Read about the social media platform that actually cares about and protects its users instead of exploiting their information
Author’s Note: *UPDATES at the bottom of the article
Back in the late 90’s, someone had the bright idea to combine a simple adjective with a well-known noun. Fast forward twenty years and those two words haven’t been separated since.
SOCIAL: (adj) relating to human society, the interaction of the individual or the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society social institutions
MEDIA: (noun) the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing and the internet) regarded collectively
What a behemoth those two words have become. It has the power to connect, strengthen and enhance our lives, but used nefariously, it can disrupt, abuse and destroy a life.
I touched on that abuse and destruction back in October of 2016 when I wrote of the vitriol and belligerent attacks being thrown around online just prior to the election. A Democrat, A Republican and an Independent All Walk Into a Bar focused on how the traditional rules and niceties of “No politics, No religion” that once governed etiquette, decorum and decency had stopped being subscribed to specifically on our social media platforms.
Two years later I still believe those words.
Social Media is an integral part of this twenty-first century, and the 2016 election is historical proof of just how integral. It galvanized social movements, changed the way we engaged our elected officials and influenced our political ideologies. It still does.
However, at the time I wrote the article, certain outside influences online were not yet known, nor was the scope of the damage that was inflicted.
Influence: (noun) a person or thing with the capacity or power to have an effect on someone or something.
It would be a full year until the revelations of Russian interference on Twitter, Google, YouTube and Facebook would come to light. The former USSR hit us full force with massive ad buys, Troll Farms, Bot accounts, Spam, and disinformation. Whether or not they successfully swayed the 2016 election is still up for debate, however, Russia’s blatant infiltration of our social media sites is not. It happened.
In my opinion, too many people are still focusing on why Russia did it when the focus should really be on prevention and the following questions:
How can we keep our social media sites safe from this type of intrusion?
What countermeasures can be deployed to keep hostile actors off the site?
Is there a platform that can be utilized that isn’t vulnerable to intrusion?
Sounds unrealistic when you think about it, considering our top two social media sites have yet to effectively safeguard their platforms from such interference.
The final question really is the most significant, because even if you have the security features listed above, it really won’t matter if you can’t deliver on the question below:
Is there an alternative to Twitter and Facebook that users can escape to, free of nefarious state actors, but still has the original idea and appeal behind the glory of social media?
In response to the Russian invasion into our social networks, such an alternative was launched last November by Cyber Minuteman JΞSŦΞR ✪ ΔCŦUΔL³³º¹.
The platform is Counter Social (COSO) and it’s the 800 lb Gorilla in the room that’s beating its chest in defiance to all other platforms that have lacked the ‘cojones‘ to protect its users.
COUNTER: (verb) to meet attacks or arguments with defensive or retaliatory steps
The key words are ‘defensive and retaliatory steps’ and the site’s About Page explains just that.
“CounterSocial is the first Social Network Platform to take a zero-tolerance stance to hostile nations, bot accounts and trolls who are weaponizing OUR social media platforms and freedoms to engage in influence operations against us. And we’re here to counter it. With advanced user protection features such as ‘COSOGUARD’ identity alerts to help minimize your attack surface, your online footprint instantly becomes safer.
We operate from a modified, hardened node and infrastructure and actively block access to our community from IP space originating in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Syria, along with over 100,000 VPN and proxy services”
To understand how unique this is, you really need to go back to February of 2016 when The Jester set aside the Hactisvist part of his persona and began creating alternatives to Twitter.
All three had a good social environment and were received well by the members, however, there was something missing from the equation — A decisive way to defend against nefarious state actors, bot accounts and trolls.
It would be another 22 months before that equation would be whole, and we were introduced to a novel idea.
“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” – Inception
Originally CounterSocial was part of Mastodon which is a distributed, federated social network that forms part of the Fediverse, an interconnected and decentralized network of independently operated servers.
For those not tech-savvy, the Fediverse is a big cyber metropolis and Mastodon is the infrastructure that builds the metropolis. Each independently operated server is known as an Instance. They are like neighborhoods or communities within the Fediverse. Each Instance has its own rules and ToS kind of like neighborhood associations. They can be gated, open, members only, etc.
Got it? Okay. However, soon after COSO’s arrival things in the Fediverse changed.
To further explain and give details about this new project, I needed to go directly to its creator, The Jester. He was kind enough to grant me a Q & A session where we discussed everything from the inner workings of COSO, particular criticisms that have risen, as well as the future of the platform.
Here is the Q & A in its entirety with only a few commentary breaks.
Q: What was the motivation behind the creation of CounterSocial?
A: The primary motivation was to create a place that had built-in security that would mitigate the threats from foreign influence operations as much as possible.
Q: Was there a secondary motivation?
A: Yes, to create a place where it’s the trolls, abusers and stalkers who feel unsafe instead of the other way round.
Q: That must be a daunting task?
A: Well, if you create the right environment from the get-go, it kinda becomes self-policing in the sense that, abusers of the platform get reported and I deal with them very quickly.
Q: So you rely on the reporting feature of counter social but you are the last defense so to speak?
A: Yes, there are tools users can use before an abuse report. But the reporting feature is usually the end of the line. Not always, usually. The users are pretty good at spotting the ‘issues’.
Q: Twitter has had more than a few issues. You have in the past offered “advice” to Jack Dorsey regarding what could possibly be done to combat trolling, bots, etc. Do you feel that Twitter has done what they could, and do you have a sense of vindication that you lead by example and did what you had suggested in the first place?
A: Twitter is a different animal to COSO, and honestly, I hope it stays that way.
Q: It is a social media platform, however, what makes it a different animal in your opinion? It feels as if COSO is more of a community?
A: The main differences are the tools available to the user, the out of the gate mitigation of a large percentage of inbound threats by proactively blocking bad IP space around the world and the fast reactions to any issues that do occur. You can wait weeks on Twitter.
Yes COSO tries to foster a more community feeling among the users and this it turns helps with the ‘self-policing’ as mentioned above.
Q: CounterSocial was a part of Mastodon Social’s decentralized Federation, however, you made the decision to fork or annex COSO from the Fediverse, effectively setting up your own ‘cybercity’ so to speak. At the time CounterSocial was the 6th fasted growing Instance on Mastodon. What was the catalyst to this decision and has it effected the growth of membership?
A: Oh my, this is a good one. And many people who were on COSO at this time all watched it play out in real-time.
Okay, so Mastodon prides itself on allowing each instance administrator create their own ToS, their own community, and their own rules. The lead dev had noticed we were adding features, and had blocked 7 nations. He didn’t like this policy. So decided to slur, slander, libel and basically cause as much trouble with us to his ‘community’ at large.
Other instances were urged to defederate with COSO based on the lead devs personal problem. It escalated and I took steps to save them the trouble and defederated our community. It turns out Mastodon is as bad as twitter for cliques and trolls so we really haven’t looked back. And now we have some awesome features that I’ve added unique only to COSO. Like COSOGUARD and COSOCOM — With more in the pipes.
Q: COSOCOM and COSOGUARD? Would you elaborate on those?
A: COSOGUARD basically checks the internet and dark web 4 times a day to see if your registered email address shows up in a data breach. If it does, it notifies you and lets you know when and where so you can take appropriate action.
COSOCOM is monitoring the airwaves for radio chatter from emergency services. If it detects an incident unfolding it will let you know and allow you to listen in live. It often gets out ahead of the mainstream news and fake news.
Q: Seems similar to your previous project iAWACS regarding the detection?
A: Yes very similar. In fact, I have integrated elements of iAWACS and Breach or Clear into COSO. But more automated and with notifications.
Author’s note: Since COSO was launched in November of 2017, there have been a few criticisms that have kept popping up regarding the platform. Frankly, every fledgling project will have critiques, that is the nature of innovation. However, I felt I needed to address two of them with Jester.
Q: Counter Social has been accused of being Nationalistic due to the blocking of entire countries from the site. After Wil Wheaton of Star Trek fame, gave support for CounterSocial, and encouraged others to join when he made his very public Twitter departure, Tim Pool, a prominent podcaster, questioned why Wheaton would choose to migrate over to a site with a nationalistic reputation? What would you say to Pool and others who share this opinion?
A: The nations blocked by our network are well known to be origin points of an overwhelming majority of bots and trolls that are used to engage in influence operations against not only the West but their own neighbors, as well as attempts to disenfranchise and divide social media users worldwide. Blocking these nations is the most effective way to keep our community safe and secure for our users.
CounterSocial is constantly monitoring the internet ecosystem to mitigate threats to our community. Banned nations may be added or removed at our discretion. Currently banned countries include Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Syria.
The nations blocked contain individuals of all races. Nations are not races. We block hostile nations because it is the most effective way to stop the abuse coming from their IP space online. “Racism” has absolutely nothing to do with IP addresses or preserving a quality community within CounterSocial.
Currently, at the time of writing, there are 195 nations on planet earth. We block 7 of them. ‘Nationalistic’ is defined as “having strong patriotic feelings, especially a belief in one’s own country’s superiority.” Again, we block 7 of 195 countries.
So ask yourself: which country of the remaining 188 countries free to access the site is CounterSocial ‘nationalistic’ about?
Many enterprise vendors of security hardware also block national IP space from adversarial nations. The environment and community COSO has built speaks for itself.
Author’s Note: Full disclosure – I am a member of COSO and have been since it’s inception. I also addressed Tim Pool’s accusation shortly after his podcast. That comment can be found here.
Q: The other criticism is that COSO is an echo chamber for the never Trump crowd and more left-leaning individuals who disdain the president. That the ratio of those who are more right-leaning is minute in comparison within the COSO community. Would you say this is a fair characterization and is there a realistic way to encourage those who are of different political views over to the site?
A: I would say that currently there are more left-leaning folks than right, but there are right-leaners too and all are treated fairly and respectfully by users on the opposite side of the political fence. I think in time everything will even out. If we can keep the environment safe, respectful and awesome.
Q: So you feel there will be a Counter-Balance in the future?
A: Definitely. It’s a young site, it feels weighted one way just because – for example, Wil Wheaton mentioned COSO on Twitter and his sizable following there would be mostly left-leaning. Not singling Wil out there, just an example.
I’m confident it will balance out over time. And I’ll be very happy when it does.
Also – given the President’s poll numbers – it’s really just a reflection of the actual population.
Q: A young site is correct, not yet one yrs old, however, in less than a couple of months it will be. What would you like to see in COSO’s future?