are typically only visible to recipients for a short period of time, before being deleted permanently (self-destructing messages). Founded in 2011, it is most popular among teenagers, especially under-16s, and the transient nature of its posts have raised concerns. The disappearance of the content can be an effective means of hiding evidence of bullying, criminality or child sexual exploitation. Users can use filters and tools to manipulate their photos unrealistically, leading to worries about body dysmorphia among vulnerable users.
Telegram Telegram started as a Russian-based messaging app similar to WhatsApp, that became available for iPhones in 2013. It also uses End-to-End Encryption for messages and voice calls and is tied to a mobile phone number. It is banned in a number of countries but still has several hundred million users worldwide. It has courted controversy in recent years as both Islamist terrorists and Far-Right extremists have used it as a secure messaging service. An interesting feature is that user accounts are automatically deleted after a set-period of inactivity. There are allegations that some governments have intercepted the access codes, sent by SMS text message, that are necessary for users to login if they are using a new device, compromising their account.
Signal This is another alternative to WhatsApp, again using its own proprietary End-to-End Encryption and tied to a mobile phone number, but also allowing self-destructing messages. Unlike WhatsApp it can be used on a desktop computer relatively easily. It first became available in 2010 and was acquired by Twitter in 2011. Signal is regarded as one of the most secure messaging apps, and as such its use has been encouraged by everyone from the European Commission to the 2016 Hilary Clinton campaign team and the organisers behind the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The flip-side is that this makes it attractive to criminals and terrorists.
TikTok This is a video-sharing app that allows the creation and distribution of videos 3 to 60 seconds in duration. Founded in China in 2016, it became available worldwide in 2017/18. Popular with teens in particular, content can be public or private, limited to a user's followers. It has a 'For You' feature that recommends public videos from other users over the age of 16. It is searchable using hashtags. Privacy concerns have been raised in recent years about the possibility that as a Chinese-owned company, it can be compelled to hand over private data to the Chinese government. The company denies these claims, but President Trump has threatened to ban the service in the US.
Thanks for reading all this, I hope you have found it useful. Pop back next Tuesday for the Christmas special!