Social Autopsy, Encyclopedia Dramatica, and you

This is my first article on Medium, so greetings, and comments / criticism welcome.

If you have a Twitter account and a pulse you’ve probably seen a little of the debacle known as Social Autopsy. If not, here’s the goods.

In the ever changing world of ‘anti-harassment’, someone thought it would be a good idea to create a public ‘harassment’ database. Type in someone’s real name, and blammo, see all the problematic speech they’ve posted.

As a concept it’s questionable, in that many victims of stalking have their entire lives recorded in what essentially are dossiers, which leads me to the second part of the title to this article, Encyclopedia Dramatica.

For those not in the know, ED is more or less what Social Autopsy desires to be, a compendium of events and words from people, albeit in this case the people are notorious internet personalities. Saw a meme you didn’t quite get? If it’s related to someone ‘Internet famous’ , it’s probably on ED.

A lot of people aren’t fond of ED (it’s been taken offline multiple times over the years). Be that as it may, ED is essentially collecting information that has through one means or another been made ‘public’, so how is it different than Social Autopsy? And why are either/both bad things?

To edit ED, one goes through the usual Wikipedia processes, meaning anyone can add spurious information (in some articles people have). So, given the anonymous but transparent edit auditing capabilities of MediaWiki, you can usually tell when things get vandalized / someone’s bored and wishes to add that Chris Chan was actually the founder of the Nazi party or some-such.

As I understand Social Autopsy, it is based on ostensibly anonymous submission as well, but with zero transparency. This is a very important differentiation.

The process seems to be that someone posts something questionable under their real name, and anonymous submitters can record their name, take a screenshot of the post and send it in.

In response to obvious criticism, the least of which being doctored screenshots, the project creator has said that they will ‘verify’. To me, that sounds like a manual process, and manual processes generally have far more errors than automated ones.

So as a bad actor, I can create a doctored image of you saying something particularly abhorrent (use your imagination here), provide your real details and then hope the Social Autopsy administrators don’t catch it. This is not a great policy.

Twitter has become notorious as of late for a completely opaque user governance system, in that complaints submitted disappear into the ‘black hole’ of twitter support, often users only receive the automated ‘your issue is being looked at’ email and nothing else. More concerning is the extreme bias that seems to be present in applying the TOS to users, but that’s a topic for another article.

In any event, if Social Autopsy were to fall into the same situation as Twitter, both submitters and the subject of submissions would be in the dark as to what exactly is going on. Malicious users could do what often happens on Twitter / with DMCA requests, in filing spurious complaints hoping to cause some form of injury to the affected party before they are resolved.

The technical / security issues have been covered by smarter people than I, and if that was the only issue here there wouldn’t be controversy, just another start-up that didn’t have the bases covered. So this isn’t just a case of some nerds secure-shaming others, but fundamental flaws in the overall concept.

Employers (and others) can already search by real name for Facebook posts, so I really have to question if the whole idea adds any value. The EU courts have already weighed in on the ‘right to be forgotten’ issue, and I think that a common sense approach here would be also giving users the ability to make their posts ‘forgotten’ (this is still very difficult given how popular is to catalog web pages of interest).

If a person is legitimately, actually a ‘serial harasser’ then at that point affected parties should bring screenshots / website archives to the attention of the appropriate people, whether it be Facebook / Twitter administrators or law enforcement. The well-being of others (in various respects) should not be left to the court of public opinion.

In the end, Social Autopsy seems like a solution in search of a problem, or at least a solution that’s far too late to add any value to combating the problem. No disrespect intended to Candace Owens as saying she’s been through a lot is an understatement, but sometimes you just need to drop all the rhetoric and ask yourself, ‘Does this actually solve anyone’s problem?’