Science for Survival & Hope: Receiving the Rise25 Award
When death threats started to arrive in Gloria’s¹ inbox in November 2014, she knew there was a chance those threats would be made real. Malicious online groups, using the power of the Internet to organize, were crowdsourcing threats toward people who spoke up for women’s dignity and equal rights. In some cases, these threats have turned to physical violence. In other cases, the uncertainty and trauma alone were enough to silence public voices.
As Gloria and hundreds of other women took steps to protect their loved ones from violence, they also did another extraordinary thing: organizing scientific analysis of their experiences. That science changed the world — and changed my life forever.
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Last week as I walked a red carpet in Berlin to accept a Rise25 award from the Mozilla Foundation for my research and advocacy, I knew I didn’t walk the carpet alone. As a professor who organizes community/citizen science about our digital environments, I represent the thousands of people who have worked with me in the last nine years, people who found the courage to greet their deepest concerns and greatest hopes with empathy and curiosity.
Why would people do science when their lives are at risk? For decades, tech visionaries and corporations sold a hollowed-out vision that the internet democratized knowledge — while failing to institute basic, obvious protections in a world of injustice. When advocacy groups pointed out digital harms, tech leaders often made empty promises at photo ops while continuing to de-prioritize and under-fund online safety.
Frustrated that corporate hypocrisy was fooling the public and making it harder to keep people safe, a group called Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!) made an open call in 2014 for women to record the harassment they faced and take note of how tech firms responded. This mutual aid accountability, as I later wrote, meets practical needs while documenting problems and supporting a search for solutions.
When WAM! asked me as a gradstudent to organize a research team to study these stories, I immediately said yes. Our research revealed systemic failures in corporate harassment protections, spurred institutions to do better, and came to shape the work of hundreds of scholars and leaders across computer science, the social sciences, and tech policy.
Our research on harassment made us targets too. Before long, our names appeared on a hit list of people to dox — the first step in sending violence to someone’s door.
Online groups weren’t the only source of risk. A powerful person at my university warned me to moderate what I said about companies in my research, since tech firms were big donors. One of those donors made public statements dismissing our work. After they heard our results wouldn’t be good PR, the company’s leaders refused to discuss or even receive our research. Because this science mattered to people, it now faced threats from every side.
Visions of a flourishing internet can’t be achieved if we are stuck playing defense
As the attacks mounted, I knew I had found my calling. I already knew I wanted to do consequential work on digital equity and rights. As a rising scientist, I was also excited to make new discoveries to reliably help people imagine and achieve the common good. Finally, as the Guatemalan-American child of parents who made it through a civil war, I had inherited one form of what Tara Yosso calls Community Cultural Wealth: the capacity to face injustice with a cool head despite opposition.
The Citizens and Technology Lab
Since collaborating with WAM!, nearly all of my 22 peer reviewed scientific articles and dozen works of journalism have focused on the idea that ordinary people can transform the Internet for good through science. After earning my PhD, I founded the Citizens and Technology Lab (CAT Lab), which organizes community science for a world where digital power is guided by evidence and accountable to the public.
CAT Lab works with communities on research that has improved millions of people’s lives on online harassment, misinformation, algorithm accountability, and digital inclusion. Together we’ve made scientific discoveries and shaped policy by governments and tech firms, making the internet safer and more inclusive in measurable ways that continue to inspire change.
Together with communities, we are also changing science. Through CAT Lab’s work, over a thousand scholarly articles by others have come to incorporate community science into conversations about the nature of human behavior, computer science, and the future of the Internet. And this year, after months of writing and editing, our work with communities on governing algorithms was published in Nature, whose editors considered it important to showcase across all of science.
Visions of a flourishing internet can’t be achieved if we are stuck playing defense. That’s why I’m especially proud of our collaborations with Wikipedia communities. Working together across multiple languages and multiple continents, we’ve done research to welcome newcomers, increase participation in sub-Sarahan Africa, and create cascades of gratitude that broaden people’s contributions to the common good.
The Rise25 award wasn’t just for me and CAT Lab — it’s for anyone who has published an investigation, started a lab, established a funding stream, and collected evidence in the public interest
As a university professor, I especially enjoy growing the movement by uplifting students and community leaders. Several of our community collaborators have started PhDs, taken up fellowships at prominent universities, and trained the next generation themselves.
I am happy to report from experience that watching others exceed your own imagination is one of the best feelings in the world. Gradstudents connected to CAT Lab are pathbreaking new research on AI governance, online inclusion, algorithm discrimination, digital censorship, online harassment, child safety, research methods, and research ethics.
CAT Lab is just one part of an exciting wave of young projects by communities, journalists, NGOs, and academics to create industry-independent, public-interest knowledge on tech and society. When organizations like Mozilla give awards, it sends a message that a certain kind of work is important. The Rise25 award wasn’t just for me and CAT Lab — it’s for anyone who has published an investigation, created a lab, established a funding stream for public-interest research, and collected evidence in the public interest.
The more our work makes a difference, the more threats researchers face
The Coalition for Independent Technology Research
Unfortunately, attacks on research are the other way I’m not alone. The more our work makes a difference, the more threats researchers face.
In the years since my collaborators and I were put on a harassment hit list and a tech firm tried to undermine our work, attacks on researchers have continued to grow. Journalists, community leaders, and academics who stand up for public knowledge have been physically threatened and been legally threatened with potential criminal cases, fines, and defamation lawsuits. Tech firms have interfered with researcher data access, gagged students from publishing papers, and even attacked students in the press for discovering omissions in corporate reports to governments. Politicians in the U.S. are attacking research too, lashing out at science they find inconvenient and placing unconstitutional restrictions on the right to research.
Defending public knowledge is central to defending democracy. That’s why a dozen of us organized two years ago to create the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, which works to advance, defend, and sustain the right to ethically study the impact of technology on society. As a core Coalition organizer alongside Susan Benesch, Rebekah Tromble, and Alex Abdo, I’m excited to see what this movement is becoming.
Our growing membership of over 300 community scientists, journalists, civil society organizations, and academics has organized multiple campaigns to protect research. Our nonpartisan mutual aid campaigns have documented the impact of attacks on research, supported dozens of projects under threat, and made the public case for the right to research in the international media and leading scientific publications. And our recent lawsuit in Texas is standing up for researchers’ first amendment rights in the face of an unconstitutional ban on studying TikTok.
As the Coalition grows, we are excited to work together to nurture, grow, and protect the movement for independent technology research. Watch this space as we expand our work in 2024 as a fiscally sponsored project of Aspiration Tech.
As I walked the red carpet on Friday evening, a TV presenter asked me what I think it means to “reclaim the Internet.” Many of the world’s people were never seriously included in 20th century promises by technology’s leading men to create a global resource for peace, understanding, and collective potential. Seeing the inspiring group that Mozilla is celebrating through Rise25, I’m feeling encouraged. This group of activists, builders, artists, creators, and advocates are re-making that vision in creative ways for the common good.
The best news of the night, in my view, was Mark Surman’s remark that over a thousand people were nominated for the Rise25 awards. True transformation isn’t the product of a few visionaries on a stage — it happens through the collective care of countless people investing in the good that we each uniquely see. By making that collective care more visible, Rise25 has made me more hopeful about our shared future.
More about the Citizens and Technology Lab
- About the CAT Lab team
- CAT Lab Research Projects
- Publications: Dr. J. Nathan Matias, founder
- Publications: Dr. Sarah Gilbert, research director
More about the Coalition for Independent Technology Research:
- About the Coalition
- List of Coalition members
- Recent Coalition publications and campaigns
- About the Texas lawsuit
More about the Rise25 Awards:
¹name anonymized for privacy