Why Social Autopsy is still very bad for the internet

An expanded version of this article will appear in issue one of L0w L1F3 Magazine.

I was unable to publish this on any of the outlets I write for because, as many editors have told me, they no longer think SA is worth covering and they do not want to even go near Candace Owens because she is too hot of a button as well as a subject. I worked hard on this article so that is why I am publishing it here.

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Technology and the Internet are constantly evolving and connecting others to people, information, and opinions. With all of the good the Internet has presented, however, the negative corners of the web are also adapting to how the Internet is growing. With every advancement in technology, there’s a new way harassment could happen. This is why, when starting an anti-bullying project, creators should be very aware of the environment they are wading into. Social Autopsy is the new tool that’s aiming to help with online bullying and harassment. It wants to be a database of every mean thing you’ve ever said online. Digging a bit deeper sheds some light on some alarming things, like the fact that the Social Autopsy founder, Candace Owens, is trying to tackle a problem that she doesn’t understand fully.

As with offline bullying, there’s a lot of different ways someone can bully someone else on the Internet. There’s a lot of nuance that someone who aims to start an anti-bullying company should know before trying to solve the problem. Online bullying can take on many forms. In fact, there are numerous ways someone can be bullied online, especially with the ability to manipulate SEO results and perform reverse lookups. Just a few of the ways someone can be bullied online are:

  • Doxxing, where your personal information that isn’t publically on the Internet is posted online for others to see, on social media, or forums, or message boards.
  • Swatting, where a caller calls the police and reports a horrendous crime taking place either, at your address, or, with you, as the perpetrator, for the intent to have the SWAT team murder you or a member of your family, or scare you. Usually, these calls are made via VOIP, so a number will be harder to trace. The caller may even pose as a very concerned anonymous tipper, saying they are worried, when in reality all they want to do is either kill you or scare you really badly.
  • Misrepresentation. With the ability to create profiles at whim online, anyone could pretend to be you and say nasty slurs or murderous threats that leave a false footprint of your online conduct.
  • SEO manipulation. With the vast ability of blogs now and other platforms, people can write untrue statements about their target, provide fake screenshots, and make that untrue post appear at the top of Google searches with your name.

Online harassment is dependent on the tools used. The harassment happens because the tool allows for the harassment, something that Owens has not fully looked into or considered before trying to make Social Autopsy.

The Kickstarter, now suspended, explains more about what Social Autopsy is and what it will do. It wants to be a database of every negative thing you’ve ever said online. Some Twitter users and commenters have even described it as a weird dystopian snitching website.

“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,” the Kickstarter says referring to consequences regarding freedom the Internet provides. This online database will tie you to what you say online, but not how you say it. This is a very important thing to note when we’re talking about online harassment, but Owens has a narrow view of the problem she’s trying to tackle, at best. Her Kickstarter page illustrates a little bit of her scope of the situation:

Important to note: We do not allow any commenting on our site because we do not want to host a platform for any bullying ourselves. Our database also cannot be searched by keyword (i.e., homophobia, racism, etc) which means a self-proclaimed vigilante would be unable to round up a specified group of online offenders.

Funding for this project was suspended by Kickstarter on April 14, 2016 with $4,244 pledged of their $75,000 goal but Owens is still trying to seek venture capital for her project even though the Social Autopsy website can be exploited as is and has not been launched yet. Owens says it’s a pictorial database, and users can’t search via keywords, but she’s missing the point. Using Google, anyone can look through the database and do a reverse image lookup of anyone and find them online when they may not even want to be discovered or targeted.

The site’s security isn’t the only problem. The Social Autopsy database has a problem all by itself, and that’s providing context. Using the exploit with Google, I was able to lookup three people already in the database. I found two males and a female. The only thing that’s listed on their Social Autopsy profiles is the hashtag, #Caitlyn Jenner, under a picture of the offender without any clues as to why that could be considered bullying. If anyone were to find these people and look at the offensive content there would not be clear context to go with the offense. I was able to find their Facebook profiles and schools and addresses in a matter of minutes with a reverse image search tool, as well.

In addition to the problems with her lack of understanding cyber harassment and her Social Autopsy website Owens is not quite consistent or clear in her marketing statements, which is probably why the Kickstarter was suspended. Even though Kickstarter did not comment on Social Autopsy specifically, they directed me to their rules where it states, “Projects must be honest and clearly presented. Our community is built on trust and communication. Projects can’t mislead people or misrepresent facts, and creators should be candid about what they plan to accomplish. When a project involves manufacturing and distributing something complex, like a gadget, we require projects to show backers a prototype of what they’re making, and we prohibit photorealistic renderings.” The way she interprets words and concepts is not how everybody will interpret them. For instance, she says, on her Kickstarter page, “We have worked to build and bridge with an impactful network. Most notably, we are proud partners and friends of the Tyler Clementi Foundation and their Day1 campaign. We encourage you all to check out their work and website. As well as a list of their organization’s initiatives, which align fully with our own.”

The Tyler Clementi Foundation, however, does not see them as a partner or a friend. In his first email, Sean M. Kosofsky, Executive Director, stated, “For the record we have no partnership with Social Autopsy whatsoever and we have no relationship with the software at all.” Upon further clarification and links to the Kickstarter page and a few articles, just to be sure Kosofsky understood what Social Autopsy was, Kosofsky said in a final statement:

The Tyler Clementi Foundation does not and has never endorsed a particular software solution for cyberbullying, including Social Autopsy. We routinely have collegial conversations with others in the anti-bullying sector, but this does not mean we have partnered on any software or program. We believe that disparate opinions on any subject, including cyberbullying, should be discussed in a civil manner.

Initially, I had incorrectly tweeted they never heard of her after receiving the first email from Kosofsky. While they did retweet her project link, they were not partners. A retweet does not mean an organization fully partners with a company or cause. Owens, however, thinks they had a budding partnership because they retweeted her, but have since deleted their tweet. In one post on her blog, degree 180, she writes, “We had pulled together the campaign seamlessly. We were networked with other anti-bullying organizations beforehand and were happy to see that the Tyler Clementi Foundation was among the first to re-tweet our Kickstarter effort that morning. I had been emailing back and forth with them, as we wanted to make sure our campaign would simultaneously provide support to their Day1 organization— I, a huge fan of their mission.”

This lack of understanding context and nuance, however, doesn’t just center on her project. At the time of this writing, her two latest blog posts are attacking two reporters for doing their jobs. Jesse Singal, from New York Magazine, and Caitlin Dewy, from the Washington Post. She accuses Singal of not disclosing his friendship with two subjects.

In interviews with Singal and Dewy, the topic is the initiative known as Social Autopsy. Dewy never published her story because her editor killed it, but Journalists shouldn’t focus on that, however, as hinted at within her blog posts. The posts themselves explain some bigger fraud or libel attempt, but there isn’t a lot of clear, definable, evidence to completely support her claims in the posts. If you cherry pick, you can make an argument, but putting the posts into a wider context actually makes it harder to verify the claims Owens presents.

There were two more requests that Jesse made which alerted me to his mal-intent. He wanted me to e-mail him a list of all of the anti-bullying organizations that I had worked with. I still am not sure why, but that alerted me somehow. I never did send him the list.

The founder of Social Autopsy, who says she has a burning love for writing and journalism, is continuously baffled as to why journalists would do their jobs as reporters and contact organizations to verify claims. She says they asked to go off the record when asking about her venture capital but there’s no clear, definable evidence to support that. The screenshots do not validate anything 100%.

There’s something else she’s a tad miffed about in addition to the fraud and libel accusations. Singal and Dewy didn’t report on her and her battle with Zoey Quinn and Harper. They didn’t make her the soul subject of her reporting. She is continuously bringing up things that journalists simply do as key points to her argument. One of these is asking about points in her Kickstarter video. Their focus is diverted to her startup. Not her. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why she’s furious at the Washington Post, in addition to her claims that Dewy was trying to publish something she never said. David Malitz, the Deputy Features Editor of the Washington Post, killed the story because he didn’t think Social Autopsy was news worthy. Owens, however, interprets it a different way:

Never in my life had I seen such a streamlined example, of the phrase “adding insult to injury”. Aside from attempting to ruin my life and career, the Washington Post was now telling me that I wasn’t even important enough. And that if they wanted to— they would indeed use Caitlin’s lie in the future. Yup. They had somehow purchased future rights to a lie.

The lie she’s referring to is the fact that Dewy said she said something she did not say. Malitz thinks that Dewy is an ethical journalist. Owens says that Dewy was attempting to print something that Owens never said. Owens thinks the Washington Post was attempting to libel her, even though the story never ran. To her, the Post should be ashamed because the editor is covering up Dewy’s unethical journalism.

Owens declined a request to comment and she did not give permission to quote any of her direct messages. She waffled on and off the record, and personalized the process of fact checking by referring to it as “creepy.” I wanted to get a view of her upcoming TEDEX talk so I looked into that as well.

Looking into her talk at TEDx New York because that is where her company is based and because Owens did not clarify which TEDEX she meant, TEDEX New York does not have a video of her talk, nor has her on the upcoming roster. They said, via Twitter direct message, “Hi Robert, you may have us confused with a different TEDx organization. Candace Owens is not one of our speakers. Sorry that we cannot offer you more information.” Upon asking if they had a video planned in substitute of the talk, they said, “We currently have no knowledge of a Candace Owens talk, but that is because we are TEDxNewYork and she is not one of our speakers. It may be better to contact TED or TEDx since we are a separate organization.”

Her Kickstarter does not say where her Tedx talk was, but she did tweet that she already recorded a video. According to her Kickstarter page, however, it says “Our Founder, Candace Owens has been selected to give a TEDx talk on June 4th, 2016 about the perils of this era of technology, and all that we are doing to combat it … The talk will be webcast live on the Ted.Com website.” TEDx New York said, via Twitter, “Robert, I’m sorry but we have no information on this and when the video would be released. It’s not a part of our organization.” Upon clarification to see if they had a video scheduled, they said, “We’re sorry we cannot offer more assistance but each TEDx organization works as separate entities. After doing some quick research on her talk, we didn’t see much that would offer assistance or specify a specific TEDx. Her talk could potentially be with TED itself and not a TEDx organization.”

UPDATE. She spoke at this TedEx talk

TED does not have Owens listed as an upcoming video or event but keep in mind that TEDx and TED are not the same thing. Owens says, however, that it was an exclusive video that was recorded and they were going to release the video between June 4 to June 15 on the TED website. Even though all of this is filler, the real takeaway is that Social Autopsy is a shaky idea, and the platform will increase and encourage harassment of others, including, minors. She really wants minors to be added to the database, but she hasn’t researched how online harassment has manifested, so is missing the point of peoples worries and concerns. She thinks the concern is only regarding her organization doxxing minors themselves. She is unaware that tech savvy adults can dox a minor, a minor they don’t even know, just for fun and games, using an image they grab from her website. In a YouTube interview called “Social autopsy founder unleashes on Zoey Quinn and Randy Harper,” she says: “We don’t print addresses, no, we don’t print telephone numbers and our database doesn’t work in a way where you can search keywords. You can’t search, like, if your Twitter handle is Jane Doe, and you’re dying to know who Jane Doe is, you can’t log into our database and look up Jane Doe. It doesn’t work like that. You actually have to know who Jane Doe is. You actually have to know that person. We built it for employers to do a background check. We didn’t build it for the public to search for people and see what they are saying online.”

It’s also unclear if she’s complied with any protection acts regarding children. At the time of this writing, there has been no indication on her website that she is complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. If you operate a commercial website or an online service directed to children under 13 that collects personal information from children, or if you operate a general audience website and have actual knowledge that you are collecting personal information from children, you must comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. An operator must post a link to a notice of its information practices on the home page of its website or online service and at each area where it collects personal information from children. An operator of a general audience site with a separate children’s area must post a link to its notice on the home page of the children’s area, according to the COPPA website.

Even though profiles only last for 365 days, black hat hackers can download data to their hard drives very easily, since the site has been exploited many times at the time of this writing. In the Social Autopsy FAQ video, she says, regarding profiles, “Profiles last for 365 days. After a one year span if the user that has been submitted hasn’t done anything else, we totally believe in forgiveness and second chances. We will drop their name from our database forever.”

Owens believes this will not only help eradicate online harassment, but will make people take a second look about what they write online. In her FAQ video she says, “There is, just, such a gap! People think that the internet is like a video game, that they can go home and say whatever they want on social media and then get back to real life. That is not the case. You are affecting somebodies livelihood with your words. When you log onto the internet and you tell someone that they are disgusting or that they are ugly or that they don’t deserve to live, you are affecting that person’s livelihood. You are making that person’ sad, and depressed. The internet is a real thing and just because you are typing it, it does not make your words any less real. “

Owens couldn’t be any more right about that but she’s unaware that her Social Autopsy website could be a dangerous tool for trolls and black hat hackers to use. At the time of this writing, no publically available information about future funding is available to substitute for her suspended Kickstarter. There’s also no news regarding her education of the good and the bad of this online world she has dipped her toe into. Tools help us to innovate, and prosper, and even create, but they can also be used to destroy, intimidate, and even kill. Tackling a problem as complex as online harassment requires a lot of listening and planning and research. As of now, Social Autopsy doesn’t even come close to being a viable solution to a problem that doesn’t have an immediate fix.

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