To Catch A Predditor: Reddit, Gawker, and the Challenge of Online Privacy

Reddit

Reddit describes itself as “the front page of the internet”, a statement that seems to be growing truer all the time. The site has become increasingly popular — it’s estimated that the site receives as many as 30 million unique visitors a month — and it has garnered an immense amount of cultural capital. On August 29, 2012, President Obama went on Reddit and did a live Q&A (or “AMA”, for “Ask Me Anything” session in Reddit-speak) that had more than 4 million visits in a 24-hour span, and he did so precisely because of the site’s reach and influence.

Reddit is a link aggregator: its users can post links to anything they find interesting, fascinating, infuriating, etc. Other users can vote on the link, and if it gets enough attention, it’s promoted to Reddit’s homepage, virtually guaranteeing that link a huge amount of traffic. (This huge spike in traffic is often called the “Reddit effect”.) To keep things organized, Reddit is divided into nearly 70,000 “subreddits”, each focused on a particular topic or interest, e.g., politics, Christianity, video games, technology, memes, and cute pictures.

As you might imagine, there are numerous subreddits out there of a questionable or nefarious nature. One such subreddit was “CreepShots”, and as the name implies, its users posted photos taken of women without their knowledge, often with sexual commentary. Though the existence of “CreepShots” caused some outrage amongst other Reddit users, Reddit admins refused to shut it down because technically, nothing illegal was being done (so long as the women photographed were of legal age). And so, other Reddit users took matters into their own hands and launched Predditors, a site where they compiled public information about those who posted in “CreepShots” and even contacted law enforcement officials in the cases of those suspected of being sexual predators.

Jezebel interviewed one of Predditors’ creators, who explained the site’s approach:

“Reddit’s defense of [CreepShots] is that it’s ‘technically legal,’” she explained. (The subreddit’s bio explains it well: “When you are in public, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. We kindly ask women to respect our right to admire your bodies and stop complaining.” You can also click here for information on how little Reddit’s administrators seem to care about policing the subreddit.) “So I’m doing something that’s technically legal, but will result in consequences for their actions. These f*ckers think they can get away with it scott free, which is one of the reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent around the world.”

She goes on to note the relative ease with which it’s possible to deduce the identities of “CreepShots” users, implying that they don’t believe they’ll get caught and/or simply don’t think there will be repercussions if they do get caught. But, as Jezebel points out, law enforcement officials and others are pretty happy to work with Predditors to confront users over their activity, meaning that it’s likely that what seems like harmless fun may very well have real-life consequences.

Which brings us to the case of Violentacrez, one of Reddit’s most notorious users, and one of the folks in charge of “CreepShots”. Last week, Gawker’s Adrian Chen tracked down Violentacrez and outed him as a programmer named Michael Brutsch living in Texas. Chen writes:

If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit. At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called “Creepshots.” Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn’t suit him very well.

But Michael Brutsch is more than a monster. Online, Violentacrez has been one of Reddit’s most reviled characters but also one of its most beloved users. The self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit” has played a little-known but crucial role in Reddit’s development into the online juggernaut it is today. In real life, Brutsch is a military father and cat-lover. He lives with his wife in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas. There are many sides to Violentacrez, and now that I had Michael Brutsch on the phone I hoped to find out where the troll ended and the real person began.

Chen’s article could have easily been a smear piece when you consider the stuff that Violentacrez was responsible for on Reddit, not to mention details about his offline life that Chen describes. But the article is a fascinating piece of journalism, a nuanced character study that doesn’t shy away from Violentacrez’ nastiness, but neither does it humiliate him. Rather, it simply seeks to understand Brutsch, who is far from repentant for his actions, and gives him space to explain what he does in his own words.

Nevertheless, Chen’s article caused a huge backlash on Reddit. Given the wide range of often-controversial material posted on Reddit, maintaining privacy is perhaps the site’s cardinal rule. Outing Violentacrez broke that cardinal rule, and in protest, links to Chen’s article were banned across Reddit, and numerous subreddits banned all Gawker links. Reddit admins later admitted that the sitewide ban was a mistake, but the damage was done. Numerous people criticized Reddit for their hypocrisy, both with regards to Chen’s article and critics of “CreepShots”. VentureBeat’s Tom Cheredar wrote:

…Reddit’s moderators decided to go proactive by voluntarily banning a website that went after their friend — mind you, not just the article that would have outed his identity, but everything that the site and its sister publications ever produce. They do this under the guise of protection, or a distorted sense of duty, or hell, just because they want to. And this would normally be fine, except that it speaks volumes about Reddit’s moderation police.

Reddit moderators that banned Gawker don’t really want freedom of speech, but they do want the appearance of it. They are exactly what they hate: A bunch of authoritative sociopaths convinced that limiting a few awful voices is necessary for the greater good of the community.

And Alan Jacobs poked fun Reddit’s outrage over Predditors with this tweet:

Woman: Don’t post my photo online. Redditor: Get used to it. Woman: I posted your name online. Redditor: THIS IS AN OUTRAGE.

Reddit as a site and as a community has, on the whole, acted rather poorly in this situation, and in a manner that is a far cry from the bastion of free speech that they so often paint themselves as. Reddit’s outrage may be understandable given the importance they place on privacy and anonymity, but it’s also pretty laughable. It’s also exposed that Reddit admins knowingly turned a blind eye to the activities of Violentacrez because he helped them. As Chen writes:

Violentacrez’s privileged position came from the fact that for years he had helped administrators deal with the massive seedy side of Reddit, acting almost as an unpaid staff member. Reddit administrators essentially handed off the oversight of the site’s NSFW side to Violentacrez, according to former Reddit lead programer Chris Slowe (a.k.a. Keysersosa), who worked at Reddit from 2005 to the end of 2010. When Violentacrez first joined the site and started filling it with filth, administrators were wary and they often clashed. But eventually administrators and Violentacrez came to an uneasy truce, according to Slowe. For all his unpleasantness, they realized that Violentacrez was an excellent community moderator and could be counted on to keep the administrators abreast of any illegal content he came across.

[...]

Administrators realized it was easier to outsource the policing of questionable content to Violentacrez than to dirty their hands themselves, or ostracize him and risk even worse things happening without their knowledge. The devil you know. So even as Jailbait flourished and became an ever-more-integral part of Reddit’s traffic and culture—in 2008 it won the most votes in a “subreddit of the year” poll—administrators looked the other way. “We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn’t particularly legal,” Slowe said. “I know I didn’t want it to be my job.”

Furthermore, the issue with “CreepShots” and other similar subreddits serve as yet another disturbing example of our tendency towards “deindividuation”, i.e., our tendency to lose our sense of propriety when granted a measure of anonymity. Or at least the appearance of a measure of anonymity. That’s one thing we can all probably take away from this situation, regardless of where we stand with regards to Reddit.

The simple fact is that you are never as anonymous as you think you are when you’re online. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that for all but the most paranoid and/or tech-savvy, on-line privacy is essentially non-existent. The amount of information that we post on the Web, be it on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or something like Reddit, is mind-boggling, and it leaves a trail that can easily lead back to us.

You may not be planning on doing something quite so disturbing as posting compromising photos of women taken without their knowledge, but still, your online actions do follow you and may result in offline consequences, both good and bad. The term “IRL” (“in real life”) is often used to describe that which happens away from the computer. As more of our lives go online, that term is becoming increasingly irrelevant: our online and offline lives are overlapping more and more, such that seemingly trivial actions in one may have grave consequences in the other. This realization should give us pause, should cause us to take a moment to reflect on our online activities.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I read the gawker article and was both repulsed and fascinated. The bizarre internet culture that has developed in a lot of these types of aggregation sites is truly disturbing at times, with their own languages, cultural norms, and alternate realities. The deindividuation effect that I’ve see is probably the weirdest part. People become someone else entirely, or the norms that usually keep our sin and weirdness in check in the public realm become exposed. This whole episode will preach, though. I mean, talk about all the things we do in the darkness being exposed to the light.

    Great piece.

  • http://jaketolbert.com/blog Jake T

    This is the best, most intelligent article that I’ve read on C&PC in a long time, perhaps ever. Well done.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    I highly recommend reading John Scalzi’s analysis of the situation, especially his comments on the free speech aspect.

    In the case of Adrian Chen, the Gawker writer who revealed Violentacrez’s real-life identity, I think he’s perfectly justified in doing so. Whether certain denizens of Reddit like it or not, Chen was practicing journalism, and writing a story of a figure of note (and of notoriety) on one of the largest and most influential sites on the Internet. They may believe that Mr. Brutsch should have an expectation not to have his real life identity revealed on Gawker, but the question to ask here is “why?” Why should that be the expectation? How does an expectation of pseudonymity on a Web site logically extend to an expectation of pseudonymity in the real world? How does one who beats his chest for the right of free speech on a Web site (where in fact he has no free speech rights) and to have that right to free speech include the posting of pictures of women who did not consent to have their pictures taken or posted then turn around and criticize Gawker for pursuing an actually and legitimately constitutionally protected exercise of the free press, involving a man who has no legal or ethical presumption of anonymity or pseudonymity in the real world? How do you square one with the other? Well, you can’t, or at least I can’t; I have no doubt some of the folks at Reddit can guide that particular camel through the eye of the needle.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    “Truth, Lies, and ‘Doxxing’: The Real Moral of the Gawker/Reddit Story”

    When someone’s been wronged – or the opportunity arises to use someone to make a statement – it is relatively easy to leverage social media to incite the hive mind to draw attention to an individual. The same tactic that trolls use to target people is the same tactic that people use to out trolls.

    More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.

    This raises serious moral and ethical concerns: In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie? This isn’t an easy question and it’s at the root of how we, as a society, conceptualize justice.


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