Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Strange Sad Story of Social Autopsy

What Happened

This is a pretty good synopsis. Anti-bullying advocate Candace Owens hit on the idea of having an online database that would reveal the identity of internet trolls--and link to their place of employment. She launched a Kickstarter to crowd-fund it (now suspended) and declared the effort was going to "break the Internet. Literally."

While a lot of people thought this would be a bad idea from the anonymous troll-hordes of 4chan to seasoned anti-bullying internet savvy experts, one person tried to do something: Zoe Quinn. She, the ur-target of #GamerGate, called up Candace and tried to talk her out of an online doxing database. It didn't go well.

Candace had apparently never heard of #GamerGate and didn't know much about online bullying at all (she didn't know the terms dox, SJW, GamerGate, etc.). Quinn's initial email assumed (reasonably) that Owens would know who Quinn was: she didn't. When Quinn tried to tell her--and, following their conversation, 4chan attacked, Candace decided that it was Quinn who had set the dogs on her. She responded by naming Quinn (and fellow #GG victim Randi Lee Harper) as Internet troll-lords who had monetized fake claims of victimization.

She published her side of the story (part 1) in a blinding flare of drama. In her article she imagines Quinn horrified to see that her gravy-train of paid fraudulent victimhood is about to come to an end so she calls up Owens and tries to talk her out of it. After being unable to make Owen understand that doxxing (a term Owen has never heard before) is a bad idea, she warns her:
She switched her tactic, once again, telling me that I did not know who I was messing with. She warned me that Gamergate (the community) would come after me and that they would be ruthless. She warned me that they would try to end my Kickstarter campaign, put me through cyber-hell, and that it wasn’t an experience I wanted to live through as she had.
When, hours later, the online harassment starts--and uses terms like "doxx"--a term Owens has, by her own admission, never heard before--she concludes that the multitudes of perpetrators must be working for Quinn and company.

So she becomes an unwitting tool of #GamerGate, publicly decrying them on Twitter.

Presently she's taking a break from Twitter. Maybe further research has convinced her that she had no idea what she was doing?
The Smoking "IDK What I'm Doing" Gun

What Can We Learn From This?

There are a few important lessons here that we should all be cognizant of.

If You Don't Ask A Stupid Question You Might Miss a Stupid Answer

In 2008 John McCain's team spoke with VP-candidate Sarah Palin. They asked her about skeletons in her closet (her daughter was pregnant out of wed-lock). They asked her about some of her policy views. No one thought to ask her who won Wold War II. When Candace Owens talked to various luminaries in the online world about cyber-bullying, they asked her about protections for minors, how the database lookup would work, and so on.

Apparently no one ever thought to ask her if she'd heard of #GamerGate. If they had, her initial business set-up might have gone very differently.

Objects In Conspiracy Theory May Appear Realer Than They Are

Owens had, apparently, never been introduced to terms like Social Justice Warrior, Doxxing, and so on. She had no idea who Zoe Quinn or #GamerGate was (despite there having been numerous mainstream news articles about both). When she was given the lingo she found it odd. When other people--anonymous attackers--were using it, she drew a direct-line of cause and effect between them. This wasn't irrational.

It's easier to presume that several incidents with the same M.O. are related than that there is a massive world out there, invisible to you, where all of this is common-place. This goes doubly true if you believe you are an expert in that domain. This is what the initial meeting looked like to Owens:
“I came across your Kickstarter today and I would very much like to speak to you about it. Or rather, I would like to talk you out of it based on what I know from over a year and a half of being a leading voice in the discussion around solving online abuse. I’m assuming you’re coming from a place of good faith with trying to fix the issue of online abuse, and I’d like to ask you to assume I am as well given my expertise in the subject”
I thought this portion was weird. Because of all of the anti-bullying communities that we had networked with and reached out to, none had approached us with such an attitude. Questions initially? Sure. But stating an intention to “talk us out” of our company? That takes a certain amount of ego.
Quinn is, of course, well recognized as an expert in online bullying and Crash Override is one of the premier anti-cyberbullying organizations. Being told what you're doing is probably a bad idea by Quinn is like getting a diagnosis from an expert: you ought to listen.

However, once you get sucked into conspiracy-land--with the attendant ego issues--you're screwed. Owens was screwed and, in a very human way, dug herself in deeper and deeper. We're all susceptible to this: Correlation (everyone using the same weird terms) doesn't imply Causation--but damn, it sure looks like it.

In other words, Quinn's very-accurate warning about what was about to happen to Owens made the actual event appear that much more suspect.

Everybody Wants To Dox

The impulse to dox people who are harassing you is a real and persistent one. Attacks from behind the veil of anonymity are frightening and infuriating. Seemingly ordinary people can behave in deplorable ways when they think no one is looking and the exposure to raw, raging Id that we see online is a worst-case scenario of humanity.

We've seen a rise (and fall) of people-rating apps (Yelp-But-For-People!) and nothing has currently taken hold--but everyone seems to want one (but they don't want to be on it--a paradox: we all want the high-ground in asymmetric information about the people we're dealing with). The idea of exposing trolls is, similarly, attractive to anyone who has ever been trolled.

It's this basic-level of attraction that should be a warning-flag: The deeper issues--which to be fair, Owens had thought about to some degree--are daunting. The Omnivore is fairly sure that she had not considered the level of coordination and sophistication that online troll-networks can deploy. Crowd-sourcing harassment can be very powerful: the database would be weaponized with misinformation.

Consider that in her clumsy foray into #GamerGate history, Owens was quickly sold on the #GamerGate narrative (that Quinn was really the abuser). If that can happen to a human-level intelligence, no current system is going to stand up to it. The Social Autopsy database would quickly become the Microsoft Tay of cyber-bullying.

There's an Ouroboros In All Of Us

For #GamerGate, the spectacle of anti-bullying advocates devouring each other was pure lulz--but we should all be aware that in any movement--especially one marked by a sense of righteousness--the inclination will be to attack those closest. What Owens was lacking was humility--and that's not surprising: humility is the first thing that needs to be jettisoned to take that hit of ego-affirming righteousness.

There's a reason that both #GamerGate and their targets classify the other side as bullies. It's not because it's good branding (although it isn't bad as a selling point) but because that's what it really feels like when you think you ought to be righteous and someone tells you that you're not. After all, who could actually be against ethics in games journalism?

The lack of humility pervades activism in all dimensions and keeping that in mind is probably the best working defense against taking yourself too seriously. Owens, a 26 year old idealist, definitely took herself too seriously which was the first step on a road to numerous mistakes.


The Social Autopsy should wind up being a cautionary tale for activists. It probably won't be though: no one who hasn't been there will consider the possibility that they could ever be that stupid. The drivers involved (ego, searching for a game-changing solution, invisible lack-of-expertise across several dimensions, standard approaches to appearance of correlation, and so on) are powerful. Disarming them is a constant struggle for the most self-aware.

The only legitimate solution might be: more popcorn.

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