Dissecting 'Social Autopsy'
Published April 13, 2016
Update Apr 14, 2016: Kickstarter has now suspended Social Autopsy's funding.
Update Apr 17, 2016: After demanding to know my legal identity, Social Autopsy's @socialcoroner twitter account has now blocked me for criticising their project, so I will cease following them as closely and get to back work on other writing, also my day job. If you come upon any newsworthy updates, please add a comment below or tweet me.
Update Apr 18, 2016: Owens has written a piece in which she implicitly accuses me of being a minion of some of her personal enemies (with whom I am in no way affiliated and in whom I am not very interested), seemingly because I put "effort" into my writing. I'll let this demonization of "effort" speak for itself.
What is Social Autopsy?
Social Autopsy is a self-described anti-bullying web tool, led by founder Candace Owens. The tool's promotional material uses teen and child suicide as justification for cataloguing data about the real-life identities of adults and children, submitted by anonymous sources. At time of writing, on Kickstarter the developing project has received $2,989 of a $75,000 goal, from 44 backers, with 33 days to go.
In theory, the tool would be used to address online bullying by exposing alleged abusers to the retailiation of third parties. Social Autopsy, despite enabling retaliation which they acknowledge may extend to a target's educational and employment opportunities, denies responsibility for the way their tool could be used. At the same time, Social Autopsy endorses consequences like "learning" from the exposure, and recommends the site's targets should "be more selective" about what they post online.
Will Social Autopsy archive private information?
Owens defends Social Autopsy on the premise that she is only aggregating the information that people are already posting publicly under their real names. She counters concerns about privacy invasion and libel/slander by claiming, "We are just ORGANIZING the info people have put up about THEMSELVES." She expands upon this position in the Social Autopsy video FAQ:
"I think people are actually shocked that the Internet is public. We are not hacking into your computers or breaking into your houses and stealing hard drives. You guys are putting all this information out there and we are just aggregating it. So it's legal because I can do a google search and find out all this information."
The Social Autopsy Kickstarter text reads,
"What's the number one defense people use when they are making awful, nasty comments online? 'I'm exercising my first amendment rights.' Can't argue that one, so let's instead help them magnify those freedoms. Let's launch a database where we capture them exercising those rights and create digital records for them that anyone can access. Yup. We consider ourselves to be patriots."
The sinister underpinnings of Owens's plan are evident within her darkly passive-aggressive implication that she is "helping" to "magnify" people's freedoms by aggregating their alleged speech to enable pillorying, stalking, firing from work and expulsion from school.
Owens has described plans which directly contradict her claims to only collect publicly posted information. She simultaneously promotes Social Autopsy as a solution to the alleged problem of private social media profiles and anonymous user accounts. In the Kickstarter promotional video Owens says,
"With the ability to privatize (sic) social profiles and use pseudonyms in place of real names, [the Internet] has been a free for all. That is, until now. Social Autopsy.com: the first ever search database that aggregates people's social behavior and creates real profiles for them. [...] We attach their words to their places of employment, and anybody in the entire world can search for them. What we are doing is figuratively lifting the masks up, so nobody can hide behind twitter handles or privatized (sic) profiles. It's all real and it's all researchable." [bolding added]
In order for Social Autopsy to "lift up the masks [of anonymity]," it will have to acquire information that was shared anonymously under pseudonyms and within private social media circles with the expectation of personal privacy. By definition, this is not information that these targets have posted "about themselves." Rather, linking anonymous and private content to a real life identity is information a third party has posted about them without their permission.
If Social Autopsy will not be used to expose private information, the Kickstarter promotional video is not telling its backers the truth about what their money will be supporting.
How does Social Autopsy obtain information?
Linking private and anonymous statements to publicly available real-life identities appears to be Social Autopsy's plan, as corroborated by the sinister implications of the brand name itself. Conceptually, a social autopsy would help users dig into a target's social life as though it were a corpse, devoid of human rights, to expose the insides without consent. The threatening stench of social death hangs nauseatingly in the air: this isn't just investigation or even dissection, after all. It's an autopsy.
Social Autopsy states they will accept anonymous screenshots of private information, submitted by third parties and "friends" of the accused targets; "friends" who are in the know about the targets' "real" identities and are willing to expose them.
Judging by the submissions page, Social Autopsy's stance against anonymity only applies to targets, and not accusers. Attempts to destroy targets' reputations and anonymity would be made anonymously. Users won't have to prove their own identities when targeting other people for out-of-context cataloguing and exposure.
But submissions are speech too. A refusal to not only require submitters to identify themselves, but also include submitter identities alongside the reports they publish, is a refusal to tell the whole story. By their own standard, Social Autopsy would be "magnifying" some speech, while hiding other speech. Assuming a given submission is genuine, their bias toward one side of the story (always the side that is willing involve authorities in personal matters for revenge) would carelessly manipulate the facts, utterly failing to serve the truth.
Screen captures can be misattributed and faked. Social Autopsy has not explained what their standards of evidence are for vetting or verifying accusations against targeted people. Nor have they explicitly stated exactly what sorts of comments they consider "awful," "nasty" and "bad," and exactly what sorts they don't. The on-site FAQ uses the difference between sports team allegiance and wishes of catastrophic physical harm as its only methodological example, ignoring the gaping grey chasm of human expression that sprawls between them.
Owens does not appear take any responsibility for posting false accusations, either. She advises targets to take it up with thier accusers rather than with her. She says,
"If someone creates a fake Facebook profile pretending to be you, you've got a bigger problem than Social Autopsy, right? Your first problem is that someone has created a fake profile pretending to be you. [...] We are a second hand problem, and not one that's really that much of a threat."
Evidently she hasn't heard of Photoshop.
"We allow you to write to us. We will investigate every claim if someone is purporting to be you. No matter what, in 365 days it completely wipes from our database, so again your focus should be on the fact that someone is pretending to be you."
How does Owens plan to determine whether evidence has been Photoshopped or otherwise faked? How does she plan to decide whether to concede to a removal request? Does she care at all about the misleading nature of aggregating quotes out of context? And does she think it takes over a year to fire, expel or suspend a person from school or employment?
Social Autopsy's on-site FAQ:
Where is Social Autopsy's security?
The Social Autopsy twitter account has said that their website is "only a splash," implying the site isn't vulnerable to attack because it currently isn't accessible. However, a google search reveals an already existent unsecured database of identities.
The profiles contain each target's name and photo, and it looks like the content came from social media. While these profiles do not contain explicit accusations against targets, they do contain hashtags, presumably for organizing profiles by 'bullying' type. Going through the first 100 profiles one-by-one reveals the following hashtags, and only these hashtags:
#CaitlynJenner #MichaelBrown #JamarClark #Bluelivesmatter #HillaryClinton #Blackpeople #Police #Directedtopolice #Muslims #Rape #FarrahAbraham #MileyCyrus #BigAng #Death #MACCosmetics #KimKardashian #KimKardashianWest #Democrats #TamirRice #TeenmomOG #SophiaAbraham #Transgenderpeople #Jenner #AzealiaBanks
These are the topics Social Autopsy considers relevant to protecting children and adults from bullying. They are undeniably based in political opinions and celebrity gossip. Is this what Social Autopsy considers to be relevant to "bullying?" Sharing opinions of celebrities, and more importantly, political issues?
Also relevant is that while Social Autopsy claims its mission is to protect children, not a single one of the first hundred people on the list of profiles appears to be a child. Strangely, despite selling itself as a solution to child bullying and suicide, Social Autopsy also simultaneously denies including children by saying, "We do not have a single child on our site." Does this mean they don't have any yet, or that they don't plan to?
Despite using political and celebrity hashtags, Owens claims,
"We do not allow people to search by keyword, meaning you can't go into our database and plug in, say, 'Beyonce,' and consider yourself a vigilante by finding people and doing things to them. You also can't search our database for, say, 'homophobia,' and then pull up homophobic comments. It just doesn't work like that. You have to search our database by name. You have to actually know who you are looking for."
Then what are the hashtags for? Who will have access to them? Why does Social Autopsy appear to treat topics like the police, political-religious belief, and political parties as relevant to whether a comment constitutes bullying?
Might these hashtags be used behind the scenes, to soft-censor search results by prioritizing some types of "bad langage" over others when users search for a target's real-life identity? Could the hashtags be used to push a targeted person's speech about a desired topic to the top of their search results, manipulating the ways in which users are likely to retaliate against them? Social media websites are already known to soft-censor in this way based on political and other subject matter. Why not Social Autopsy?
Candace Owens: Self-Appointed Moral Arbiter
Candace Owens seems very proud of the position of moral authority she has bestowed upon herself. She may not accept responsibility for any harm done by the use of her aggregation tool, but she seems villainously delighted to weild its power to punish other people -- adults and children alike -- and teach them moral lessons about their expression.
"Profiles last for 365 days. After a one year span, if the user that has been submitted hasn't said anything else that's bad, we totally believe in forgiveness and second chances, and we will drop their name from our database forever."
[SA FAQ timestamp]
Owens tells parents how they should raise their children, supporting her case by implying their lives are on the line:
"We don't want to exclude minors because minors are the ones that are killing themselves because of what they're reading online. Your child should not be given the Internet to learn. [...] We say the Internet is just like giving somebody a gun. You can kill yourself with it or you can kill somebody else with it and that is exactly what is happening."
[SA FAQ timestamp]
Candace's website would punish children that she hasn't even met, but that doesn't mean she's willing to take responsibilty if her own tactics cause those children harm:
"The best time to be on our database is when you are a minor because we are trying to affect their conscience when they're young, so they know how to use the Internet more responsibly when they're older. There's no harm no foul if you're a minor, right? You have this profile for 365 days, you're not applying to college, you're not going out for a job. It doesn't do anything to affect your livelihood in any way."
[SA FAQ timestamp]
Owens evidently refuses to entertain the possiblity that children might kill themselves or be otherwise harmed because they've been pilloried by bullies using her tool.
Owens also explicitly argues for her right to judge what is hateful and what isn't. She says that she has the same right to decide whether something is hateful that Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies have. Legally speaking, yes they do. Ethically speaking, they don't always.
But what is really relevant here is the nature of the response to content deemed 'hateful.' Other social media companies concern themselves with what is said on their websites in order to remove undesirable content, making it less visible, not more visible. They do not draw attention to content elsewhere and they do not arbitrate who is targeted for punishment, which is what Social Autopsy would do by collecting and exposing personal data with a searchable database.
Social media companies decide how they will be represented in order to protect their own brands. Social Autopsy, on the other hand, decides how other people will be represented in order to promote its own brand.
A Tool for Bullying Others
In response to the criticism that this tool could be used to bully others, Owens says, "We don't allow any commenting on our database because we don't want to foster any of the bullying we're trying to rid the Internet of."
Wait -- how does disallowing comments on the Social Autopsy site prevent bullying? Users will still be free to follow targets to their social media accounts as well as confront them in real life. That's what the tool is for. In fact, disabling comments would prevent targets from defending themselves in the place where these attacks against them are aggregated. Disallowing comments also relieves Social Autopsy of some technical responsibility for the bullying they would be fostering, as targets would be attacked outside of Social Autopsy's jurisdiction.
Owens denies that her tool threatens people's freedom of expression: "You can still say whatever you want to say on social media," she says in her Kickstarter video, "but you have to be willing to stand by your words."
We must be willing to stand by our words in the face of what sort of retaliation? Punishing people for their speech, and thereby threatening punishment by example, is how censorship is enforced. Censors often say, 'Freedom of Speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences,' but it does mean freedom from authoritarian punishment. Freedom of expression may not mean freedom from criticism, but it does mean freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, like physical attack, invasion of privacy and loss of livelihood.
Speaking of livelihood, Owens has a few things to say about that, though it doesn't seem she knows what the word 'livelihood' means. For the record: livelihood doesn't mean "social life" or "day to day life" or "self image." Your livelihood is your job, your career, your source of material worth. But instead of acknowledging this, Owens lectures,
"People think that the Internet is like a video game, that they can go home and say whatever they want over social media and then get back to real life, which is why you're using this word, 'livelihood.' That is not the case. You are affecting somebody's livelihood with your words. When you log on the Internet and tell someone that they are disgusting, that they are ugly, that they don't deserve to live, that they are fat, you are affecting that person's livelihood: you are making that person sad, you are making that person depressed. The Internet is a real thing. Just because you are typing that does not make your words any less real. What you type on the Internet is a part of your livelihood, and we stand by that and we stand firm on that."
To defend her project's use as a career-destroying tool, Owens has equated people's careers with their personal experience in general. Is this a genuine misunderstanding or a deliberate evasive manoeuvre? Because the funny thing is, she used the word properly when she defended including minors in her project: "You have this profile for 365 days, you're not applying to college, you're not going out for a job. It doesn't do anything to affect your livelihood in any way."
In what universe does systematically threatening people's jobs because you don't like them not constitue bullying?
Under a system of anonymous reporting, submitters would decide whether a person is targeted, and would face no repercussions for false or misleading accusations. This grants submitters all the power with none of the risk, while it grants targets no power, but with all of the risk that comes with being identified and targeted. In the real world most interpersonal disputes are mutual. Unbalanced anonymity would deeply skew that truth.
How would Social Autopsy prevent themselves from inadvertantly helping the darkly manipulative Nurse Racheds and Dolores Umbridges of the world -- the bullies who, instead of exploding with anger, psychologically abuse their targets until those targets explode? Sure, these two examples are fictional characters, but they are memorable because they are archetypes, largely described by the modern and very real Cluster B personality disorder diagnoses. Social Autopsy does not seem at all prepared to defend itself or its targets from these abuser types.
While Owens says that Social Autopsy will investigate alleged fakes and create permanent profiles for the people who submit false information, no indication has been given that Social Autopsy has any way of obtaining the identities of these fakers and false accusers. How can they, if they accept anonymous reports? How can they manage and respond to false and misleading accusations without requiring and publishing the identities of submitters alongside the identities of their targets?
Consider the following:
A group or individual relentlessly bullies an online target until he finally explodes into a fit of swearing and violent imagery. The bullies then screencap the tirade and submit it to Social Autopsy, who publishes it out of context and links it to his name, his city and his place of work or school. The bullies then use it to destroy his reputation, his education and/or his career. Since the submissions are anonymous, there's no way to track the true bullies. Now that's Zero Tolerance!
How would Social Autopsy function for its users and its targets?
Social Autopsy has shown via the thousand-dollar pledge reward on its Kickstarter page that the website would be subscription-based. Supporters pledging $1000 or more will be able to "Follow any person or company on our database, free of charge for 1 year."
This suggests Social Autopsy would require users to pay subscription fees in order to "follow" leaked personal content not only about individuals, but also about individuals in aggregate as they relate to the companies they work for. This would enable mobs of politically minded tyrants to harass companies and threaten them with exposure unless they "do something" about the employees who have been "caught" expressing ideas and speech deemed undesirable by those politically minded tyrants.
Doxing is a known problem on the Internet, and has been for years. This tool would streamline doxing efforts, making it easier for people to lose their jobs not only for getting angry or mean online (which is poisonous in itself), but very possibly for expressing the "wrong" political opinions too. And since we don't know how Social Autopsy expects to determine whether an accusation constitutes "bad language" or is even true, there is no guarantee that it wouldn't be used by bullies and political tyrants to frame targets for wrong-speak.
Social Autopsy denies that they dox people. View the definition of 'doxing' and decide for yourself. Considering Owens's documented history of denying responsibility for the way her tool is used, and misunderstanding terms like "livelihood" so drastically that it could easily be a deliberate evasion strategy, it is very likely that this is just a public relations word game: of course Social Autopsy doesn't dox people themselves, they're just a tool that allows other people to dox one another. It's not Owens's fault if people use her doxing tool for doxing!
It seems that the best way to protect yourself from Social Autopsy would be to pay for a subscription to follow yourself, in order to keep track of what Social Autopsy accuses you of and have it removed -- that is, if Social Autopsy agrees with your complaints. Charging a fee for the opportunity to control this damage would be nothing short of extortion on the part of Social Autopsy.
[Edit April 15 - Social Autopsy now says their database 'is' searchable for free, not that the search 'is' accessible right now. What does this really mean about the future, functional website? And what is the effective difference between searching and following, aside from miniscule automation?]
Whatever Social Autopsy does, anonymity remains an option online. True bullies and trolls, whose primary goal is to cause upset, will remain free to make completely anonymous accounts in order to do it. In other words, the intent to do harm is exactly what will enable people to shield themselves from Social Autopsy's repercussions. Those who intend only to express themselves, and do not intend to do actual harm, are the ones who would primarily be punished by such a system, and by this woman, Candace Owens, who dares proclaim herself an authority over the expression, opinions and behavior of her adult equals.
"We’re just trying to make people remember that they’re human," Owens told CTpost in March, despite the fact that anger and swearing are human behaviours too. Wresting people's control over their own identities away from them to exact moral revenge for real or alleged expression is dehumanizing.
Fortunately the project has few backers despite receiving a lot of attention, and extortion, privacy invasion and libel/slander are not generally legal. The higher Social Autopsy gets off the ground using current pretenses, the harder it will surely fall if the law gets involved.
How would you rather respond to an Internet comment that offends you?
Full FAQ video
Further info, reading & media
- The Roast of Social Autopsy: It Gets Worse (Update)
[By Chris Seaton] Social Autopsy from a legal perspective.
- Why The US Constitution Needs To Recognize The Evolution Of Society
[By Candace Owens] "I say, let's immortalize the Constitution where it belongs: in a museum."
- Social Autopsy: Behold The Internet Gestapo, via The Rationalists
[By Nicholas Goroff] "Imagine the following. An organization dedicated to tracking expression and speech they deem unacceptable..."
- Social Autopsy wants to expose trolls' real identities - but is that wise?
[By Graham Cluley.] "Good people sometimes do dumb things, or say something thoughtless. But that's not a good reason to damn them, or destroy their online reputation."
- Be Careful What You Tweet: 'Social Autopsy' Project 'Lifting the Masks' on Social Media Accounts
[By Allum Bokhari via Brietbart] A new search engine and database says it aims to expose the purveyors of anonymous online 'hate speech' to employers, friends, and families.
- Dissecting Social Autopsy - Harmful Opinion - YouTube
Coincidental title. It's just so appropriate!
- “We were children. I wasn’t the only victim.” - Connecticut Post
An article about Owens's past.
- SocialAutopsy.com: A project against cyberbullying, or a doxing platform?
[By Cathy Young via Allthink.com] Interview with Candace Owens
- Metta Mudita on Patreon
I welcome your comments.
Evidenced and argued corrections are deeply appreciated.
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