You Might Be Paranoid, But You Still Might Be Right – Here’s How To Find Out

Teach Your (Bloggers) Well

We all know how to do something well — write a post that teaches readers how to do something you know and/or love to do.

Something I know how to do well is use social media and Internet research to help me solve problems. I don’t mean to just Google an answer, but to really pursue a hunch or an instinct when I suspect something systemic is going on.  Examples?

  • When someone threatened my employment because of my LGBTQ opinions, I wondered who was protecting this person.
  • When someone set up a fake venue on FourSquare identifying my home as “Fag Bag HQ Welcome to Dykeville,” I wanted to find out who was involved.
  • When my neighbors two sons returned home from their respective prison stints and suddenly lots of cars were visiting our block, I wanted to know what was going on.
  • When language on an LGBTQ petition was not inclusive of bisexual and transgender persons, I wanted to know why.
  • When I was asked to work on political campaigns, I wanted to know what sort of social media footprint they had made before I agreed.

Call it opposition research, sometimes used on my alleged or self-professed allies. Here are the basic tools:

1. Pay attention. When someone’s behavior or words send up a red flag, pay attention to your gut feeling. Is it a personal thing – are you simply angry or irritated or embarrassed? Or is something going on? You may need to sleep on it. Or you may need to dig into it a bit to see if there’s something there.

2. Do your research. Use Google, Facebook, etc. Look for connections, relationships, patterns in public information. Make a little chart to see if anything strikes you as particularly unusual or perhaps even shocking. I like spreadsheets but sometimes I just use  a doc file. Fair warning – this can take a lot of time. You need to really assess if it is worth the investment of energy.

3. Take screenshots of EVERYTHING. Make sure you notice timestamps (is someone on the clock when they do some particular act?) as well as geotags. Never assume something will be online in the future. I learned this the hard way.

4. Use email to correspond. Don’t use FB messenger, Twitter, etc. Don’t agree to phone conversations to clear things up unless you have that in writing, too.

Again, I’m talking about investigating a real problem – not resolving a personal difference. Obviously, if you have an argument with your neighbor – you don’t need to creep on their Facebook page, make a spreadsheet of their traffic tickets and refuse to meet them for coffee. Quite the opposite.

My research assistant.
My research assistant.

When someone set up a fake venue on FourSquare labeling my  home as “Fag Bag HQ All Dykes Welcome” – I used social media to find out the identities of the mayor of that venue, established his connections with my actual neighbors, learned who his employer was (and called them) and also that he had been recently charged with an illegal attempt to purchase a gun (I called his PO officer, too.) I wanted to know with whom I was dealing. FourSquare was completely  useless as a resource. I can only take comfort knowing that ALL of the ongoing shenanigans related to this incident have left digital footprints. And I have all of that information stored (not on my hard drive – I’m not stupid) in case it escalates. All I need is enough incentive to obtain a subpoena and I believe one further incident might be enough. (This story could take up multiple posts – it is so convoluted.)

I also found a connection between someone allegedly trying to get me fired for my LGBTQ opinions and a state elected official closely connected to HB 300. The elected official didn’t care. But again – email, screenshots, digital records. It is all there. If I need it. And no, it is not the elected official you might think.

Behind the scenes glimpse.
Behind the scenes glimpse.

Be forewarned, when you dig for information, people will tell you that you are crazy and paranoid. But then you find the connection and realize you are simply right. Keep a record. Do your homework. And even if you can’t “prove” misconduct, illegal behavior, etc – you have a better grasp on the big picture. Sadly, we sometimes have to do opposition research on our allies because alliances aren’t oaths of undying fealty and loyalty –  this will make you feel icky. They are shifting affiliations. People like to use mental health and gender slurs to shut down questions – crazy, paranoid, has PMS, etc. I’ve heard it all. This is why it is important to keep assessing, a little cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes you might be right but need to “let it go” for your own sanity.

I used this approach to address drug dealers in our neighborhood. Their mother was shocked into shutting up when I disclosed how much I knew about her based on all public records. It shut her up and that’s what I needed to do. It also helped me understand what was going on and who was involved and I definitely shared everything I found with the police (if relevant.) Both dealers are in prison, mother left the neighborhood. Another long convoluted story.

I don’t “creep” on people’s social media for no reason or even idle curiosity. I ignore people who simply annoy me or dislike me (or I dislike them.) But when there’s a real threat to my family (like the FourSquare incident) or to the community (like the HB 300 situation), I dig.

I’ve had a few elected officials ask me to do social media opposition research on THEM to see how much was available. One was concerned about her kid’s privacy and I was happy to help her (and to show her that there was really nothing to find.) In another case, I found Facebook activity by a candidate’s son that was shockingly against his stance on a certain issue – better I find it first than the opposing candidate find it later.

These are not things I do as a matter of routine because it would be exhausting and most of the research is incredibly dull. But it is not rocket science.

If your gut tells you something is going on – something more than an interpersonal dispute or misunderstanding – you can use some of these tools to explore that theory.  Just remember – do your research and document everything, but also consider the cost/benefit analysis as you move ahead with your research.

So what do you do when you find the deep dark secret? Don’t wear a wire, don’t blackmail anyone, etc – this is not investigative journalism and there will be no climatic big reveal. I’ve never found that sort of information anyway. The answer for this depends on the problem. Typically, I just use the information to assess my next step – for example, when I found out who was involved in the FourSquare incident, I spoke with a lawyer. Sometimes, I give the information to a third-party – like the police.

Now that I’ve shared all of this, I do want to say that being a social media “creeper” is not attractive. I find it a bit jarring when someone I’ve newly friended on Facebook crawls through all of my photo albums, liking most of the pictures. I also find it a bit odd when someone “likes” everything I post. Some of my friends are proud to be creepers on the pages of their ex-lovers, spouses or so forth – and they are right that if it’s not private, it is sort of fair game. But rarely does this lead to anything productive. Sure, if you want to catch someone doing something wrong, you might succeed. But if you simply want to keep tabs on someone, you are either going to be frustrated or hurt. If you are a bit too enthusiastic liking everything on someone’s page, you might find that they pull back a little bit – just like they might do if you said “That’s awesome!” to everything they did in a real life scenario. Those are different things that what I’m discussing.

This goes back to the question of *why* you are pursuing information. If it feels personal, it might not be a good idea. I was able to prove my case against a former tenant based on her Facebook posts about abandoning my property – I didn’t give a damn about her nasty comments about me personally, I just wanted the evidence. But when someone is taunting me or being a jerk, I just block them – I’m not going to subject myself to abuse just to collect information. That’s self-destructive. They’ll always overplay their hand and give you what you need to know. Trust me. Patience is a virtue when it comes to social media – if you disengage, the reaction can be as informative as any source of public information.

So how did I learn to do all of this? I did background studies for a social service agency. I found tons of public websites to make my job easier and more thorough. I practiced using my own foot print. I use logic – sometimes you have to follow the network or the hashtag when you hit a dead-end. I applied skills that I learned doing genealogical research about moving between generations to find direct ancestors – for example, sometimes the widowed mother went to live with the daughter who had a different surname so you had to track that surname to find grandma.

And sometimes I just look to see where someone has checked in on FourSquare.

OMG - I have a hunch!
OMG – I have a hunch!


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  • Sue that sounds exhausting yet compelling, connecting the dots to problem-solve. It is amazing how much stuff we all scatter around out there, free for the taking if anyone has a mind. I often wonder why anyone would care to dig up anything about me unless they were seeking a cure for their insomnia. Nevertheless, nowadays I think more carefully about my personal social posts. I cut back on FB last year, dropped FourSquare and Path also. I have nothing to hide, but honestly no one cares where I had lunch last week, so what’s the point? Anyway, glad you are using your skills to protect yourself. I will keep that in mind if the need arises.

    • yes, it can be exhausting. when i began doing this work as part of my job, it was sometimes so incredibly dull but I tried to approach it like learning someone’s story. i’m not trying to “dig up” things on anyone – I’m trying to solve puzzles. it is really not about privacy (which is important) as about realizing that social connections can help solve problems. for example, when a man was gay bashing me on LinkeIn – i had no idea whom he was or why he was focused on me (aside from the fact that i was sharing LGBTQ content), so I found out that we had several mutual “friends” on Facebook. I contacted those people to determine if I had anything to worry about – was he just being a jerk or was he prone to take it a step further etc. it beat my being silenced by someone who was bullying me because LinkedIn as a company just doesn’t respond to these inquiries.

      It is a bit like networking.

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