Even a cursory glance at social media shows the power of personal branding.
But why do some people create fake personas online?
Last night, the ABC aired a new documentary about the rise and fall of Belle Gibson, a super-influencer who claimed to have successfully cured her terminal brain cancer through healthy eating and alternative therapies.
On Instagram, she was a clean-eating wellness blogger with a loyal following.
In reality, she’d never had cancer, and was fined $420,000 in 2017 for her false claims.
Of course, not everyone who chooses anonymity online is after fame and fortune. So why create an alter ego? And how can you tell when it’s a scam?
Instagram vs reality
Emily van der Nagel researches social media identities at Monash University.
She says social media sites, like Instagram, can be used to present the “best” versions of ourselves.
“We understand Instagram culturally as something where you … post beautiful things about your life and show yourself at your best,” Dr van der Nagel says.
“Your most glamorous, your most beautiful, your most aesthetic.”
For 20-year-old Lucy*, Instagram and Facebook are where she uses her real name — but not necessarily her whole self.
She’s looking at a career in defence or government, and doesn’t post much on her main accounts, in case it comes back to bite her.
But on Reddit, she’s ‘Helena,’ an alias that allows her to express herself in a safe environment.
“It’s nice using [Helena] and inventing through there, because you’re still being heard and you’re still being validated, but you don’t have that fear of talking about all this personal stuff and it being attached to your name.”
For her, Helena is where she can “nerd out” and obsess over hobbies.
“It’s not fake, it’s just a separate part of my identity I don’t necessarily want to share with everybody I know.”
Self-expression, without the consequences
Dr van der Nagel explains most people start alter ego accounts “to get at something genuine about themselves”.
“[They could be] trying to tap into a genuine need they have to talk about intimate stuff in public, or sometimes it might be a frustration outlet,” she says.
“Maybe somebody is into kinky sex or swinging or BDSM and they would really like to connect with other people who share their sexual interests. But those are also very private interests.”
She’s wary of the idea that “online is fake and offline is real”. Instead, she says people can be their most genuine and authentic selves when they’re anonymous online.
Noelle*, 31, is based in Sydney, but grew up in Indonesia.
Before they came out as non-binary, they had a separate Instagram account where they could be themselves.
“There’s no services to help people like me back in Indonesia. So I indulged myself by making an alternate Instagram account, where I followed many LGBT accounts and influencers.”
For Lucy, her online persona isn’t necessarily her authentic self, but who she’d like to be.
“Sometimes I feel like, why can’t I be this person in real life?
“I’m normally a very calculated, reserved person. [Helena] is where I can say what I want and not care about the consequences. Not that I’m saying bad things, but it feels more liberating that way.”
Dr van der Nagel says while it’s only a small part of online anonymity, trolling and harassment are another one of the reasons people create alter egos.
“We saw a lot of racial abuse directed towards the black English football players at the Euro 2020.
“But that doesn’t come from nowhere. That’s not somebody who is not racist in their day-to-day life, suddenly turning into a different person. That’s a profile unearthing a racist that was already there.”
How to spot a scammer
But not every alt identity online is motivated by good intentions and a desire for self-expression.
While scams aren’t always on the Belle Gibson scale, they cost Australians more than $37 million in 2020, with social media users the latest targets.
Social media shams can take the form of fake influencers, unlicensed financial advice, harmful health advice not founded in research, COVID misinformation, romance scams and investment scams.
Kathy Sundstrom is an analyst at IDCARE, Australia and New Zealand’s national identity and cyber support service.
She says investment and romance scammers, some of the most common, will often reach out to their victims on social media by taking over other people’s profiles, or by creating a new account with stolen photos.
They’ll usually send a generic “Hi, how are you?” message, and the conversation will go from there.
One way to tell if the profile is fake is to do a reverse image search to see if their picture appears in other places online.
Ms Sundstrom says another warning sign is if the user wants to engage on a different platform; for example, switching from a dating site to WhatsApp.
But she says the biggest red flag will always be asking for money.
“I don’t know about you, but when I start engaging with somebody and am developing a relationship with them, the most I might do is offer to buy them a beer or food.
“If they ask for money, whether it’s for their sick child or to invest, and you haven’t met them face to face, it’s a really good warning sign.”
If you get a follow request from someone you don’t know, and they don’t have any mutual followers in your circle, Dr van der Nagel suggests asking yourself: “Why do they want to connect with me? What might they be up to?”
“It is not the case that when people create a different account that they’re always trying to harass, troll or scam other people.
“But we also have to acknowledge that people are mean and selfish and greedy. And that’s something that doesn’t change [online].”
*Name has been changed for privacy.
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