Before getting mini-famous, I did not appreciate the degree to which people would misrepresent and lie about other people.
I knew about it in theory. I occasionally stumbled across claims about people that I later found out were false. I knew, abstractly, that any particular accuser is telling a truth or a lie, but you're not sure which one.
But now, I'm in the unique position where people say things about me all the time, and I hear most of it, and I have direct access to whether it's accurate or not. There's something about the lack of ambiguity that has left me startled, here. Something was way off about my models of the world before I had access to the truth of a wide range of accusational samples.
In the last few years, I've risen in visibility to the degree it's started to get unpleasant. I've had to give up on the idea of throwing parties at my house where guests are allowed to invite unvetted friends. There are internet pockets dedicated to hating me, where people have doxxed me and my family, including the home addresses of my parents and sister. I’ve experienced one kidnapping attempt. I might have to move. One stalker sent me, on average, three long messages every day for nearly three years. By this point death threats are losing their novelty.
Before I was this visible, my model was "If a lot of people don't like you, maybe the problem is actually you." Some part of me, before, thought that if you were just consistently nice and charitable, if you were a good, kind person, people would... see that, somehow? Maybe you get one or two insane people, but overall truth would ultimately prevail, because lies without evidence wither and die. And even if people didn't like or agree with you, they wouldn't try to destroy you, because you can only really incite that level of fury in someone if you were at least a little bit at fault yourself. So if you do find yourself in a situation where lots of people are saying terrible things about you, you should take a look in the mirror.
But this sort of thing doesn't hold true at large scales! It really doesn't, and that fact shocks some subconscious part of me, to the degree that even I get kinda large-scale gaslit about myself. I often read people talking about how I'm terrible, and then I'm like damn, I must have been a little too sloppy or aggressive in my language to cause them to be so upset with me. Then I go read the original thing they're upset about and find I was actually fine, and really kind, and what the fuck? I'm not used to disagreements being so clearly black and white! And me in the right? What is this, some cartoon children's book caricature of a moral lesson?
And I have a similar shock when people work very hard to represent things I do in a sinister light. There've been multiple writeups about me, either by or informed by people I knew in person, where they describe things I've done in a manner that I consider to be extremely uncharitable. People develop a narrative by speculating on my mental state, beliefs, or intentions ("of course she knew people would have that reaction, she knew that person's background"), by blurring the line between thing I concretely did and vaguer facts about context ("she was central to the party so she was responsible for that thing that happened at it"), and by emphasizing reactions more than any concrete bad behavior (“this person says they felt really bad, that proves you did a terrible thing”).
Collectively, these paint a picture that sounds convincing, because it seems like all the parts of the narrative are pointing in the same direction. Individually, however, the claims don’t hold up. (In this case, “someone got upset at a party I attended” is a real fact. But I didn't know that person's background, I didn't ask to be central to the party, and they were crying because of something someone else did completely unrelated to me.)
But I think the point of this isn't that people can develop warped narratives about you, but rather that they do. People in your circles, in real life, maybe people you thought you could trust. I not only have internet people lying about me, but people brought by friends to parties, people who helped me move, and in one case, someone I considered a friend. If you're high enough volume/visibility, if you're controversial or weird enough that people can score points by hating on you, if you're anywhere close to touchy political battlegrounds, then it seems inevitable to me that you will get attacked by people who are best to model as bad actors - people who will confidently misinterpret and misrepresent you to others no matter how weak the evidence is. There actually exist people who see their conflict with you as war in which anything is justified to vanquish the enemy, even if you’re doing your best to empathize with their perspective and seriously consider whether they’re right.
I think this is dramatically underweighted by people who haven't personally experienced this (and the ability to experience this at scale is very rare, which is why I’m trying to share my experience with others). I occasionally see someone who seems to me to be likely a bad actor, where the correct response should be "I am really skeptical of your claims," but the people around them are like man, your complaints are important and we should take them seriously. I get the impulse, but ahh!
I had a lot of skepticism of the recent TIME article claiming that EA is a hotbed for sexual harassment, I think in large part because of those experiences I've had. We're dealing with something high visibility (EA), where the most popular political coalition in journalism (people on the left side of the political aisle) can score points by hating you (insufficiently woke), and that is politically controversial (polyamory, weird nerds, SBF). It seems obvious to me that the odds of having some people with personal experience in the community who also regularly uncharitably misinterpret interactions, and uncharitably speak to a journalist (with both political and financial incentives to be uncharitable), are very high.
This is why it strikes me as alarming to see a relative lack of skepticism in the EA forum response. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explicitly state the hypothesis of bad actors (though it’s possible someone did and I missed it). My guess is that people are making the error that if you inspired this level of vitriol, you must be at least somewhat at fault, or if enough people all agree that you’re bad, denying this is arrogant.
But after being mini-famous, my priors on people lying about you once you’re visible are really high. I’m not saying that EA is perfect or that nothing in the article is true, but rather that reading it, my gut instinct was that roughly 80% was entirely misleading - by which I mean, if I could pop back in time to witness the reported interactions, I personally would think in 80% of cases that the accused had done nothing wrong. The elements here are the perfect setup to pluck out the least trustworthy, uncharitable people and elevate their story into the political crossfire.
(As an data point: I’m aware of one person who talked to the TIME reporter who, before any of this happened, I concluded might be mentally unstable and had decided to stop interacting with them.)
To do some analysis of ways people have done this to me
I've debated a bit about sharing specific examples here - the important stuff is in cumulative details, which is annoying to communicate, and on principle I don't like to give these people any direct attention. I also don’t want to turn this into “and now Aella hijacks this issue to talk about personal social drama where she picks through the details of every rumor in order to convince you she’s not a terrible person”. But still, it's hard to convey exactly how this works without examples, and specific instances of this happening to me are what have so strongly updated my views, so I’m going to pick just a few.
I was friends with someone who wrote a piece with a bunch of accusations about me here. My (and others) response is here, if you’d like to read through the whole thing. But if not, here’s one piece of it, one of the reports that the author compiled:
- I’ve only been to one of Aella’s parties but one was enough. The environment felt so uncomfortable that I spent hours and hours hiding alone and crying. The party had a lot of nudity and sex, everyone was on drugs, and it was set up so that consent as a guiding light was being continuously questioned.
I can’t remember any event I threw that fits this criteria in the last few years. The nudity/sex parties I organized or co-organized had either very little or no drug use.
I pointed this out in response to their post, and they updated their response to include:
- There have been questions posted on social media about whether my account of Aella’s party is real. I stand by the account, but I decline to give a year or other specifics, because I’m worried that providing that information would help Aella triangulate my identity. However, in the interest of intellectual honesty, the single detail I think someone could contest is whether Aella was the “actual” organizer of the party I attended. It’s true that she wasn’t the only one organizing it but she was easy to observe as central to the event while it was happening and it was privately described to me as being her party. Obviously it was a party full of illegal activity so it’s not surprising that it’s hard to prove it was “really” organized by her.
A few points here.
- There's nothing inherently wrong with disliking running into nudity/sex (say, outside of a romantic relationship), but there's also nothing inherently wrong with liking those things. Ideally, people with different preferences here can just self-sort into different kinds of events, and it shouldn't be a scandal to people with one preference if they find out that people with a different preference exist. The word "uncomfortable", however, points at a bad thing; and by juxtaposing it with neutral things (nudity/sex), the latter can be made to sound like bad things in their own right.
- They didn’t say anyone violated anyone else’s consent or boundaries at the event, something I assume they would have shared if it’d happened, since their goal was to establish that I’d done a bad thing. Instead, the emphasis is on feelings and high-level descriptions (“The environment felt so uncomfortable” / “consent as a guiding light was being continuously questioned”). Concrete examples make it possible for people to see what they think about the example, whereas staying at the level of interpretation/narrative forces the reader to trust the interpretation wholesale (or look like an asshole), and staying at the level of follow-on response forces the reader to trust that the writer’s emotional response was grounded and proportionate (or look like an asshole).
- To be clear, it’s okay to have any reaction to anything, even if it seems disproportionate. My issue here is the unnamed implication that other people would also have this reaction, or that the party was at fault here. It might have been at fault, but the concrete cause was not named. The reaction is stated mostly on its own, in some detail, and the reader is implicitly being asked to assume that concrete things must have happened at the party that are so terrible that of course they’d produce that bad reaction. This leaves out the fact that sometimes, unfortunately, no one does anything wrong and feelings can still end up hurt.
- In the response, they express fear of me being able to “triangulate [their] identity”, which implicitly frames me as a scary person who’s likely to try to hurt people who criticize me. If they’d included examples of any other time I’d tried to take revenge on someone, I think this move would have been explicit and much more reasonable. Instead, it just adds to this weird narrative that’s lying over everything like a funhouse mirror distortion of who I am.
- This person says it’s true that I wasn’t the only one organizing, but I was “central” to the event. This makes me suspicious that they’re describing an event I didn’t actually organize, especially given that I can’t remember hosting any event that fit their description. I can think of maybe one event, but it was a bigger, festival-type production where I was a volunteer to help check people in, and helped set up and break down. I wasn’t an event organizer, and had no control over the principles or activities. But this doesn’t matter - I seemed “central” to someone, so I get the blame for anything bad that other people did at this event, and this gets cited in a list of reasons to think I’m “probably evil”.
- When they say “Obviously it was a party full of illegal activity so it’s not surprising that it’s hard to prove it was “really” organized by her.”, the writer is implying that we deliberately hid my role in organizing the party in order to avoid legal blame, framing me as the kind of person who lies about stuff like this. To be explicit here, I have never tried to hide the fact that I organized a party I did in fact organize.
Common in these examples is leaving the exercise to the reader.
The accuser doesn’t offer concrete behaviors, but rather leaves the badness as general associations. They don’t make explicit accusations, but rather implicit ones. The true darkness is hinted at, not named. They speculate about my bad traits without taking the risk of making a claim. They frame things in a way that increases my perceived culpability.
(They also position themselves as afraid of what I’ll do to them if they give more details, which also serves the function of making them safe from the possibility that I might clarify or deny any of their claims. This type of thing is present in the TIME article. One example - “Many of them asked that their alleged abusers not be named and that TIME shield their identities to avoid retaliation.” Possibly reasonable, except in at least one of the examples covered by this, the person had already publicly named the accused, and the accused was kicked out of the community. The claim is that this is purely a strategy to shield against retaliation, but the effect is to discourage fact-checking and skepticism on all points, even using information that’s already public.)
Corroboration of this account comes from another friend, who has told me on condition of anonymity that one of the features of Aella’s parties is a game called “drugs roulette,” in which people consume various substances without knowing what they are. Many of the substances one can imagine employing here — most saliently, rohypnol, the date rape drug; but also others — would put people into compromised states in which they could not consent to further sexual activity imposed on them by people who may not even have known that their sexual partner was thus compromised. To make matters worse, this is apparently being done under a house rule of “you are never allowed to talk about it with anyone."
This assertion is (in a way that still sort of shocks me) false in every single detail.
I’m not going to keep analyzing the hostile framing, but here’s a running tally of the ways the account so far has gotten things wrong:
- The nudity/sex parties I helped throw had either very little or no drug use.
- I have never tried to hide the fact that I helped organize a party that I helped organize.
- I've never played drug roulette, nor has it occurred at any of my parties.
- There has never, to my knowledge, been rohypnol at any of my parties.
- Nobody has ever, to the best of my knowledge, drugged someone in attempts to make them more sexually pliable to others at my parties.
- I’ve never told anyone they can’t talk about an experience at one of my parties.
I have joked about the idea of drug roulette before (without ever asserting, even in a joking way, that I’d actually done it). I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea, for a small group of friends who all agreed (with full knowledge of what they were doing) to randomizing drug use between them, if various logistical issues (about when the drugs kick in) could be resolved. But I have never actually done this.
The other parts of the claim above are, as far as I can tell, fabrications, like telling people that they can’t talk about their experience at my parties. I have asked people to keep identities of party attendees private, typically at kink events, but never the experiences themselves.
In the case of the TIME article, I’m not clear on the degree to which the claims were lies, but there were at least a few lie-like omissions - I’m under the impression that the main people accused may not have even been EAs, and some of the accused in the article had already been banned from attending EA events - something that is presumably exactly what the article author is advocating happen, but doesn’t mention that it’d already been done.
I’d also like to point out that, both in these allegations against me and in the TIME article, we have corroboration - a group of people who shared complaints about my parties and agreed they’d shared similar sinister experiences. The existence of corroboration alone is not, to me, significant evidence of truth, especially in a highly polarizing context. If the corroboration is by more trustworthy people, with concrete claims, then I consider this to be much stronger evidence.
Someone who attended the same meetups with me at a rationalist group IRL was later banned from that community and several other communities for bad behavior. They then wrote a long writeup on a forum about me. I won't directly link this, because the thread is dedicated to doxxing me and my family members. The writeup includes a lot of incorrect claims, but I’ll include one that addresses more intentions:
- She will deliberately center the conversation around herself at the expense of the conversation or others. (The card game "AskHole" is ulteriorly designed to do this; there are a disproportionate amount of questions about sex work.) During the 2021 Astral Codex Ten Megameetup, she advertised it on her page and it was derided as "the Aella meetup" because she occupied a central table and this was described by one guest as "holding court." One person who showed up to see Aella asked a pregnant wife holding her baby if she was a sex worker. She was described as "a goddess." To test my hypothesis that she will be unable to handle a conversation sufficiently not about her, I sat next to her for about ten minutes and talked with some friends about nothing related to her. At some point she petulantly said "I'm moving" and relocated to a spot where she would get more attention. During the dinner, she spent about a third of the time looking at the ceiling — like a child would do to over-advertise to their parents that they were bored. Once, when she felt a concept was socially important (this is key; she does not care about its real importance) she petulantly said "I DON'T UNDERSTAND" and either turned her head away or outright walked away, my memory fails me here. But the expectation was that we were supposed to care, and go out of our way to make it friendly to her.
Breaking that down:
- This example is full of assumptions about my intent - I “deliberately” center the conversation; I “ulteriorly designed” my card game to orient around me; I relocated “to get attention.” I “don’t care” about a concept’s importance; I “expected people to go out of their way.” None of these assumptions about my intent match my internal experience about my intent, but nevertheless he presents them as fact, not guesses.
- Using other people’s actions to frame me. People “derided it as the Aella meetup”, someone described me as “holding court”, someone who came see me dared ask a mother if she did sex work. Someone described me as a goddess. It’d be one thing if he was trying to describe how people behave around and towards me, but his actual claim is that I am pulling attention towards myself in a way that’s damaging for others, and using other people’s behavior - most of which I didn’t even know happened - as proof.
- He frames normal and okay behavior as somehow pathological. I moved to a different spot, and this action on its own is narrativized as damning (“petulantly”, to “get more attention”). But if your desire is to exit a social interaction, that’s fine. Leaving conversations because they aren’t relevant to you or because you aren’t interested in the topic is fine too, as is joining a conversation because someone is paying attention to you (and vice versa). If you make a card game where you put in questions about a topic that you’re interested in, that’s also fine. If you are looking at the ceiling because you’re bored, hell, that’s fine too. The author is weirdly overconfident when it comes to inferring my mental state, but he's also taking completely normal human emotions and framing them as things to be ashamed of. But because the narrative is so heavy, and everything is phrased with a thick layer of connotation, a lot of the implicit claims being made about which emotions are acceptable to feel versus unacceptable are harder to notice and draw out so that they can be questioned.
- The actual damning point he attempts to make is that I’m incapable of being interested in any topics besides myself, and I read the implication here as being that I’m thus incapable of caring about anyone else besides myself, and that this lack of care is the dangerous thing. You can’t trust Aella to have your interests at heart. You need to model her as bad. The attempt here is not a compassionate understanding of another human being, but rather an implicit request for enmity.
In general, the author sets up the conclusion of a narrative - (you need to model Aella as bad) - and fills out the narrative with assumptions about my intentions, claims about how other people behave, and anecdotes about objectively pretty normal-sounding things (‘she walked away to join another conversation’) intoned in dire-sounding language that’s meant to make the walking-away sound like actually this is all secretly very bad and shameful.
This is what it sounds like when someone (unsophisticatedly) is trying to force facts into a particular narrative mold.
The above example is quite obvious, but I also see lots of this done more subtly in the TIME article, though the most egregious examples are about polyamory -
- “Three times in one year, she says, men at informal EA gatherings tried to convince her to join these so-called “polycules.” When Gopalakrishnan said she wasn’t interested, she recalls, they would “shame” her or try to pressure her, casting monogamy as a lifestyle governed by jealousy, and polyamory as a more enlightened and rational approach.”
- He asked how old she was, she recalls, then quickly suggested she join his polyamorous relationship. Shortly after agreeing to date him, “He told me that ‘I could sleep with you on Monday,’ but on Tuesday I’m with this other girl,” she says. “It was this way of being a f—boy but having the moral high ground,”
Here, they “tried to convince her”, they “shamed” her, the man is attempting to “have the moral high ground”. A woman describes a man asking her out as “being recruited to join a polyamorous relationship”.
And while some of this is a bit unclear - like it’s possible someone was like “man but don’t you think monogamy is embarrassing”, or otherwise said specific things that actually were shamey - other parts seem to just be assuming intent or mental state, or taking something that should be fine and framing it in a way where we’re supposed to be skeeved out (“recruited”, as opposed to “asked out”).
- In 2018, as she was starting her career in AI research, Joseph recalls being introduced to a prominent man in the field connected to EA. Joseph was 22 and still in college; he was nearly twice her age. As they talked at a Japanese restaurant in New York City, she recalled, the man turned the conversation in a bizarre direction, arguing “that pedophilic relationships between very young women and older men was a good way to transfer knowledge,” Joseph says. “I had a sense that he was grooming me.”
What actually happened in this interaction? The word “grooming”, generally reserved for interactions pedophiles have with children, is here being used about an interaction with a 22-year-old woman. I’m unclear if the guy was actually in EA, because ‘connected to EA’ is really vague. I’m also unclear on who did the ‘introducing’. And on what the guy actually said (did he use the word “pedophilic”? how much is being read between the lines or stylized here, versus quoted verbatim?).
I’m also unclear on what the concrete bad things happened that made Joseph feel uncomfortable and made her worry that she was being groomed. He was older, he told her a controversial opinion once, she thought the conversation was bizarre. Did he ask her out? Did he make any move on her at all? Was she pressured into doing something uncomfortable? Was any boundary violated? I’m taking away that the weird opinion is the only concrete thing that happened (mostly because if those other things had happened we’d almost certainly be hearing about it), but it isn’t made clear. Instead we’re asked to assume, through the few details provided, that the weird view must be a mask for a hidden bad thing (malicious and predatory intentions).
Maybe he did in fact have weird, hard-to-put-a-finger-on vibes, maybe her intuitions were correctly responding to some odd signals - but based on the details provided, this should not justify going to TIME to use this guy as evidence that EA has a sexual assault problem.
To be clear, sometimes abuse of power and sexual assault does happen in a controversial community. Just because you have high visibility and there are political incentives to misinterpret things that happened to you doesn’t mean that all claims of wrongdoing about you are false.
It’s really important to be able to suss out false claims from true ones, and it’s deeply unfortunate that sometimes the rate of false claims gets high enough that we have to be suspicious about the true ones. It’s crucial that we handle the process of figuring out which is which with a great deal of patience, effort, and compassion, because the stakes are so high. If someone was actually abused, we should try hard not to let the required inquiry, fact-finding, and baseline uncertainty disincentivize them from coming forward.
I acknowledge my post here is focused pretty disproportionately on skepticism, and a healthy balance in a community would not look like a bunch of people making only skeptical points. I think it would also include lots of people focusing hard on the dynamics around making it safe for people to speak up, on discussing the ways power imbalances can distort incentives for self honesty, on pointing out how scary and frustrating it can sometimes be to have your claims not taken seriously enough.
I’m mostly posting this because to me, it feels like there’s an imbalance in the models people are using to make sense of this. I don’t want EA to overcorrect, but I want it to reach a reasonable equilibrium, which requires that thoughts pointing in both directions be thinkable and discussable.
It’s okay to entertain the possibility that EA is already doing a pretty good job handling sexual assaults and that occasionally alienating non-good-faith actors is part of the cost.
It’s okay to have a bit of weight on the theory that "maybe the people in that article are the kind of people very likely to aggressively overinterpret mundane interactions as meaningfully bad".
Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but this should not be a taboo thought to voice. Especially given that sometimes, you do find yourself in a children’s cartoon version of a moral lesson, where you didn’t actually do anything wrong and no matter how much you try to understand and empathize with the criticism, at the end of the day it’s not true. (Which has often been my experience. And having had that experience, I have an easier time suspecting that other people are in the same shoes.)
I don't think that all the claims in the TIME article are definitely untrue. The only thing I’m strongly endorsing is that the default orientation to this should be "Let's carefully evaluate each claim by the evidence we have for it, and assess the context of those claims", instead of an automatic "believe and support every claim in this article, both the facts and the narrative the writer is trying to use those facts for." Sexual assault especially has a sort of mind-numbing effect where it’s scary in blue-tribe society to do anything except for automatically support the person with the most legible claim to the victim role.
I want to help create space for people to be allowed to say things like “yes, that happened, it was six years ago, by someone on the fringes of the community, and then we banned them pretty fast, and we do not feel bad about our community’s response”, if true.
My hope is that people can become better calibrated about how common lies and ridiculous levels of spin are, so they can apply the proper level of skepticism to claims and look into them before believing them. My hope is not that people pick out whoever they think the “good guys” are and then refuse to ever believe any criticism about those good guys. Just... use the tools that help you figure out truth, rather than feeling like it’s immoral or unnecessary to poke around and try to figure out what’s real.
(Also, just to be explicit - I don't want to accidentally imply that I haven't made mistakes or treated people poorly ever; I'm referring mainly to claims about me I find to be unambiguously ridiculous to outright false. There are in fact non-ridiculous criticisms of me, and I have occasionally hurt people in my circles because I behaved in an unskilled manner, and just because someone is like "Aella made me feel terrible" doesn't mean that person is automatically a bad actor, and you should not use this post to dismiss their concerns.)