The Strange Tale of Social Autopsy, the Anti-Harassment Start-up That Descended Into Gamergate Trutherism

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If you stumbled upon the Twitter account @socialcoroner over the weekend, you might have immediately assumed it was being run by a type that’s become sadly familiar online: the hard-line Gamergater. If you spend enough time on Twitter or Reddit, you run into these folks occasionally: sitting at the far end of the obsessiveness bell curve, these are the dudes (and they’re mostly dudes) convinced that a cabal of feminist “social-justice warriors,” or SJWs, are controlling everything from behind the scenes, viciously targeting their enemies and punishing them for not toeing an imagined wacko-progressive line.

Two common targets of this sort of obsession — and, broadly speaking, two of Gamergate’s biggest bête noires — are the anti-harassment advocates Zoe Quinn and Randi Lee Harper. And, indeed, they were exactly who @socialcoroner went after.

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For a large chunk of the weekend, the account came hard at both women, implying they were part of a conspiracy that was about to be unmasked. At times, the account sounded like it was tweeting from a besieged bunker, with the armies of Quinn and Harper closing in: “Randi & Zoe: stop sending your clowns to try and scare us with ‘legal hell’ threats. If you’re going to serve us, do it already!” It could be, unsurprisingly, hard to follow. But @socialcoroner repeatedly asserted its superiority over its alleged tormentors. “I consider the constructs of our society thoroughly, and often. I think analytically. Randi and Zoe really banked on my being dumb,” it tweeted at one point. “Keep sending the troops Randi & Zo. xx,” at another. Throughout, the conspiracy-talk was thick. Responding to another user, @socialcoroner wrote that “It’s literally a puzzle. The picture is obvious but fitting the pieces will take time.” Over the course of two tweets (separated by one in between): “Everyone PAY ATTENTION to the mentions… They are literally exposing themselves in the mentions. We can trace this all back to the origins.”

On the one hand: yawn. Sadly, these sorts of claims are dime a dozen on Twitter. On the other hand: @socialcoroner is the official Twitter account of Social Autopsy, an anti-bullying start-up that launched its Kickstarter last week, and the rant against Quinn and Harper garnered it hundreds of new followers. Quinn and Harper are very strange targets for an organization like this: Generally speaking, there is almost zero overlap between the sorts of people who publicly and repeatedly denounce those two particular women and the sorts of people concerned with ending online harassment. What the hell is going on here?

It’s a strange, slightly complicated story — but it’s also a useful cautionary tale about what can happen when newcomers wander into the weirder, angrier corners of the internet without first reading a tour guide or two.

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Social Autopsy launched its Kickstarter campaign on April 12, billing itself as a way to catalogue the abuses of trolls and cyberbullies. Its founder is Candace Owens, a 26-year-old woman with a background in finance who has painful firsthand experience with bullying — when she was in high school in Stamford, Connecticut, a classmate and former friend left racist death threats on her phone, sparking a local scandal that came to ensnare the mayor and his son, the latter of whom was in a car with the perpetrator at the time he threatened Owens.

It’s clear these events had an effect on Owens. “The age of technology and social media has slowly disintegrated individual accountability, the consequences of which are devastating,” she says in Social Autopsy’s promotional video, which then rolls news coverage of a series of suicides that may have been caused, at least in part, by cyberbullying. She then explains what Social Autopsy will do: “We attach [people’s] 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, you know, Twitter handles or privatized profiles. It’s all real, and it’s all researchable. You can still say whatever you want to say on social media, but you have to be willing to stand by your words.” According to the Kickstarter, the company is seeking $75,000 in funding and hopes to launch with 150,000 profiles.

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The pitch, to anyone steeped in the world of social media in 2016, is odd, if not ominous. Owens is unclear how she plans to do any of the things she says she will, and listening to her description of a site that “lifts masks” and connects people’s names to their employers, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Social Autopsy’s goals include de-anonymizing people online and making it easier to dox trolls and harassers. And that’s exactly how the Kickstarter pitch was interpreted by most of the people who saw it. The freak-out was both immediate and predictable — a site that allows users to “report” people for entry in a database that will portray them as a troll or a cyberbully has obvious potential for all kinds of abuse.

In the days that followed, a rare degree of unity was achieved between various opposing factions in the endless internet culture wars: Gamergater and anti-Gamergate advocate alike agreed that this was a very bad idea, and that the Kickstarter’s lack of details — when it launched, there was little sign the company had given any thoughts to potential privacy concerns, nor to countermeasures against the inevitability of reports leveled against innocent people — suggested it was a half-baked, potentially dangerous service that no one really wanted.

The response to Social Autopsy seemed, in short, like a clear instance of the internet — that is, the market for the service itself — rearing up and issuing forth a guttural, earsplitting No thanks! But that’s not how Owens sees things. Instead, she’s convinced the current online shaming she’s experiencing — including death threats and violently racist language delivered into her company’s inbox — are the result of a conspiracy, possibly a far-reaching one, spearheaded by Quinn and Harper. She thinks they, and particularly Quinn, are the ones sending her nasty email, or that they started the hysteria which led to the inundation, at least. She also thinks they’re operating a network of sock-puppet social-media accounts trying to take down Social Autopsy — all because they’re afraid of what the nascent company will reveal about them once it’s up and running.

There is no actual evidence any of this is true, and yet Owens, thrust into an internet culture war she knew nothing about coming in, has misinterpreted, in a particularly cringeworthy way, various bits of mundane “evidence” as implicating Quinn and Harper. She has accidentally become a true believer in a common variety of Gamergate conspiracy — all without even really knowing what Gamergate is. And she’s convinced she’s about to break the whole thing open in a big blog post she plans to publish on her website, degree180.com, later today.

It all started with an email from Zoe Quinn to Owens the evening of the Kickstarter launch. For the uninitiated, Quinn is the original victim of Gamergate. Her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni effectively launched the entire online movement with a lengthy, vindictive blog post he published about her, in August of 2014, leading to a cascade of harassment and death threats that has never fully abated since.

She had expressed concerns about Social Autopsy on Twitter, and soon an Autopsy intern gave her Owens’s personal work email address. (Quinn is a co-founder of Crash Override Network, a “crisis helpline, advocacy group and resource center for people who are experiencing online abuse.” With the exception of a few instances in which she responded to individual claims below, Quinn said in a DM statement she didn’t want to comment on the particulars of her interactions with Owens. “It’s unfortunate that the public conversation that could have been about the project and the underlying merits of different tactics of fighting against online abuse has been largely hijacked by people acting in bad faith hoping to cause a spectacle,” the statement read in part, “and I have no interest in allowing myself to be used for that.”)

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Shortly after Quinn initiated email contact, the two women were on the phone. It didn’t go well. Owens said she found Quinn “pompous” and that she didn’t think Quinn’s concerns, which varied from the potential of children getting doxxed by Social Autopsy to the threat she thought Gamergate posed to Owens herself, were well-founded. Quinn, Owens also told me, said she was calling on behalf of a group of anti-bullying organizations, but wouldn’t say which ones. Things got increasingly heated, and then Quinn broke into tears and said something like “I don’t think you understand — this is going to ruin everything!” Owens said she found it odd and suspicious that Quinn started crying, especially given that she was calling as a representative of various  organizations. After they got off the phone, the two had a brief email correspondence which culminated, Owens said, in Quinn asking her not to contact her again. (In a DM conversation, Quinn acknowledged she had teared up, but denied saying anything that Owens could have interpreted as “This is going to ruin everything!” She also denied having claimed to be speaking for anyone other than herself.)

About 45 minutes after Quinn sent her final email, Owens said she started receiving racist hate mail at the main Kickstarter contact email for Social Autopsy, and at her own personal email — the first email she received simply said “NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER” (Owens is African-American). It soon became a deluge of harassment, some of it violent, with many of the fake email addresses the harassers used containing words like “gaming” or a variation thereof. “I spent an entire night being harassed — I couldn’t even answer the real questions from people that were coming from our Kickstarter campaign,” said Owens. Here are some of the messages she received, which are quite graphic:

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By the time I spoke with her on Saturday night, Owens had convinced herself that it was Quinn sending her at least some of those harassing notes. For one thing, she found the fake handles suspicious. Gaming was “an industry and a community that I had, prior to talking to Zoe Quinn, no idea about — they were not on our radar.” It also seemed a little too pat that Quinn had warned her there would be a wave of harassment and then, voilà, there was a wave of harassment, especially given that the Kickstarter had been operating for the better part of a day with nary a critique from haters. I pressed Owens on this: she really thought Quinn sent her the “NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER” note, and the other over-the-top hateful ones? “She sent or knew who sent them,” she responded. “100 percent undeniable.” The belief seems to hinge almost entirely on the facts that the abusive emails came in after she spoke with Quinn, and that both Quinn and some of the notes mentioned gamers.

Owens said she woke up furious the next day, and saw she had received an email in the personal work account that Quinn had been given, “which to me said ‘red flag, this is Zoe Quinn’” (it should be pointed out that Owens’s work account is not hard to figure out). The email linked to a thread on 4chan’s /pol/ board, which is notorious for its reactionary politics and offensive trollery, in which users teed off on Social Autopsy and what a bad idea it was. “So don’t say no one warned you,” the author of that email wrote, “but seriously you need to take the time to read the whole thread do not dismiss this, it will only hurt you in the future if you do.” Soon after that, Owens noticed someone had posted about Social Autopsy on Reddit as well, and soon after that that someone had created a fake social-media account on Twitter — “sociaIautopsy” with a capital I instead of an L, to trick people. Owens attributed just about all of this to Quinn and her allies.

Another big piece of evidence Owens highlights as proof of a conspiracy to take down her company is the “Open Letter to Social Autopsy” posted to Medium by a well-known Gamergate critic named Randi Lee Harper. In the letter, Harper, a frequent Gamergate target and anti-harassment advocate herself, tore into Owens for wandering into a situation she didn’t fully understand (Harper noted that at one point Owens referred to Quinn as a Gamergate leader — this is kind of like referring to Obama as a big tea-party activist). Harper didn’t hold back. “I’m telling you my credentials so you can understand where I’m coming from when I tell you, unequivocally, you are a goddamn trainwreck,” she wrote at one point. Later: “You are a fucking idiot.” Then, referring to the fact that Kickstarter suspended funding for Social Autopsy: “You blamed your Kickstarter getting shut down on trolls. You’re wrong. That was us. As long as you’re willfully harming other people by creating shitty uninformed products while kicking the shit out of anyone that tries to help you, we’re going to keep getting you shut down.”

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To Owens, this level of anger just didn’t make sense — there had to be something else going on. “I started piecing it together, and I was like, Oh my God, this is actually who these people are — this is crazy,” she said. To find out more, she started researching Quinn’s and Harper’s names. Quickly she collided headfirst with a key point of Gamergate orthodoxy: Many online harassment victims — particularly “professional victims” like Quinn and Harper — are making up or exaggerating the harassment against them. Hardcore Gamergaters even think Quinn, Harper, or both run elaborate ruses to try to convince the world they are under online attack when in fact they aren’t. (Part of what makes these theories so hard to believe is that if you Google either name, you can see that a disturbing number of people have been utterly obsessed with both women — particularly Quinn — since Gamergate broke. Given the sheer heat that has been blasted at them for so long, it would be bizarre if they hadn’t been hit by wave after wave of abuse and threats.) In a DM statement, Harper said, in part, “This isn’t the first project that was likely well intentioned but lacked research into both technology as well as the psychology of harassment … Without that collective knowledge base and support [of the preexisting members of the online anti-harassment community], anyone entering this new tech sector is going to have a difficult time.”

This is a striking example of how successfully Gamergate has tarred two of its targets. Owens, new to the controversy and just trying to understand more about the women who had criticized her, quickly became convinced that Quinn and Harper were some sort of internet supervillains. Lacking the full context of the Gamergate story, and reading a trove of information which all seemed to confirm her suspicions, Owens fell in deeper. She felt her instincts about Quinn had been confirmed. “I started reading obviously more into it, [about how] people had suspected this for a while, that [Quinn] is actually making money,” she said. “And that Randi doxxes people … they had a tweet saved of her calling for somebody’s address and telephone number [this refers to an instance in which Harper released personal information about a debt collector]. These two are like cohorts, they’re going back and forth, and they plan, and each of them has their own network — they both have a big following —  I still do not know, admittedly, why Randi Lee Harper is, I do not know why I got an open letter from her. All I know is that she crafted the entire thing for me. Their network runs deep. So who knows? I don’t know how deep this goes.”

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Part of what has made this train wreck so depressing to watch is that almost all of it flows directly out of Owens’s lack of understanding of this particular slice of the internet. She may have worked with various anti-bullying organizations like the Tyler Clementi Foundation in the run-up to her Kickstarter launch, but it was clear from our conversation that she just hadn’t been exposed to the kind of aggressive swarming mobs that define online harassment in 2016. When we were talking about Social Autopsy, her primary examples of the behavior she was hoping to catalogue were people who left threatening Facebook comments about celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner. She thought it was important to discover, for example, the names of teachers who left viciously cruel comments against Jenner.

Yes, people leave mean comments on Facebook, and, yes, there is plenty of “old-school” cyberbullying that should be addressed, but online harassment these days is much more complicated than that — much more complicated even than the brutal, scary version Owens experienced growing up. Understanding it requires understanding a lot about anonymity, about troll culture, about who is likely to be a target in a first place. And it doesn’t appear Owens or her colleagues at Social Autopsy came in with any of this background. As if the internet were trying to hammer that point home, Owens and her organization are now experiencing exactly the sort of harassment her organization didn’t seem to fully take into account — the snowballing shaming which can come when an unpopular idea is put under a searing spotlight and the internet decides that the most important thing in the world to do, at least for the next day or so — or until some other, even more deserving victim comes along — is to mock and threaten and dehumanize whoever is responsible for that idea.

Owens’s somewhat naive understanding of what constitutes online harassment ended up backfiring on her in some pretty brutal ways. For instance, she got fixated on the word dox, mentioning that Quinn had used it in their tense phone call. “Within a few hours of having spoken to Zoe Quinn and upset her, a board has been started on us on 4chan.org, an anonymous thread, and they are now telling the gamers that we are going to be doxxing them, doxxing minors,” she told me. “The word dox is being thrown around — [I] had never heard it, people had seen our campaign, we worked on it for two months, people gave us feedback, we had a whole article written in the Connecticut Post on the front page” — and yet, she said, not a single person had used the word dox in the run-up to the Kickstarter launch. “Now we’re seeing the word dox in this chain and immediately in my head I go, Interesting word. Heard that first from Zoe.” So because Quinn had mentioned doxxing and then a bunch of other people had brought it up as well — in the context of a Kickstarter campaign that at the very least strongly hinted that it would be doxxing people by unmasking people and revealing where they work — Owens became convinced that Quinn was behind all the complaints.

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This happened over and over. Owens kept mentioning pieces of “evidence” that were just … well, the way things work online. But to her, they could only be a sign of a campaign by Quinn and Harper against her. Owens repeatedly circled back to the sheer volume of anti-Social Autopsy content she’d witnessed, and the timing of it — a firestorm of vitriol that followed the pattern of every Twitter and Reddit pile-on of the last several years, where someone says or does something, there is a brief pause while news of it spreads, and then there’s a sudden explosion. Owens found it suspicious that there had been a lag time between the Kickstarter going up and the harassment wave, and that so many people seemed profoundly upset with her project. “I’m thinking, even if I disagreed with something that was on Kickstarter, the amount of time people are investing should have been an immediate red flag to me,” she said. “No matter what you disagree with, you do not text and post for 24 hours regarding it unless you have a personal investment in it the matter. You don’t — especially if it doesn’t even exist yet. We’re in Kickstarter.” Owens also found it incredibly suspicious that people were tweeting complaints at the FBI and other authorities — which, again, is a common tactic during just about every internet outrage. But to Owens: Why would anyone do that unless they had a very personal interest in stopping Social Autopsy? At another point, she noted that one critic hailed all the way from the U.K.“What blogger has an interest in this all the way in the United Kingdom, talking trash about us? It makes no sense.”

During our DM chats following our phone conversation, she also kept getting hung up on anonymity — she found it highly suspicious, and indicative of a possible conspiracy, that so many people were bashing her anonymously. “If you don’t use your real name on Twitter why do you have SO many followers?” she asked me at one point. At another, Owens said she was pretty sure one particular account was in on the conspiracy because when she tweeted at them asking them to reveal their real name (only to her), they refused to do so.

Eventually, Owens came to believe that a group of the Twitter accounts tweeting at her were all either controlled by Harper and Quinn directly, or were colluding with them to attack Social Autopsy. I asked her to show me some of the accounts she thought were in on it and she mentioned @iglvzx, or Izzy Galvez — a well-known-within-the-community anti-Gamergate figure who had been tweeted repeatedly about Social Autopsy over the Kickstarter launch. He is only “controlled by” Harper and Quinn in the sense that he tweets a lot about online harassment. This is exactly the sort of thing he’d have a strong opinion about. If you possess some background about Gamergate, Izzy Galvez tweeting about a company like Social Autopsy is as surprising and suspicious as Bernie Sanders saying something negative about big banks.

Pulling all her suspicions together, Owens laid out her full theory. She is convinced, based on a series of escalating misconceptions about how social media works, mixed with a dose of exposure to the Gamergate literature (and some helpful input from the Gamergate supporters who have been following her tweetstorms), that Quinn and Harper are making a lot of money by faking harassment against themselves to boost concern about the issue, and that they were worried Social Autopsy would blow their cover. The funny thing, Owens told me, is that her company’s initial plan was to draw on data from public profiles anyway — so Quinn’s sock puppets would have been safe (again, the Kickstarter’s “mask-lifting” language rendered this point rather fuzzy). But now, she said, she has different plans: She wants Social Autopsy to get more technologically ambitious, and to use it to tear down the entire Quinn/Harper ring of sock-puppet accounts and fake harassment.

Owens seems to have trouble accepting that her idea simply wasn’t well-received by, well, anyone. Only a conspiracy can explain what’s going on. “Everything happened all at once,” she said. “Things don’t go viral like that, okay? It wasn’t viral. It was contained. It was contained within one community — the gaming community. That’s not how viral works. Viral’s viral.”

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Owens’s Twitter rants lasted a big chunk of the weekend. Sometimes, she called out Quinn and Harper directly. Other times she retweeted questions and comments from the Gamergaters who were eying her cautiously, wondering if she could be a useful ally (so many different threads about her were started at KotakuInAction, Gamergate’s Reddit headquarters, that mods there created a stickied “Candace Owens/SocialAutopsy Megathread”). She gave an audio interview to the Ralph Retort, a far-right blog that has joined in on dogpiles against Gamergate targets in the past. A couple times, she tweeted out a “#Gamergatesequel” hashtag, not understanding how that might look to the people who have been involved in that controversy for a year and a half and who naturally get angry or excited at anything GG-related. (“#Gamergatesequel. Coming to a theatre near you, Monday April 18th,” she wrote, referring to her upcoming big blog post exposé). Naturally, Quinn and Harper’s enemies relished the fact that the anti-harassment movement seemed to be eating itself, and that, in their eyes, a newcomer to this endless fight had “exposed” Gamergate’s enemies for who they are.

As a result of her accidental slide into internet obsession, at a time when she could be figuring out how to address the numerous valid concerns the public has raised about her company, Owens is instead focusing, laser-like, on unraveling a conspiracy that exists only in the eyes of fevered Gamergaters and men’ rights activists. “It makes no sense,” she said of the outcry against Social Autopsy. “I’m telling you — there is a whole network that I’m pretty convinced … it really is Gamergate, but it’s bigger than Gamergate. Because the implications of it are so much heavier. How many organizations do this? How many organizations stand up on a stage … and make sure this problem never fucking dies [by faking harassment]?” She’s going to get to the bottom of this — she wants to position Social Autopsy in the vanguard of the fight against Quinn, Harper, and their nefarious allies.

So overall, Social Autopsy’s Kickstarter rollout has not been without its hiccups.