Group chat debacles: A fun guide!
Yes, group chats can compromise your privacy. They can also be pretty hilarious.
“A Palantír is a dangerous tool, Saruman… They are not all accounted for, the lost Seeing-stones. We do not know who else may be watching.”
So said Gandalf in the Fellowship of the Ring — and what he was saying applies to you, your mom, your annoying and/or lovable aunts, and everyone else who’s either busy coordinating the holidays this year, playing secret Santa, or otherwise communicating en masse.
The same can be said of class group chats, parent group chats, work group chats, group chats between gossipy journalists on particular topics, and pretty much any deceptively intimate-seeming space in which you share information.
Here’s a list of some common pitfalls of group chatting you should be aware of:
Group chats can come to light during a legal dispute
This is what happened in the famous literary drama known as the story of the Bad Art Friend.
If you don’t know what it’s all about, I suggest you read the New York Times piece that broke it wide open after you read this much more detailed, chronological, and ultimately superior account by Summer Brennan, which starts here.
For our purposes, we need to focus on the group chat aspect of the story: Namely that after a certain writer, Sonya Larson, sued a former colleague, Dawn Dorland, all of Sonya’s chats and communications about Dawn suddenly became discoverable. There was no longer the expectation of relative privacy.
Consider this case, for a moment, not from Sonya’s perspective, nor from Dawn’s, but from the perspective of the other people in the chats. Suddenly, every unkind thing they’d ever said about a woman was out in the world. Sonya sued in 2019. The viral New York Times piece about the dispute between her and Dawn came out in 2021. So you’re already dealing with years of potential pressure, before you are in the spotlight, and you frankly look bad.
You don’t need to be a well-connected writer type to have this happen to you. Think about a relative in a group chat going through a bad divorce. Or maybe someone you’re close to is pursuing defamation case.
Point is, that feeling of intimacy you have when you are in a group chat with the like-minded should not give you a false sense of security.
Remember former DIA employee Kyle Freese? I was in a group chat with the guy once, before I and everyone else in there found out that he had violated the Espionage Act. For a woman, no less. Yikes, Kyle.
I could only laugh about it, as I’m pretty used to notoriety in all of its forms, but I can imagine that this was upsetting for other people who had spoken to Kyle.
The conspiracy theorist L*uise M*nsch (I am starring out her name as she vanity searches herself a lot, and who needs her screeching in the comments — this may not be a safe space, but it is, at the very least, a sane space) actually used the fact that I’d interacted with Kyle on Twitter to attempt to bolster her claims that I’m a “spy” (everyone Louise doesn’t like is a “spy'“. Hot dog man messes up her order? “Spy,” etc.). Fun times!
School group chats and parent group chats are NOTORIOUS vectors for the spread of defamation and disinformation
I don’t know what it is about schools in general, but beware any group chat that’s connected to a school (universities included).
Emotions run high in these virtual communities, and what starts out as a chat meant to keep everyone informed about plans for an upcoming exam or dance suddenly turns into a bloody battleground. Then, content is screenshotted. It can further be taken out of context and cropped. It is finally distributed to other members of the community who won’t hesitate to judge you swiftly, because that’s what people do online.
Existing prejudices and tensions in said community can exacerbate the situation. I know a couple whose daughter posted a very innocent message in a school theater production group chat, only to have her rival crop that message, divorce it from all context, make it seem thus threatening, and then give it to the principal. The kicker was that my acquaintances’ daughter was one of the few minority students at the school. And things snowballed for a while.
Ignorance of technology and telecommunications specifically can play a part as well. A lot of people, older school officials especially, are not even aware how cropping can result in casting someone in a bad light.
The same is true for the spread of anti-vax conspiracies in a school setting. I know of a school that sent out a very basic bulletin about vaccinations, only to see it cropped and then shared by some hysterical anti-vax parents, sans any context. The administrators were very surprised. Unfortunately, this should no longer be surprising.
I’m not telling you this because I want you to delete all of your group chats and spend the rest of your life in a digital hermitage. I’m telling you this because I want you to be prepared.
People add randos to group chats all of the time
Rando is my preferred scientific term for weird person I don’t know, and text message group chats are especially vulnerable to them. Wrong phone numbers get added to big, sprawling chats a lot, in my experience.
Someone’s finger will slip, and suddenly your preparations for a fancy family trip to Costa Brava are also being overseen by Gary, a confused elk hunter from Wyoming.
Sometimes, text message errors are heartwarming and pure. But you shouldn’t count on that.
The same goes for Twitter group chats. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been added by someone I know to what seems like a normal chat, and suddenly I realize that some of the other participants are sus — and my friend in question didn’t even look at the roster before he added me. That makes me uncomfortable. It should make everyone uncomfortable. And that’s aside from the fact that Twitter DMs are not secure.
It’s OK to tell your friends and relatives to not just add you to conversations which include people you do not know. Boundaries are a good thing in this day and age.
Group chats are a great place for stalking people and organizing harassment campaigns
I ought to know, I’ve been a target of several such campaigns. I’ve also been recruited into such campaigns by others. And the latter is something I’ve come to seriously regret.
If you think that bullying people is still fun and normal in the Year of our Lord 2021, then that’s your problem, but just as I mentioned above, a lot of these group chats simply don’t stay private over the long term.
Earlier this year, one of my favorite Twitter activities briefly became sussing out which kindly do-gooders were feeding info about me to an angry ex, for example. I did it because I could then block these people, but also because I needed to prove this point to myself: chats are highly porous. And when you can’t expect privacy, or even basic decency, the least you can do is have fun with people who violate your boundaries. One of them keeps talking to me as if I’m not even aware. It’s hilarious.
Of course, not everyone has my dark sense of humor. In fact, I know that a lot of what I’ve just said seems very stressful. But the minute you stop treating privacy as a given, you end up feeling better.
You also end up having better ownership of the information you disclose. You may realize that participating in a group chat when you are under the influence, or just not feeling like yourself, may be a bad idea. You may even stop and think about it before sharing potentially untrue information. And in the age we live in, “think before you share” is the new “think before you speak.”
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