Protect your privacy and ward off trolls on social media

On social media, you get to catch up with old friends, make new connections, and coo over cute baby photos. Although you’re supposed to enjoy these visits to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, a persistent commenter or obnoxious “friend” can ruin your experience. That’s why these services provide ways for you to fight back. Here are the steps you can take to protect your privacy and slay trolls on three of the world’s biggest social networks.

Facebook

Unlike Twitter and Instagram, which we discuss below, Facebook doesn’t make your posts visible to the whole internet by default. So other users will only see your photos, links, and other information if you have chosen to friend them. You can adjust this extra layer of protection every time you post by choosing to make the update public or to restrict it to only a certain number of friends.

You can select who gets to see your own posts, but that doesn’t stop your friends from tagging you in public posts. To prevent people from posting on your timeline or tagging you in photos, you can limit this activity from your Timeline and Tagging settings page. One of the options lets you review any tags you’re mentioned in before they appear in your News Feed.

If you’ve friended someone, but they start giving you unwanted attention, you can easily cut off their access: Head to their profile page and clicking on the Friends button to find the Unfriend option. That person won’t get an alert that they’ve been unfriended, but they might notice if they load up your profile and see the Add Friend option.

Unfriending© David Nield/Popular Science UnfriendingTo keep people even further away, you can block them. When you do this, they can’t see anything you post, add you as a friend, send you messages, tag you in posts and photos, or invite you to events and groups. It’s a pretty comprehensive way of keeping someone at arm’s length. Simply click on the three dots to the right of the cover photo on any profile page, then choose Block from the menu.

On the same menu is the option to report someone. You should only take this step if you think the person in question is in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards. Reportable offenses include bullying, harassment, and direct threats—so if someone’s going too far, tell Facebook about it.

When harassing behavior veers into blackmail, you can go beyond the standard report option. If someone is threatening to blackmail you or reveal intimate photos of you, Facebook has a separate form here that you should use to turn in the culprit.

Blocking© David Nield/Popular Science BlockingNow you can pick and choose who gets to see your information on Facebook. But what about the information you get to look at? You can also tweak the sort of content you see in your News Feed by clicking on the small drop-down arrows next to everything that appears in your feed. These menus let you hide certain types of posts, or even certain people. Check out our full guide to cleaning up your News Feed so the content you see will appeal more to your personal taste.

Twitter

As a default, Twitter lets the public access all of your posts. However, it does give you the option of making your profile private, which means only approved followers will see your tweets and be able to get in contact with you. In private mode, you miss out on some of Twitter’s features—for example, your followers can’t retweet your tweets—but in exchange, it minimizes the amount of unwanted attention you’ll get right from the beginning.

If you want to set your account to private, head to the Safety menu in your Twitter settings and tick the box marked Protect my Tweets. All your existing followers will automatically get into your private club; you must specifically approve new ones. People without approval can still see your profile page on Twitter, but they won’t be able to read your tweets.

Private tweets© David Nield/Popular Science Private tweetsIf another Twitter user starts to harass you, you have two ways to shut them up: muting and blocking. When you click the arrow on an individual tweet, a drop-down menu that includes both options will appear. You can also access these methods by clicking the three dots on profile pages. On profiles, you can also report people for violating Twitter’s rules and terms—and “abusive or harmful content” certainly counts as a violation.

Here’s what each choice does. If you mute someone, you simply won’t see their tweets. Why can’t you just unfollow them? Even if you don’t follow a person, you’ll get notifications about any of their posts that mention or reply to you. To avoid seeing all of their tweets, you must unfollow and mute them (if you still want to follow the account you’ve muted, these notifications will continue to pop up and the person can still send you direct messages). Muting is a gentler way of hiding someone from your Twitter experience without blocking them.

Blocking© David Nield/Popular Science BlockingBlocking, on the other hand, is much more comprehensive: Blocked accounts can’t follow you or be followed by you, and they can’t send you direct messages either. If you block someone, they won’t receive a notification, but (unlike with muting) they will be able to see that they’ve been blocked if they visit your profile page—because none of your tweets will show up. You won’t receive any notifications from accounts you block. If someone blocks you, you won’t get notifications when they mention you, unless their conversation threads pull in other people who currently follow you.

Don’t remember whom you’re avoiding? Log into your Twitter settings online, and you can view lists of the accounts you’ve muted and blocked. If you want to reverse your decisions, you can do that as well.

If a large group of Twitter users begins to harass you, you can take steps to protect yourself from the pile-on. For example, the Notification settings let you hide alerts from accounts you don’t follow and accounts that don’t follow you. Perhaps people are creating new accounts just to troll you—in that case, try hiding alerts from new accounts, accounts with the default avatar, and accounts with no confirmed email address or phone number. These broader blocks give you another way to tidy up your Twitter experience and hide troublesome users.

Instagram

If your Instagram feed is set to public, any Instagram user in the world can happen across your photos and like or comment on them. Thad said, some photographers on the platform would prefer to reach as wide of an audience as possible, even if that means compromising on privacy. They can leave their accounts public.

For those who want to make absolutely sure that only certain people can see their pictures, Instagram lets you set your profile to private. Simply open the app and go to the Settings page, where you can adjust the privacy. This should head off most unwanted attention before it starts.

Whether your Instagram is private or public, specific users can still creep on you. Head them off by opening their profile pages, tapping the three dots, and choosing Block. They won’t get an alert that you’ve taken this action, but they’ll no longer be able to message you, see your Instagram feed, or find your profile page on the network. If their behavior crosses a line, choose Report from the same menu to flag up inappropriate or spam accounts to Instagram’s powers-that-be.

What if people have left inappropriate or abusive comments on your pictures? From your own profile page, tap the three dots (Android) or the cog icon (iOS). Choose Comments from the menu to hide specific words and phrases from your pictures. Instagram has a default list of what it calls “the most common inappropriate and offensive words,” and you can add extra words you don’t want to see as well. Any comment that contains a word that matches the list of forbidden phrases will be automatically hidden from view.

Comments© David Nield/Popular Science CommentsFor extra security, you can turn off comments completely—but only on a photo-by-photo basis. Go to one of your posts, tap the three dots, then choose Turn Off Commenting. If you change your mind, you can turn it back on through the same menu.

Finally, you hide your Stories from particular people by going to your profile page, tapping on the three dots (Android) or the cog icon (iOS), and selecting Story Settings. The option at the top of the menu lets you hide Story posts from particular followers. Whether or not you make your feed fully private, these options will help you handle most forms of unwanted attention.

David Nield