Influencers and Abusers: Keeping Online Celebrities Safe
Aerial Powers’ athletic prowess began with boxing, but she soon turned to the basketball court, accepting a basketball scholarship to compete for Michigan State University before being drafted in the first round of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) as the fifth overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft.
Off the court, Powers is also a video gamer. And these two competitive experiences have shown her the contradictions between the physical world and the virtual one when it comes to threats, harassment, and racist comments.
In an appearance at South by Southwest earlier this year, Powers spoke about how in the physical world, people are unlikely to threaten her life, shout racist comments, or comment on her gender. And if they did—there would be widespread condemnation and response to the individual. In the virtual world, however, Powers said the same reaction is not guaranteed.
“You can hide behind a screen and say whatever you want,” Powers said in the panel. “If I have a bad game, a person can tweet to me. They can go on my Instagram and comment. But I guarantee if they see me in person at the grocery store, they would not have the same words.”
This can make it challenging for security practitioners to protect influencers and celebrities from digital threats that could escalate into physical violence, says Laura Hoffner, executive vice president at Concentric, a private risk consultancy firm that helped arrange the panel Powers spoke on.
When does someone go from being a fan to a super-stalker to then an actual, physical threat?
“It is wildly more racist and sexist online than in the physical world,” Hoffner says. “When we’re seeing some of our clients make this transition to this virtual persona, we really have to set up the security to protect them from that.”
To learn more about how security practitioners can respond to online threats and protect influencers—from social media to basketball stars—Security Management interviewed Hoffner about the work her company is doing in this area. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
SM. Can you explain a bit about the culture of influencers and how working in this space is different than say, a successful movie actress?
LH. What we were focused on at South by Southwest was gamers—specifically—but it is translatable to influencers online as a whole. The culture that we have developed at this point is welcoming people into every bit of an influencer’s life. Either you’re gaming in your bedroom, you’re entering their stream of consciousness as they’re playing those games, you’re going with them to their local coffee shop and getting their recommendations.
What that means on the security side is that you have access to all of that information about their regular pattern of life—where they live and who their family members are, etcetera. So, the relationship that followers have with these influencers is completely different than the relationship that we used to have with our superstars.
Can you explain how that threat is different?
LH. On the gaming track, for instance, you would have basketball stars that you would only see when they played basketball. You could very much limit their exposure in that realm and really focus the security on when they were going to have access to their fans. You weren’t following them into their homes. You weren’t following them and their family as they go on vacation, knowing exactly where they stayed.
The broadness of the security profile that influencers now have is massive. And that’s just one aspect—in regards to the access that people have to them. The other aspect is we now expect a lot more from these stars. Beforehand, if it was a sports star, you used to just expect them to perform well on the field and then be done. Now, we expect people to speak out on social issues and have a very strong stance.
For instance, on Ukraine, fans want to know how much they have been donating? Are they speaking about it? That response is inevitably going to cause a reaction on either side. You cannot please everyone, unfortunately.
What’s the security threat for those individuals who are upset about their star or influencer’s stance?
LH. Whoever you are not pleasing now has a vendetta. They have a very specific thing that they would like to target you on. And then, going back to the initial issue, they have a very easy way with which to target you.
That change in the paradigm shift—not only in regards to access but now responsibility—is what we’ve been watching very closely. Now the question that you raise is when does someone go from being a fan to a super-stalker to then an actual, physical threat? We don’t have a great answer on that, but the solution needs to involve more awareness of the threat.
In the United States, the First Amendment grants the right to freedom of speech. How does that impact your work protecting influencers and determining who is a threat versus who is just exercising that right?
LH. Right now, we are always involved in the conversation saying you have your right to free speech—which is inherent—and we want to protect that. But at what point does that become you inciting violence, which is not protected? That is not a constitutional right.
At what threshold do you start paying attention to that vulnerability and that intent? At what point can we identify words becoming intent? That’s the big question that we need to answer within the security field and within the hosts of the information—Instagram, Facebook, eSports. Those organizations have an inherent responsibility to assist these influencers and users of these platforms to ensure that just because they’ve chosen this career, they’re not giving up their security, too.
Is there anything in particular that you’ve seen social media companies do during the past year to address threats and harassment campaigns targeting influencers? And what more do you think needs to be done?
LH. On the platform level, we are seeing positive momentum on it. You’ll see a code of conduct that people need to sign or agree with before they’re able to create an online profile, which they can be held accountable to.
This is an overwhelming problem for police; they can’t possibly follow-up on every death threat that we get.
Also, to make your profile, you are now required to provide more information, so if you’re in violation of a code of conduct and your access is cancelled, you can’t easily make a new account and skirt whatever you did under that old account.
What that also helps is if we want to raise a red flag on one of the people that is inciting violence, the platform can share that information with local law enforcement about whose account it is, their address, and their phone number, so law enforcement can actually do something. Previously, these usernames were able to be made with defunct email addresses. Even if we thought there was a credible threat and we could draw the line for intent, there was nothing law enforcement could do about it before.
One issue I’ve heard you mention is stigma—that there’s a stigma to being an influencer that sometimes makes people not take security threats to these individuals seriously. Could you explain why that’s the case?
LH. There is a stigma that still exists for people who have chosen to be gamers, who have chosen to be influencers. There’s a stigma that they almost deserve this lack of security protocol—or they deserve this attention and information being thrown their way—and that we can’t stop it.
We owe it to them to reverse that stigma. They absolutely deserve the same security protocols that everybody else does. They do not need to be putting their lives on the line because of the career they’ve chosen.
What are some best practices or guidance you would give a new client who’s an influencer about posting and interacting with people online?
LH. It’s going to be the same things that we’ve been saying about social media. Never post where you are while you’re there. If you’re doing a livestream from your room or your location, make sure there’s nothing identifiable behind you so that people could figure out where you are.
Then, focus on the privacy aspect. We have a few services ourselves, but there are others out there where you can look at your entire online profile, see what’s out there, and work to take it down—such as addresses, family members information, where you went to school, etcetera.
Ultimately, what we want to do is raise a ruckus about this because unfortunately, influencers have been suffering in silence because of this stigma and because there’s often not much law enforcement can do about these threats. This is an overwhelming problem for police; they can’t possibly follow-up on every death threat that we get.
But we need to do something, and I think that action is going to come from the hosts of these platforms to make sure that people are being held accountable and that that second tier of ability to respond is easily provided to law enforcement—if it comes to that.
Beyond the social media platforms themselves and law enforcement, are there any changes that could be make influencers safer online? Does there need to be a culture or behavior change to prevent this dynamic from occurring in the first place?
LH. Yes, a culture change would be huge. And we need to be expecting less from our influencers. We don’t need to follow them every second of the day and know exactly what type of makeup they’re putting on and where they bought it.
In lieu of that changing—and I don’t foresee it changing—we need to add a barrier of security for our influencers.
On that front, what kinds of information should you be sharing with security practitioners about online interactions so they can assess threats that might arise?
LH. Anyone who’s providing you security—you being the CEO or an influencer—should be taking your profile into account holistically. That’s not just your physical profile, it absolutely includes the threat intelligence analysis that’s going on on the back end by following your screen handles. It should be looking at who’s following you, who’s mentinoning you, who’s adding you, who’s talking about you in new languages, and also getting on the Deep and Dark Web to see if there are any threats out there about you.
That intelligence virtual background supports the physical security of that person. That was our main point at South by Southwest, that while we are being desensitized to this virtual threat and virtual environment, there is a direct correlation between these virtual threats to that physical violence.
We’ve seen it in influencers that have been killed. There was an influencer, unfortunately, murdered by one of her stalkers. That stalker live-streamed her murder, and a picture of her decapitated head was put on T-shirts and sold within an hour.
There are horrible examples of influencers being stalked, their security being completely thrown out the window, and no correct action being taken to address it. It starts with the influencer, of course, but they shouldn’t have to take all of that responsibility for their own security. It should move beyond them to either a security detail or their hosted platform.