Stranger Danger, Instagram, and the Small Blue Button: How following back on Instagram can lead to dangerous amounts of information sharing

Bits From Bytes

James Connor, Freelancer

Instagram’s “Follow Back” button is small, blue and easy to click. It’s designed to be. Following back is designed by technology companies to be a simple process that takes minimal effort, time, and thought. With this ease of use, however, comes the necessity for a healthy amount of caution. While it’s fun to build up connections in the digital world and amass a large number of followers, the usability of this small button also makes it very easy to follow people who aren’t known in real life. On platforms like Instagram or Snapchat, that can become dangerous quickly.
To explore the extent of this danger, The Port Press created a fake Instagram account. The only information that could be posted on the account was public information found online.
The account setup was relatively easy: create an Instagram account, make up a name and handle – in this case, the account was christened “Pat Guzman” – and add a bio saying “NPT ’22”. The most difficult part was choosing a profile picture, but a quick Google Image search returned a Coca-Cola bottle complete with the phrase “Share a Coke with Pat”. Posting some filtered version of pictures of Northport, complete with captions and hashtags, finalized the account. With that, it was just a matter of following as many Northport students as possible (178 in total), sitting back, and seeing what happened. In the end, 78 people followed back, many of whom had private Instagram accounts that could only be seen by the people they followed.
What was the reason most people gave for following back? The answer lies in the user interface. Instagram, like almost every other social media platform, is built on the idea of connecting people as quickly and easily as possible. Ashley Carman of The Verge explains that “Facebook has focused on monetizing Instagram,” building a shopping app, and working with content creators to create deals with influencers. Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, gains money when people are connected, due to information spreading wider and faster and more people being exposed to purchases and influencers’ content. It’s no wonder that the popular app designed a “Follow Back” button that would be quick and easy to use.
Another reason for following back was related to the account’s bio. “NPT’22” is used to tell others that a person is graduating from Northport High School in 2022, which would mean he or she is currently a sophomore. This, coupled with the fact that it’s impossible to know every person in a school, made it remarkably easy to get others to believe in the credibility of the account. But that’s not where the danger ended.
In addition to attracting Northport students to a fake account, The Port Press also used the account to privately message a select number of students and engage in conversations with them. Though the students had provided The Port Press with permission to attempt to collect information on them, they didn’t know the exact way in which it was going to happen. They were thus unaware of the fact that this account was one way it was being done. For this part of the experiment there were also a number of ground rules established beforehand, the most significant being that the operator of the account could only use information found in Google searches. If it wasn’t available online, it couldn’t be in an exchange.
Over the course of a week, the account reached out to four people, receiving two responses in return. From there, the conversations jumped between a number of different topics, from musical instruments and chores, to sports and favorite bands. These seemingly harmless exchanges had a catch to them. Despite the fact that the only information used was available online, after a while, students started to feel more comfortable with the person on the other side of the exchange and began sharing more personal information, including the schools they previously attended, their friends, and their dates of birth. Yet the only way these students knew Pat Guzman was through the same platform they were using to message him.

James Connor
A screenshot of part of the conversation with one of the students who followed Pat Guzman back

So how could members of the so-called “digital generation”, a generation constantly taught about the dangers of online strangers, give away so much personal information? Much of it comes down to human psychology and the fact that these students weren’t contacted right away. It wasn’t until the account had at least 50 followers from the Northport-East Northport area that the account began to reach out through private messages. This took advantage of another of Instagram’s features, which informs a person how many of the people they follow also follow the account that they’re looking at. In other words, by exploiting human tendency to hit “Follow Back” and Instagram’s features designed to promote interconnectedness, the account created a legitimate appearance.
Students are growing up in a world surrounded by interesting and evolving technology. With more than half of the world’s population operating online and with new social media platforms popping up every day, it’s no wonder that people are interacting more with strangers online. However, with the newfound ability and power of interconnectedness comes the need for a significant level of caution. This lesson may have been taught a thousand times in classrooms across the country, but it seems that it has yet to address the more common and less clear-cut examples of the real world. With every new student and interesting account on social media comes another Pat F. Guzman trying to gather information for an unknown end. In the digital age, information is king; with that comes the need to keep it secure and protected.
Next time you see the “Follow Back” button, consider whether or not you really know the account. You might be surprised when you find out what’s on the other side.