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.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. 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.

 

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.

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