Raising Our Concerns: Reflections on AAA 2020

[Footnotes is pleased to present this guest statement by Anthro Response Cauldrona collective of people who (re)connected over Twitter during ROV, after recognising their shared concerns and sense of urgency for meaningful reform with the AAA. Collective members, who include senior and junior scholars, have chosen to remain anonymous to prevent sanction of individuals for speaking out.]

A note on timing: We are publishing this piece now because we are concerned that November’s events may have been forgotten over the course of two unusually intense months. We feel it is important to bear them in mind as AAA elections appear on the horizon. With nominations open? for key leadership positions, members have an opportunity to reflect on, and potentially reshape, the institution.

A note to the note on timing: As much consideration as we gave to the publication of this piece, little could have offered Anthro Repsonse Cauldron a boost of timeliness than a tweet from the American Anthropological Association’s official Twitter account on February 1, 2021. The tweet, linking to an article by UBC Anthropology Professor Wade Davis in Scientific American, features an excerpt from Davis’ article that reads, “”It’s the antidote to nativism; the enemy of hate; a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that can counter the rhetoric of demagogues.” The choice to post the selected quote is remarkable, to say the least, given that Davis goes on to berate “contemporary anthropologists for “indulging in doctrinal grievance studies, seminars on intersectionality, and the use pronouns and other multiple expressions of woke orthodoxy…” Davis’ writing is one thing, and Scientific American’s decision to publish it yet another, but the choice to amplify Davis’ message without critical introspection of how AAA continues to perpetuate racist settler colonialism in the discipline is unconscionable. Once again, the leadership at AAA continues to demonstrate its complete disregard and contempt for its membership.

AAA Twitter post 02/01/2021

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Despite featuring many excellent presentations, the 2020 American Anthropological Association virtual conference ‘Raising Our Voices’ (ROV) revealed a series of institutional failings that left many attendees disappointed and angry. Over the course of nine days, events unfolded to expose both a sore lack of planning and a disturbing lack of care for AAA members – the institutions’ own constituents. This post explains what happened November 5-14, highlights some of our many concerns regarding how events were handled, and contextualises recent AAA (in)actions in a longer-standing pattern of troubling behaviour.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

ROV kicked off on November 5, promising a series of live broadcasts and pre-recorded events in a range of formats. A tranche of ‘View On Demand’ podcasts, virtual posters, 20-minute talks and thesis competitions were shared for anytime engagement. During ROV proper, mornings were intended for interaction, with ‘Talk Back’ sessions scheduled to provide the creators of View On Demand presentations with brief but invaluable slots in which to discuss their work. Afternoons were reserved for ‘Live Streamed Events’, primarily roundtable or panel-style presentations that spotlit speakers, many but not all of whom were established names in the field. Live event attendees were unseen and unheard, but able to comment and ask questions via Zoom’s ‘Chat’ and ‘Q&A’  functions. In an effort to facilitate dialogue further, live sessions provided an option for extending conversations into ‘Virtual Hallways’, where viewers and presenters could ‘mingle’ and talk more openly. 

Too openly, it transpired. On day two of the conference, the live-streamed ‘Anthropology as Work: Interacademic Labor Solidarities’ was Zoombombed in the Google Hallway. Although panel participants immediately raised the alarm – reaching out to AAA staff immediately over Twitter and email as well as calling for moderator support within the virtual space – after ten minutes of loud noises, nationalist videos, and porn being dropped into the Hallway, the presenters finally gave up and left. The AAA eventually emailed presenters to say that the Hallway was being closed, but implied a new – presumably secure – space would open in its place. 

Aside from Tweets from those who had attended the first Zoombombed session, and emails between presenters and AAA tech support and accessibility staff, the incident did not blip the radar of most ROV attendees. In fact, the AAA did not publicly acknowledge anything had happened, never mind apologise or explain how it planned to prevent it happening again.

Reader, it happened again. 

By this point, word started to spread through the informal ‘virtual hallway’ that is Twitter. It exploded into the collective consciousness only when a graduate student and panellist from the first Zoombombed session revealed on November 8 that the Executive Director of the AAA, Ed Liebow, had sent them an email effectively demanding they cease and desist asking for clarification on AAA/ROV event cyber security measures. 

The panellist had directed their questions and concerns to the tech and accessibility support email addresses that were provided to ROV participants as points of support – they did not contact Liebow at all. Moreover, they had asked specifically about moderator protocols and policies, explaining that they were scheduled to run a workshop as part of the AAA conference and did not want to risk participants’ being exposed to further Zoombombing. It was bizarre and inappropriate for Liebow to intervene at all. Doing so in this manner was both shockingly abusive, and a shocking abuse of power:

Dear Mx. Vieth – We will with draw you from the event series and issue you a refund. Now please stop hassling our staff. Please set aside your ample sense of entitlement, summon up the empathy for perspectives other than your own that your training is supposed to help you develop, take a good look in the mirror, and ask yourself what on earth makes you think we ought to publicly share our cybersecurity plans
Liebow email to AAA participant
And finally, I hope you will pause and reflect on an observation made by the revered Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole at Friday evening’s celebration of the Association of Black Anthropologist’s 50th Anniversary, quoting a proverb: it does no harm to be grateful.
Liebow email to AAA participant

The evocation of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole and the Association of Black Anthropologists, in order to demand gratitude of an ROV participant and graduate student who had been bombarded with porn during a AAA event, is just one particularly egregious move in a concisely appalling email. 

The Twittersphere was swiftly ablaze with anger and hurt – though tellingly little surprise – as details of the Zoombombings and response began to spread. Still, the majority of registered ROV attendees remained unaware of events: official communications made no mention of any cyber security concerns. At least at first, the AAA appeared eager to keep a lid on things, even while frustrations came to the boil. 

On November 9, Liebow Tweeted via his personal account (646 followers):

Liebow Tweets to AAA Participant

The official AAA twitter account (42.5k followers) did not amplify these tweets, or make efforts to acknowledge its now abundantly clear cyber security problems. Liebow’s ostensibly remorseful – and very much whispered – mea culpa only doubles down on the position the AAA was about to officially take: that a student’s reasonable request for assurances that the AAA would address its obvious failings was, in fact, an unreasonable demand for perfection. 

The same day’s ‘ROV Daily’ email carried ‘An Important Announcement’, echoing Liebow’s tone, about the Zoombombings. Unsurprisingly, it made no mention of its ED’s role in inflaming the situation. Adopting an impressively paternalistic stance amidst an avalanche of its own failings, the email quietly announced that all Talk Back and Hallway events had been ‘eliminated’. Its stated regret concerning events was similarly undone by its unevidenced blaming of conference participants – not the organisers – for repeated incidents, even after the AAA had ‘increased’ its security protections… from zero to minimal. 

The message was clear: Look what you made us do.

The ROV Daily November 9, 2020 An Important Update We have experienced two separate incidents where unwanted intrusions (zoombombings) have disrupted our Hallway and Talk Back sessions. We regret these occurrences and sincerely apologize to all who experienced these disturbances. After the first incident, we switched from Google to the Zoom meetings format, which is not possible to access without credentials provided to registered participants. However, the increased security protections were compromised when these credentials were shared with people not registered for the event. Due to the continued risk of offensive disruptions, we have eliminated the hallway and talk back portions of our program. All of the live-streamed panels and view-on-demand events will take place as scheduled in the secure Zoom webinar environment. Again, we do apologize and thank all of you for your understanding and contributions toward a productive and stimulating conversation as we continue to Raise Our Voices.
ROV Daily for November 9, 2020

This communique was how the AAA ‘notified’ scheduled Talk Back presenters and Hallway convenors that their events had simply been cancelled. Anyone not reading the general daily email was perplexed to find their sessions simply removed from the schedule. Confusion reigned – followed by frustration. For ROV participants not active on Twitter – i.e. the majority of people – this email, sent three days after the first Zoombombing incident, was the first they knew of any issues arising. It was an attempt to set the narrative. 

It fell to AAA President Akhil Gupta to finally demonstrate some humility on behalf of the organisation – and fill in a few gaps – the following day. His November 10 email, markedly different in content and tone, read:

Text reads: Dear Participants, We have experienced two separate incidents where unwanted intrusions (Zoombombings) have disrupted our Hallway and Talk Back sessions. I want to reach out to the victims of these incidents and express our sincere apologies. It was our responsibility to make sure that the spaces in the program intended for conversation were safe from abusive intrusions. We should have better anticipated that anti-social elements would attempt to disrupt the meeting. Nobody should have been subjected to hateful language and disturbing images. I am truly sorry for this. Please accept my unconditional apology. We have now shut down the Hallways and Talk Back sessions. Whenever we add a virtual component to our annual meeting next year, we will make sure that better security protocols are in place so that this experience is not repeated.
AAA President Email

Any sign of a willingness to learn from mistakes was undone, a mere two hours later, when the AAA Director of Meetings and Conferences emailed Talk Back presenters to say:

Text reads: As you have likely seen, we have had to cancel all Talk Back events and Virtual Hallways for the remainder of Raising Our Voices due to a series of security breaches that led to Zoombombing behavior in these environments. I’m very sorry we had to officially cancel and discontinue these important events. The purpose of these events was to bring our community together in informal ways to discuss scholarship and have dialogue about the important work you all are doing. In that spirit of community, REDACTED, a recent PhD Graduate, is mobilizing a volunteer effort to host Talk Backs separately from the AAA for anyone interested. To be clear, these events are not affiliated with nor hosted by the AAA and will be organized, set up, monitored, and attended entirely by volunteers. The AAA is not setting any standards or procedures for these events. The purpose of this email is to make you, a Talk Back event presenter, aware of the opportunity to participate if you should so desire. Please join the conversation on AAA’s Member Communities to engage with this community. If you are not a AAA member, please feel welcome to reach out to REDACTED individually. He has shared his email address - REDACTED. Again, I’m very sorry we are unable to bring these events to you as an official part of AAA’s Raising Our Voices and I would like to thank REDACTED, and all those engaging in this voluntary effort to continue these conversations in whichever safe ways are possible!
AAA Director of Meetings Email to Talk Back Presenters

It is unclear why the AAA itself did not – and apparently will not – look into alternative ways to facilitate Talk Backs that by its own admission posed a ‘risk’ if they went ahead as planned. It was willing, however, to encourage a recent graduate student, unpaid and without institutional resources or support, go ahead and have a go themselves. Its primary concern was to distance itself from anything that might go wrong – while disseminating the junior scholar’s personal email address to every registered attendee of ROV. 

After that, the conference rolled on for three more days, facilitating important meetings and debates, but with half the scheduled events cleared from the timetable (apologies offered, but no refunds), and many attendees left simply bewildered if not emotionally wrung out.

Preventable chaos

Competing in a crowded field to be the most frustrating aspect of the de facto AAA2020 is the fact that most of the events, and the pain they caused, were both entirely avoidable and wholly predictable. It is fair to say that ROV was organised hurriedly in a bid to replace an annual meeting cancelled just 6 months in advance of its scheduled date – despite its members highlighting the obvious dangers of hosting in-person events (to local communities and workers as well as travelling attendees) in the midst of a devastating global pandemic. 

The delayed decision to cancel meant that scheduled presenters could not obtain institutional funding to cover travel and accommodation, putting people out of pocket. For the AAA, however, hesitation made financial sense: The annual meeting is a significant income-generator in its own right, and a major driver for dues given that membership is effectively a prerequisite for participation. Once the annual meeting was cancelled, it is likely that the AAA felt financially compelled to run a virtual alternative that would similarly drive sign-ups (commit to two years for a 10% discount!)

That is not to discount the AAA’s desire to provide a space for section meetings, research exchanges, scholarly debate, and career development opportunities. That is its purpose, after all. Doing nothing in 2020 was simply not an option. Doing anything was the worst second choice. Consulting meaningfully with its sections and membership to create an appropriate (if inevitably and understandably imperfect) virtual platform was the best possible alternative. Mindbogglingly, the AAA chose box no. 2.

Had the AAA listened to its highly qualified and experienced base, it might have avoided repeating the kinds of mistakes, missteps, and abuses by which it has increasingly come to be known. For example: members of the organising committees for the largely successful virtual SCA/SVA conferences Displacements 2018 and Distribute 2020 offered to support the AAA in planning its own online events. Security in general and Zoombombing specifically were publicly raised as areas of concern by ROV program chair Mayanthi L. Fernando, a vetran of Distribute 2020. The SCA/SVA even posted its own extensive plans and policies online, for their own event and for future event organizers to use. 

Similarly, much could have been learned from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) virtual forum held in October this year, during which an undergraduate award prize-giving event was Zoombombed. The organisers acted swiftly, as explained in an email sent to attendees shortly after the incident, to “evict the perpetrators and get back on track within just a couple of minutes.” The SLA President, in their email, repeatedly apologised for the “assault of disturbing images and hate speech” that attendees had been subjected to, echoing apologies that moderators had also made during the targeted session. For the SLA, the incident was a reminder of the need “to challenge the systems of racism, sexism, and homophobia that surround us”. Damningly, the same email emphasises that the SLA was working with the AAA to report the incident as a federal crime, and was “setting guidelines in place to prevent this from happening again, which we will make available to all organizers of SLA-associated webinars and large meetings.”

The AAA had repeated forewarning of cyber security needs from its own sections. It declined to listen. 

Moreover, as anthropologists we are routinely required by Institutional Review Boards to include in our informed consent texts that security breaches in digital environments are expected, and acknowledge that we are responsible for mitigating those risks. Why wouldn’t the planners and ED of the largest association of anthropologists assume the same in 2020, when “Zoombombing” is a shortlisted ‘word of the year’?

The notion that the AAA is out of touch is not, however, surprising. The original costs of attending ROV were set so high that only internal wrangling (and lack of sales) forced revision. Framing $25 as a great saving on the usual $200 meetings registration fee for unemployed anthropologists only emphasised the astronomically exclusive cost of the in-person conference. Adding insult to, well, more insult, the high ROV registration fees were originally justified as necessary in order to ensure platforms were accessible, revealing that provisions for all-member engagement are regarded as an ‘additional’ rather than built-in requirement for AAA events. Requests made of presenters in the name of accessibility only raised further questions about who, if anyone, had been consulted on good practice. Suggested terms for self-description, for example, included “slender/normal” and “average” body-type and encouraged reified racial terms. The list of harms goes on, and on.

These and many other concerns have already been raised, by section heads, members of journal editorial boards, in public and private forums, and not least by those ROV attendees who retain faith enough that their raised voices will be heard that they filled in the post-event survey. It feels hard to believe that, in its current form, the AAA will learn from its missteps, despite our best efforts to highlight them. So far, its E.D. has been reticent to even acknowledge them. It’s a familiar pattern.  

The blithe presumption that ‘outside agitators’ – not AAA members/ROV attendees – were responsible for abusing junior scholars via Zoombombs only echoes refusals – or hesitancy at best – to recognise our own ‘community’s capacity for causing harm. Yet AAA Community Message Boards have disseminated slurs and abuses; racism, sexism, ableism, harassment and other forms of violence and misconduct occur at in-person meetings (and within Anthropology Departments everywhere); its grand-scale activities continue to subjugate and ignore Indigenous knowledge; this year, its flagship journal published human remains on its cover. In all of those cases, the question has been: can we learn from this? 

We must ask that question now, and the even bigger one it points us towards: who does the AAA serve? 

Only frank responses and genuine willingness to transform an institution that repeatedly fails its members will prompt change. ROV is over, and the temptation will be to ‘move on’. That instinct has protected the AAA, year on year, for far too long. Its complacency is fuelled by the knowledge that we – as individuals – need the world’s biggest professional association in order to build our careers. It is time to turn the tables, knowing that we – as a community – hold the power. As Association constituents, we have not only the right to ask questions and expect answers, but ultimately, we have the power to demand better.

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