Reddit’s ‘Doxtober’: A Tragedy in Five Acts

 

Much of the content uploaded or moderated by Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez was, by his own admission, pornographic.  His images graced the pages of infamous subreddits like r/jailbait, which Brutsch tried to top with r/picsofdeadjailbait after the former was called out for being the worst subreddit on all of Reddit. In his heyday, Brutsch was involved in over 400 subreddits with questionable content.

Act I:  The Malefactor Emerges

After CNN’s Anderson Cooper brought mainstream attention to the shady subreddits eight months ago, Reddit banned 31 of them. Before that time, administrators had not attempted to clean up the cesspool. And while some of these subreddits were banned, the users and moderators who created and participated in them were not.

In what now seems to have been a crisis management strategy, Reddit also implemented a new rule, which was explained in a link called, “Necessary change in policy.” No suggestive or sexual content featuring minors.

Intermezzo

What appeared to be a categorical prohibition on content that no reasonable, prudent person would consider “protected speech,” failed to fulfill its promise and led instead to a false sense of security. Then complacency set in. Meanwhile, Reddit’s new rule slipped outside to have a smoke and was never heard from again.

Act II:  The Rise of an Antihero

Gawker reporter, Adrian Chen, plays the role of antagonist to antihero Violentacrez and his latest obsession, r/CreepShots. After Chen publishes an article unmasking Violentacrez as programmer Michael Brutsch from Arlington, Texas, the curtain abruptly falls. CreepShots is banned and Brutsch is publicly humiliated and fired from his job.  Apparently now seeking the limelight, Brutsch said on a Reddit thread on Tuesday, “I have a CNN interview scheduled for tomorrow evening.”

Before Chen’s outing, Violentacrez enjoyed his own unique brand of support on the Reddit stage, paraphrased here:

I hereby stand with Reddit’s unbridled allegiance to free speech no matter how violent, obscene or sexually exploitative, and its total intolerance of threats to dox any of its moderators or users. Thus—and in spite of the fact that I believe violentacrez is a complete scum bag—I pledge to support him and his right to privacy. To demonstrate my support, I am blocking any links to Gawker content (and that of its numerous sister media properties) on the pages of my subreddit!

This declaration comes in retaliation for Chen’s outing of Violentacrez and conveniently disregards the privacy rights of the under-aged girls whose images were uploaded without their consent on r/CreepShots and the so-called allegiance to free expression.

Act III: The Supporting Cast Takes the Stage in Disguise

Anonymous users embody the best and the worst of the Internet. Some are vigilant watchdogs who alert the public to patently offensive material or rail against controversial legal proposals. Others prefer anonymity for justifiable reasons such as concealing a psychiatric disorder. Many more hide behind anonymity in order to take part in dubious activity from which they would refrain in real life, like uploading pictures of dead kids, women being beaten, and photos of underage girls taken without their knowledge or consent. Still, the Internet’s, and Reddit’s, most effective police force is anonymous.

The subreddit r/ShitRedditSays (SRS) asks users, “Have you recently read an upvoted Reddit comment that was bigoted, creepy, misogynistic, transphobic, unsettling, racist, homophobic, or just reeking of unexamined, toxic privilege?” Then tells them, “Of course you have! Post it here.”

The group advocates stricter rules against such content and calls for intervention and enforcement by Reddit administrators. Yet, the majority of Redditors consider SRS trolls because they have invaded other subreddits and have blocked the upvote feature on their posts so that one can only downvote.

SRS now controls the Violentacrez subreddit and has recently stated on its sidebar—where subredditors post “official” notices—that r/MensRights would be targeted next for banishment. The MensRights subreddit considers itself “a place for those who wish to discuss men’s rights and the ways said rights are infringed upon.” But some users allege that it is full of misogynists and white supremacists.

Act IV: The First Amendment Falls from Grace

The First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly and expression through publication extend beyond those explicitly stated in the Constitution. These include freedom of information, government access, a citizen’s right to know and right to privacy, which the Supreme Court has found in the “penumbra” of that Amendment. (see: Griswold v. Connecticut)

As Courts have interpreted the First Amendment, exceptions have developed to the principle that all speech is protected from government prohibition.  For example, a state authority may prosecute a speaker who incites his or her listeners to commit an imminent violent act.  In narrow cases, courts may even enjoin (known as a prior restraint) publication of certain national security secrets.  Similarly, the courts afford sexual content less protection and, in theory, allow the prosecution of purveyors of “obscene” materials.  In practice, the subjectivity inherent in defining that term has made it virtually impossible to establish any standards, with the noted exception of child pornography.

Paradoxically, hate speech receives more protection than sexual content.   For example, before the passage of the RICO statute, members of the Ku Klux Klan were afforded the right to express hate speech with personal anonymity. Neo-Nazi groups continue to enjoy the same rights.

But anonymous members of society have made tremendous contributions.  Today, the V for Vendetta mask is worn to protest “anonymously.” Before the adoption of the very Constitution that established freedom of speech and assembly, the anonymously-written Federalist Papers persuaded members of state conventions to ratify this seminal document.

Because technology has leapt ahead of our law and policy makers, we should consider whether some types of “anonymous” speech merit the same level of protection as other forms of speech.

Act V: The Unsung Champions

Speaking to Jezebel (a Gawker sister media property) regarding one of the contributors to r/creepshots (a substitute teacher who uploaded pictures of students) a Coweta County Sheriff’s Office investigator said:

Until the laws in this country catch up to technology, we’re going to continue to see these types of problems. There’s nothing wrong with people looking out for this sort of thing and taking legal efforts to do something about it.

Indeed, private Internet companies like Reddit and the media conglomerates that own them have a moral responsibility to take effective action against obvious misconduct and abuse of privilege. When they don’t, we should be grateful to individuals like Chen, and the creator of the Predditors Tumblr who provided a list of publicly accessible, identifying information about the contributors to Reddit’s sleazy r/creepshots.

During the CNN discussion of r/jailbait, Reddit general manager Erik Martin said, “We’re a free speech site and the cost of that is that there’s stuff that’s offensive on there.”

Sonny Halston, former sex crimes prosecutor, responded, “I think we’re all sort of tired of people hiding behind the First Amendment, right? It’s so cowardly. The First Amendment is there for wonderful reasons… Kiddie porn: not protected.” We should also question the ethnocentric assumption that American values are universal. The Internet crosses national borders and, therefore, cannot be regulated by one set of laws.

There is also an important distinction between images and written speech on the Internet. Images are examples of symbolic speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. One section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides web hosts and Internet service providers “safe harbor” from copyright infringement claims if they implement certain notice and takedown procedures.

Under DMCA, if someone posts your image without your explicit permission, the web host must implement the “notice and takedown procedures,” and remove the image. Remember though, that this applies to copyright infringement, not privacy. And technically, the person who snapped the photo has copyright claims to it, not the subject. Couldn’t a similar act extend to the right to privacy? The most recent r/creepshots subreddit explicitly asked contributors that the images be taken without the knowledge of the young women featured in them, mostly minors. Were Reddit’s administrators negligent by not putting a stop to it sooner?

Certainly we do not want to return to the “McCarthy Era” when writings, speeches and activities were scrutinized, and censored, for imagined communist propaganda and leftist advocacy. Keeping in place the original intent of the First Amendment is in everyone’s best interest. Jefferson’s concept of what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes later called a “marketplace of ideas,” where the good would ultimately trump the bad, may have been too Utopian. But perhaps the activities of Chen and others are exactly what Jefferson imagined.

As individuals we have no other choice but to take more social responsibility when it comes to online speech.  History has shown that we cannot always rely on the courts for fear of setting dangerous precedents – as in the case of Citizens United. Actions taken by private citizens, however, have succeeded in areas where the courts have fallen short. Advertisers, movie producers, journalists and public relations practitioners have all created codes of ethics to guide their practices.

From the Society of Professional Journalists:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

This self-regulation offers more transparency in the form of written ethics codes that deal with the most important concerns and issues facing the Internet today, namely privacy and offensive (or obscene) content.

The closest example I could find to a self-imposed ethics code comes from Facebook’s Statement of Rights and ResponsibilitiesOn Reddit, the community has taken an active role in defining “Reddiquette as “an informal expression of the values of many redditors, as written by redditors themselves.”

Certainly each social network is different, so an industry-wide code may be difficult, if not impossible, to establish. But once codes become common practice, similar networks can work together to provide a comprehensive framework representative of those that choose to participate. If they choose negligence over self-regulation, they can hardly complain when they are held accountable.

Denouement

The story serves as a warning to individuals like Violentacrez who try use anonymity to immoral ends, and companies like Reddit who hide behind the First Amendment to self-serving ends. Both have contributed to their own demise with a complete disregard for social responsibility.

The supporting cast members in this particular drama are the real heroes, leaving the audience with a glimmer of hope, hope that vigilant, private individuals and groups will keep up the good fight to expose wrongdoings by corporations and users who hide behind anonymity to either upset public sensibilities, indulge in sick fetishes, or oversimplify the First Amendment. These activists work to restore a sense of morality that our founders certainly did not want or expect to see lost in our nation’s and, indeed, our world’s, future. So there is hope that slimy individuals will think twice before embarking on immoral, public acts, and hope that social networks will take more proactive steps to self-regulate in the public interest.

It remains to be seen how effective the modern-day Internet cast and crew will be in taking the narrative to the next level and offering us something that will open to rave reviews and critical acclaim on the world stage.

Sadly, Reddit seems to rather enjoy playing the villain and will continue in its distortion of the First Amendment. The site’s CEO, Yishan Wong, recently told Reddit moderators: “We stand for free speech… we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits.”

Then again, where would good theatre be without a vile antagonist?

*Brian Sullivan contributed to this story.

Image by Eduard Härkönen  via Shutterstock.

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