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Apr 8, 20

Our Mutual Aid Efforts Need a Stronger Tech Immune System

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Mutual aid networks and autonomous organizing is exploding in the post-coronavirus world. But are we setting ourselves up for failure using platforms like Google and Facebook to organize? What are the alternatives?

There has been an explosion in mutual aid efforts across the US, where this article is focused. With the State and capital largely caught unprepared for the scope of this pandemic in the US, radicals everywhere have taken initiative to organize mutual aid efforts. Most places are mere weeks into self-isolation and an interruption to our everyday lives, and there are already supply drop-offs and people sewing DIY masks at the request of hospitals, as their stocks dwindle. As these weeks turn into months, and the question of rent and evictions comes up in a concrete way, these needs will only increase. This moment has revolutionary potential in how we organize to meet these needs.

But, there is perhaps a blind spot we should be more aware of. While we’re building and strengthening these social relationships, we’ve found ourselves entirely reliant not only on “silicon valley” in the abstract, but very literally two companies: Facebook and Google. My casual, unscientific review of multiple public lists of mutual aid efforts has revealed only a handful of efforts which do not use Google or Facebook, and some of those only meet that criteria because they don’t appear to have an intake form or forum of any kind.

Why is This?

One initial setup that has been useful and easy to replicate was a Google Form that fed responses into a Google Sheet for organizers to use, in a variety of organizational models. This works, and is especially useful because of its ease of use. Just push a few buttons on a website and you have the infrastructure your mutual aid group needs in just minutes. The second popular model is the Facebook group. Similar in usability to the previous model, a few clicks on a website is all that’s needed to build a forum for neighbors to communicate needs and capacities directly to each other. It also helps that Facebook still has a massive userbase of people who mostly add people based on knowing them in “Real Life,” making it a useful place for local organizing.

These models both make sense and have obviously been effective, but have their own drawbacks, technical and otherwise. Undoubtedly many efforts have already experienced some frustrations with these platforms. The most important problem for us if we hope for this organizing to move in a more revolutionary and permanent direction is that so much of our infrastructure depends on two global megacorps who certainly do not want the status quo to change all that much, and are more interested in returning to business as usual than building a better society.

I’ll assume the readers of IGD, and the radicals putting all this hard work in, don’t need me to remind them that Google and Facebook are dystopian surveillance nightmares incarnate. After all, we’re the ones that call it “Fedbook” and attend privacy workshops. Yet we, for now, are depending entirely on Google and Facebook for our organizing infrastructure. At minimum, this is giving them a very useful look at our social graphs and how we organize, in a more active and intense time than ever before, and by consequence this same information is available to the police. Not only can they lurk in Facebook groups, which is hard to avoid for any such forum, but they can subpeona Facebook for any information they have on users of the group.

This also is very directly vulnerable to repression. Tell me, what happens if the State announces that mutual aid efforts are counter-productive for quarantines and the “necessary measures” State forces are undertaking? Or what if your mutual aid group gets involved in efforts that more directly challenge the State and capital, like massive rent strikes? Facebook and Google have the power to – whether at their whim or by government demand in a state of emergency – shut down those groups very easily. Deactivate those forms. Delete those spreadsheets. We aren’t simply “using the master’s tools” as if we stole them from the toolbox, we’re renting the master’s tools, and they can take them back whenever they feel like it.

Which isn’t to say that mutual aid efforts currently using these tools are wrong. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense. They’re easy, fast, accessible, free, and largely up to the task at hand when used properly. It’s exactly what happens when people organize where they’re at. But right now we aren’t resilient enough. We need to build relationships so that we can continue organizing mutual aid without these platforms, and we need to prepare alternative infrastructure, even if only as a backup or experiment.

So What Should we Do?

Alternatives can come in a variety of forms. Even just a phone number or address may be enough to keep people connected and coordinated. But the power with these forms and groups is in their discoverability and accessibility to people we don’t already know. They give us a chance to reach more than our usual circles of friends and comrades. There may still be a place for the Facebooks of the world to assist in this public outreach, especially while most people are staying at home.

First, the lower-tech options. Mutual aid has been organized before the internet existed, learning lessons from those efforts is important.

Getting the contact info of people outside your immediate circles is crucial. This way no group of friends is necessarily isolated if access to Google or Facebook’s platforms is lost. Something like a phone tree can help organize this into more than just ad-hoc calls when someone is in need. If you’re thinking in terms of “pods,” the goal is to keep pods connected, so that if one pod has a request, it can reach all the other pods.

If you’re using services, you can make sure you’re at least not locked in to them. Let’s use Google Sheets as an example. How often do you download a copy of the spreadsheet, so you can continue working without access to Google, or the internet? Do you audit who has access to view and edit the spreadsheet? It likely contains personal or sensitive information that submitters don’t intend the public to see.

Now, the first step away from Google/Facebook dependance: other services. With a bit of searching, you can find other companies offering similar things. Here’s just a snippet of the ones I know of: Jotform is another popular form service, with a free option and paid tiers, and interestingly it supports encrypted forms that Jotform can’t access the submissions of. For spreadsheets, Airtable is another alternative corporate service used by mutual aid efforts, and cryptpad.fr provides encrypted spreadsheets the provider cannot read. For forums like Facebook groups, Discourse has hosted options, and even a demo. Some of these may be for-profit companies, but it’s at least a step away from the Google monoculture.

Getting a bit more high-tech, there are also self-hosted options. These require more hands-on work to run, but give you more control over the infrastructure. If you’re familiar with DIY culture, where some people figure out how to throw basement shows, other people figure out how to run their own cloud tools for their friends. For forms, there’s OhMyForm. If you liked cryptpad.fr, you can host your own with the same open-source software they use. For forums, Discourse is also open-source, and can be self-hosted. There are certainly other open-source projects that could be used as well.

There are many options for email besides Google. Riseup.net, resist.ca and autistici.org all provide mail services for radical projects, and also email lists for announcements and discussion, like Google Groups. Some corporate services like Protonmail are designed to be resistant to subpeonas for emails, and are easy to use. For the more adventurous, self-hosting an email server is an option, though outside the scope of this article’s suggestions. For more real-time messaging, you’ve probably used Signal, but may want to know about self-hostable options like Riot, and Mattermost. Or what about Zoom, the overnight sensation for lonely self-quarantined people? They’re the best in the business, but have a lackluster record on user privacy. Join.me and Jitsi Meet are both alternatives, though they may not work for all uses. If you want to try a Jitsi Meet server hosted by a radical project, try https://meet.mayfirst.org/, https://vc.autistici.org/ or https://calls.disroot.org/.

What about even bolder experiments? Pirate FM stations can be a great way to keep fellow shelter-in-place or self-quarantined individuals connected with the world outside, and broadcast information on mutual aid efforts and skills. Ham radio (aka: amateur radio) is a broad topic, but contains more technical skills for radio communication over wider areas. Basically super walkie-talkies. For a decent sum of money, you can experiment with commercial mesh-network devices like goTenna, giving you independence from the cell network. Lots of people have recently found themselves with a lot more free time, upping your skills by studying and learning about these things will certainly be useful.

Of course, the issue of using technology safely is also important. Multiple times, the point of entry for state forces to directly surveil activists has been some form of phishing attack, where they use an email, text message, or social media message to trick the victim into handing over their password, or installing spyware. The best defense against this is vigilance, so take some time to read up on techniques phishers use, and example phishing emails. You can try this simple phishing example for an easy intro: https://phishingquiz.withgoogle.com/

If you have friends that are into tech, try to recruit them to share their skills. If you have tech skills, find efforts to join that need your skills. For whatever tech platforms and tools you use, do some searching for open source alternatives. Odds are good they exist, and may be better than you think.

Dream Big, Organize Smart

Unprecedented things are happening for us, and it’s no time to be timid. All of the work that’s happening is important, but it’s also important to keep other principles in our work, like anti-capitalism. It’s important to experiment with the focus of our efforts, and how we organize these efforts. Don’t be scared to try new things, see how they work, how they can effectively be used, and how they are falling short of our needs and desires. Share information about all of this, so others can learn from your successes and failures, and we can sharpen our skills together. And remember, it isn’t just about how many people are in a group, or on a list, but the relationships we’re building in this work, and how they enable us to do more together than we could alone.

Finally, please keep yourselves safe over the coming weeks and months. These mutual aid efforts are important for meeting our needs during this crisis, and we need to make absolutely sure our efforts aren’t giving this virus opportunities to spread. Keep up to date with recommendations from experts, do everything possible to avoid or minimize contact with strangers, and if you must interact with strangers or go to public places, take every precaution you can to avoid transmission. Also, make sure to take care of yourself. It’s easy to throw yourself into urgent work and burn out, but building from weeks to months to years is the difference between short-term emergency projects, and the better world we all deserve.

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