Tracking Anonymous Social Media Accounts Back to the Source

You aren’t the NSA and you have a problem

Do you have a hater? Is someone anonymously posting things on social media that are driving you crazy or disrupting your school? Is someone posing as you?

In many cases, it might seem like you can never figure out who these people are. And, usually, they aren’t doing anything illegal so there’s little the police could do about it.

I’m going to share a simple way that you can catch most online creepers. Most aren’t that sophisticated, most are just idiots who think they are being funny.

Last year I shared how I deal with trolls, this year I’m sharing how I track not-so-anonymous accounts back to their source

A Rat ALWAYS Returns

I went to a college where pranks were big. It was a conservative Christian college that didn’t allow students to have sex or drink alcohol. We weren’t even allowed to dance or go to movies. With all that extra time, pranking folks was a form of currency.

And there I learned an important thing that applies to annoying anonymous accounts: A Rat ALWAYS Returns.

In other words, the fun for the prankster (or troll or bully) is seeing your reaction. This curiosity will point you back to the culprit 99 times out of 100.

Let’s say someone put something in our microwave for an hour and it burned, causing a nasty smell that brought everyone out to inspect the problem in the kitchen. The person who was there who didn’t fit in… or the random person who walked by “because they smelled something” was usually the person who did it. They were the rat.

The exact same behavior is true when someone is anonymously tormenting someone on social media.

You don’t have to be the NSA to track down the culprit because 99 times out of 100, all you have to do is look at who is looking and it’ll point to your rat.

Mapping Users

Step 1 – Identify the account

Might seem too obvious. But you need to isolate the account. Go to it’s profile page, it’s a wealth of information.

Step 2 – Map the users they engage with

Looking at the offending profile, start taking notes on who are they engaging with? Grab a piece of paper and identify the first 10 people the account followed or became friends with. Next, identify who they most frequently engage with. Look for social activity like favorites, retweets, mentions, things like that.

Step 3 – Identify Related “Accounts of Interest

Once you’ve done that, order the accounts that they engage with the most from #1 – #10. Chances are very high that your culprit is one of those accounts OR they are, at least, friends with them. These are your “accounts of interest.”

Why? Because this behavior is about social power. And there is nothing to be gained unless other people know you are doing it, can watch it, etc.

Map the Context / Language

Step 4 – Isolate the Context

I find it helps to get the text/images/videos out of the actual app and into another format.

Create a Google/Excel spreadsheet with a new tab for each incident when the offending account posted something. Create a column for each of your 10 “accounts of interest” associated with the anonymous account. (So row 1 is the names of all the accounts) Next, copy/paste any post from those users around the time that something was posted. Note mentions of the offending message or the person being targeted. Anything that could be in context.

The point in doing this isn’t that you are going to identify your offender. But you are most definitely going to be able to identify the friend group of the offender(s). You can assume that these people are either together or texting/messaging one another about the anonymous account.

Take careful note about who is promoting the account to other people. They are vested in other people discovering the account, sharing it as funny or asking other people to check it out/follow it.

As you sift through this you will see a few accounts who are the closest to the action. These are the most interested parties. They might not be the offender, but they know who it is.

  • When were things posted?
  • What were they talking about before and after?
  • Were there references to what they were doing? Where were they?
  • Were they referring to contexts of things that limited people know about? (Something that happened in a class, for instance.)

Remember: Social media happens in real time. Context is very important. Circumstances often lead to the timing of what is posted, when.

Mapping Location

Step 5 – Map Mistakes

I can’t believe how often this points directly back to a source. 

Most smartphones have a built-in GPS. And most social media apps, unless you turn it off, will tell you a location. Scroll through the offending account to see if you can spot any of that.

Step 6 – Map Images

If they are posting images they’ve taken, their goose is cooked. Seriously, this is too easy. Download the images to your computer and look at the properties of the image with the image viewing applications included with your computer for free. (In my case Preview) Open the image, click Tools>Show Location Info

Here’s information about a picture I took at a local grocery store of some duck eggs. 

If you have this information, you can establish exactly where that person was when the image was taken… but you can also tell the exact model of their device. If you have 10 people you’re looking at, how many of them have a black iPhone 6? Your circle just got a lot smaller.

Face-to-Face Pressure

Step 7 – In Real Life

Let’s say you are an administrator at a school and you need to know who is impersonating a teacher or who is bullying a student. Now that you have this information you have a pretty good idea who to talk to.

The last step is the confrontation. If you’ve followed the steps above, chances are very high you’ve identified 3-4 people you need to talk to as well as created a paper trail as to why you are talking to these individuals.

Likewise, let’s say that this behavior has crossed a legal boundary. The information above is easy enough to share with an investigator to give them a fast-forward on doing a criminal investigation.

Did this help you? Leave me a comment or drop me a note via my contact form.

This post relates to my social media principle #2: There’s no such thing as privacy online, only perceived online privacy. If you’d like to learn more about that please check out my book, A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media.








4 responses to “Tracking Anonymous Social Media Accounts Back to the Source”

  1. Kurt J. Avatar
    Kurt J.

    So you’re saying I should quit posting things under the name, Rick Warren?

  2. Dennis Avent Avatar
    Dennis Avent

    Interesting information. As a screenwriter, I think this is a juicy plot for a thriller!

  3. Misty Avatar

    What about someone hacking your phone ..installing apps…etc…that controls your service.. Steals your notification s from your social media..and your text.. Calls from fake numbers.. And uses fake emails???

  4. Broken Avatar

    What about an account that hacked that’s also somehow went to every old phone that you have had that has been to hand me down through all your kids they are no longer in service but they seem to all be tied to MetroPCS take screenshots on its own they disappear date sites private videos and pictures are taken from Google photos and movies are made out of them sweetie PornHub with families names attached to them like they have an account using data controlling the phone turning settings off and on regardless of logging out of that Gmail account mostly tied to Facebook what a coincidence can someone please give me some answers to help resolve this situation it has become very serious causing a 20 year marriage to break up the family to fall apart and an attempted suicide please help this is very serious I have no money for a lawyer I think somebody knows somebody in this group personally they think it’s funny I need some answers please help me

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