The Social Disaster Cycle

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

This blog entry written with substantial input and support from Meredith L. Patterson.

Aspiration has taken on Weaponized Social as an extension of our commitment to solidarity with our community and to equality in our interactions with and through technology.

Better Tools for a Better World

Our work to support more people in their existing efforts by making use of technology has a peripheral effect of bringing historically marginalized populations into online space. And as the ever-larger online community welcomes new people, we have not only an opportunity, but also an obligation, to do so with more intent and understanding than society has tended towards in the past. When we speak of online intimidation or harassment, regardless of the perpetrator or recipient, culturally we struggle with issues of accountability, enforcement, and identity.

It’s a Disaster

We’ve had a few events (NYCNairobi, and San Francisco). From these, and ongoing conversations on the mailing listthe wiki has been expanded and cleaned up. It now includes clearer indicators of how to make use of it, as well as a restructuring into the same framework as the disaster cycle. The disaster cycle falls into preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. More details on these, along with the added aspect of being an extreme event, can be found on the wiki, with projects and resources listed below each aspect of the cycle. Event notes and project specs continue to also be hosted on the wiki. What are not found on the wiki are academic resources (which can be found in this literature review compiled by friends), nor organizations and initiatives (which Tactical Tech recently curated here).

This approach was taken because many conversations in this space are derailed when discussion of intentions and tactics are conflated. For instance, #hoodsoff revealed the identity of those both in positions of political power AND who were members of the KKK using the same tactics which those same activists might find untenable in regards to doxxing of visible feminine gamers. Or that the tactics used against Brianna Wu and Chris von Csefalvay match at a pattern level that goes beyond that specific instance of escalation. This is where Weaponized Social seeks to explore and intervene, because human rights apply to everyone, including ourselves and whoever we might perceive to be our enemies. “Lead by obeying,” as the Zapatistas say.

Who Watches those Watching the Watchmen?

On the same note of rules applying to everyone equally, including the rulers, and of making the conversation clearer, the Weaponized Social crew has also been ruminating a fair amount recently on how accountability and enforcement factors into all this. When people treat each other in unethical ways, our current social systems indicate bringing the law (and associated enforcement) to bear on those breaking the rules. But we are currently facing a long-overdue distrust in enforcement, especially in police. So just as we’re running into the network effects of negative human interaction, we also have no successful foundation to build upon to mitigate through enforcement. The conversation is therefore further confused by asking who should be holding whom accountable, how do we know that’s being done fairly, and how does enforcement happen? Some are turning to community, some to law, some to software platforms, some to police, etc. Each of these may become a viable option. It’s more likely to be a combination therein, and it’s important to think about the historical patterns of enforcement as well as the repercussions of unchecked social errors.

What’s Missing?

The glaring hole which was surfaced by restructuring projects and pieces into this framework is a complete lack of recovery (it’s also totally possible that I’m just not aware of it. If you know of any, please send them our way!). Preparedness and response are necessary and worthwhile aspects to cover, but we offer no long term support or recompense to those who have been affected by the weaponization of social so as to make them whole again. Even legal and policy interventions seem to linger in only half of the cycle, when arguably institutions are responsible for longer term stability (leaving the network to adaptation). This is heartbreakingly familiar, as it’s the same in response to offline disasters.

Additionally, as the conversation expands and deepens, more individuals and organizations are beginning to see their responsibility in encouraging healthy interactions. A few requests have now come in for guidelines in making tools and platforms which take into account these issues. We’ve started to describe the various vectors of online communication which might be fiddled with, and we welcome your feedback!

What I’m excited about is how much of the Weaponized Social crew (most notably, Meredith and TQ) has focused on the mitigation aspect of the disaster cycle. How can we change the very way we do things, to become more pro-social for everyone? We welcome your perusal and contributions to any of the projects on the WeapSoc wiki, but these are the ones I’m most excited about.

What’s Next?

What’s up next is a discussion with Meredith et al to historically, theoretically, epicyclically, technically explore the weaponization of social interaction, such that we can arrive at better interventions. To start, we might discuss the history of liberal social justice and identity politics social justice, cognitive biases, and network effects. You can tune in December 18th at 11a PT / 2p ET by registering here.

We’re also starting to explore a code sprint on some of these tools. If you’d like to get involved, please let us know!

Forays in creating a healthier online ecosystem

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

Weaponized Social is an emerging program that seeks to support a healthier online ecosystem. Since our last gathering in New York, we’ve been to Nairobi on May 2nd, hosted WeapSoc SF in our office home in San Francisco, and facilitated a highly relevant event, the International Workshop on Misogyny and the Internet in MY home base of Cambridge, MA. We’ve continued to build out the Weaponized Social Wiki with notes from conversations, projects, and possibilities.

Weaponized Social in Nairobi

In Nairobi at AkiraChix, we further refined the checklist for making safe space and started two projects: FaceOff and Trolling the Trolls. FaceOff provides space for highly visible people to interact in a nuanced way, posting back to short-form spaces, so as to ask their constituents to be better balanced. This is a response to the very real occurrences of politicians calling their online followers to take action (sometimes violent) in offline space. Trolling the Trolls seeks to use language patterns from sock puppet accounts to find those accounts sooner, and respond to them before they have a negative impact on the speech of marginalized individuals online. Yvonne, who suggested this, also introduced me to ZeroTrollerance which was then represented by Peng! Collective.

San Francisco’s attendees on May 16th and 17th at the SF Nonprofit Tech Center were highly influenced by the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which explores the two systems we have for thinking: one which is based on intuition (and assumption) and on which we most often depend, and one which is based in logic and analysis which comes with a cost to use.

Often, when in difficult exchanges online, we default into the intuitive to protect ourselves. This prevents us from reaching any different understanding of an encounter than what we came to it with. To cope with this, we devised the Introspection Bot, to help you break from whatever mental rut you’re in and consider the wider picture. We also developed the idea of redirecting dog piles of outrage into actual long-term efforts to address systemic problems. We performed some heavy lifting around dissecting what aspects of sociality go into platforms, including privacy control and friend count, which we offered to the Center for Civic Media’s Uncomfortable Networks.

One major difference in perspective between these two events was that freedom of expression is so enthusiastically valued in both the American and internet freedom circles I run in, but in Kenya, just as in other places, concern over hate speech inciting violence is very real. This tension is difficult to navigate both in everyday life and in the microcosm of a session. This is one reason why I was so thrilled when Aspiration was asked to facilitate the Berkman Center’s International Workshop on Internet and Society (IWoMI). Here, there was an international crowd committed to understanding and preventing misogyny (a bit more specific than Weaponized Social events, but focus can be a good thing!) online and off.

We made explicit space for, though still struggled to ingrain, non-Western perspectives in our conversations, including with one conversation about reporting abuse on platforms. A number of memorable things took place:

I continue to be honored and thrilled at the vast amount of brain power and heart the powerhouses of human beings involved in this movement are extending to solve these problems. To have such an international, intergenerational, and human-rights-supportive group set on making the internet a healthy place gives me hope we might even make it happen.

Reporting Back from Weaponized Social in NYC

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

A group of fifteen participants gathered in New York City on February 13 and 14 to discuss the idea of Weaponized Social: the notion that social harms resulting from digital interactions can become dangerously amplified online by the network effect. We discussed what might be done to rethink the ‘social scripts’ that trigger conflict, and how to mediate conflicts as they arise in digital spaces (visit this post to learn more about “social scripts”).

At the event, we recognized that while online interactions can enact harmful consequences, this is a tractable problem; we are in a position to make changes to social scripts in our parts of the world and corners of the web. We understood that many of the things we love most about the internet (e.g., the ability to ambiently connect with long-time friends, to interact (and fall in love with!) strangers, and to vocalize your causes) are also what can make it seem like a dangerous place, where we may be susceptible to harassment or having private information leaked by known or unknown entities.

Weaponized Social NYC

We took the first half of day one to co-create an agenda and to participate in an idea spectrogram in order to challenge assumptions of agreement and convey the diversity of world views in the room. We then dedicated the second half of the day to the common threads across the various issues we were working in. One such shared belief was that rather than creating one-size-fits-all content (e.g., a single deescalation guidebook), we should instead embrace many versions of the same idea being present, for various levels of knowledge, language, and learning styles (think of things like “Drawing for Scientists“).

We also considered how the ways people connect to one another influences their interactions. Calling this session “structures,” it included graph and network visualizations coming into beautifully-illustrated play. We then explored ways of forming and maintaining healthy communities, creating general guidelines to create safe space within defined communities, and to recover if a community has become unsafe.

On the second day, we discussed the more tangible aspects of online scripts, such as:

  • nonviolent communication
  • historical trolling (i.e., trolling pre-online harassment)
  • recovering from unintentional mistakes (yours or someone else’s)
  • nonverbal communication online
  • constructing bridges between disagreeing people
  • solidarity in nebulous groups (what is it to have someone’s back when you’re not technically in a community together? What about if it is an open chat room anyone can join?)

Throughout these discussions, we recognized that echo chambers are to be avoided, but that safe space is also needed for reconciliation, adaptation, and learning. Assuming that a perfectly safe space is also one in which freedom to act is incredibly constrained, we now advocate creating “safe foyers” rather than blanket “safe spaces” (i.e., “Please step over here with me so we can figure out where things went wrong”).

In this model, the safe foyer being unsuccessful would mean bringing in more community members to escalate conflict resolution. We are painfully aware that many abusive people will use back room conversations to quietly continue antisocial behavior, while still seeing that back room conversations are a valuable channel of support for conflict resolution, and we look forward to further examining this tension.

There were many common threads and themes here as well. Such as:

  • Intended audience matters (see also: “Context Collapse“.)
  • Translators between world views are a valuable and necessary (and should be celebrated and rotated in order to prevent fatigue and burn-out)
  • Both historical trolling and non violent communication strive for exploration and emotional maturity for all parties involved (albeit by incredibly different methods)

In each of these, we aimed to include and support neurodiversity, such as those with autism spectrum disorders or with scrupulosity.

The question we will continue to carry forward is: How do we inspire change and self-reflection in our selves and the communities we engage with? To this end, we have a few projects started:

  • Guide for supporting activists
  • Guide in how to ask for critique in a way you can best hear it
  • Self-awareness checklist
  • Guide to wielding the privilege sword
  • Checklist for making safe space (and path-correction when things are going poorly)
  • Guide to expressing nonverbal cues in text-based space
  • Guide to using nonviolent communication among people who use differing empathic styles

These conversations required trust and comfortable space, and we were honored to be housed by the newly opened Civic Hall in NYC’s Flat Iron District. We thank Micah Sifry, a long-time Aspiration friend, who offered this newly established community space around civic tech for the Weaponized Social event. We couldn’t dream of a more appropriate space. Please do welcome them to the geographic and interest neighborhoods when you have a chance.

As we continue moving forward on these projects, we hope you’ll contact us and let us know if you’d be interested in participating in (or hosting!) a future event by contacting weaponizedsocial@aspirationtech.org

Weaponized Social: Rethinking Online Scripts

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

In the Aspiration ethos, using tools comes second to cultivating and understanding the ecosystem where the tool would live and grow. In practice, this means creating organizational processes, positive feedback loops, conventions, etc., so that when technology is implemented, it is overlayed on existing modes of healthy and sustainable interaction. This year, we began exploring one of the broader and more nebulous ecosystems as it relates to the technology of the internet: the ‘social scripts’ that mediate online interactions.

In February in New York City, participants at the first Weaponized Social collaborated to rethink the scripts that mediate behavior and interactions online. A social script is a way of interacting which is learned and internalized. It is similar to a software script (e.g., “if X, then Y”), but it takes place in the brain and is externalized in social situations. For example, when you walk into a restaurant, a social script is enacted:

  1. A host leads you to your seat and asks what you’d like to drink.
  2. The server brings your drink order, and asks if you’re ready to order food.
  3. You say, “No, not yet.”
  4. You are given more time to explore the menu.

…and so on and so on. If the server firsts asks for a dessert order or if you want to refinance your home, confusion follows as a result of going off-script. One is not born with innate knowledge of ‘how to go to a restaruant’. The script is learned. Although persistent, social scripts are transient and always evolving.

However, social scripts for online courtesy and critique have not kept apace with the rapid evolution of online technology over the past twenty years. The harms of scripts that played out in small groups offline have become dangerously amplified via the network effect. The potential to cascade and amplify makes the harms of scripts more potent. In extreme cases, a social interaction can become weaponized, triggering a negative script that brings life-threatening consequences (think social media comments escalating to harassing death threats and forcing someone to leave their home).

Weaponized Social seeks to explore ways to diminish harmful social scripts through workshops, dialogue, and the creation of actionable and shareable content. On the other side of the coin, we have the opportunity to enforce positive social scripts. It is possible to amplify the healthy, joyful, and serendipitous aspects of online connections.

How to get involved:


Special thanks to Meredith (@maradydd) Sam (@metasj), and the Berkman Center (@berkmancenter) for help in parsing all these ideas.