Troll-Hunting

I can’t help but steal Ta-Nehisi Coates’ title for this post, since his blog is where I first caught wind of this story, and his title was a good one.

Over at Gawker, Adrien Chen has posted about the notorious Reddit troll (and also moderator, which is a key point) called “Violentacrez.” It unmasks VA’s real identity as Michael Brutsch, but for my money, that’s not the interesting part. Instead it’s the dissection of Reddit’s “free speech” culture, and the way that its paid employees decided it was easier and therefore preferable to make a deal with the devil, rather than attempt to enforce any sort of decency above the bare legal minimum.

What do I mean by that? You should go read the article, but here’s a sampler: VA was very good at hunting down and eliminating actual child pornography posted to Reddit, so they were totes okay with the fact that he was running a giant subreddit called “Jailbait” whose members trawled the web for pictures of adolescent girls in bikinis or short skirts and posted them for the prurient entertainment of their fellow Redditors. (Because, y’know, if they didn’t want creeps on the Internet drooling over their bodies, they shouldn’t have dressed like that, or posted their pictures online!) Oh, and he was really energetic about policing Jailbait not only for child pornography, but also for any girl who appeared to be older than 16 or 17. Good to know he was on the ball!

Of course, there’s been great outrage at Reddit. About Violentacrez? No, of course not. About Chen’s great crime in “doxxing” him — exposing his real identity. On this topic, let me just quote Chen:

Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.

I am OK with that.

And so am I.

As Scalzi points out, a lot of this is based in a skewed sense of what “free speech” means, plus an unhealthy dose of privileged entitlement. The notion that I am abridging somebody’s constitutional rights by getting in the way of their ability to be a goddamned asshole, is, to put it succinctly, bullshit. Am I glad that Brutsch has lost his job (with a payday lender, apparently, which Fred Clark at Slacktivist has commented on)? No, of course not. He has a family to feed. But I don’t blame Chen for that, either. Brutsch thrived because the culture of Reddit allowed him to get away with reprehensible behavior, and the cost of that to other people is real. His pigeons are now coming home to roost. I’m sure Redditors will take up a collection on his behalf, and they’ll inundate him with sympathy for the terrible and unjustified witch-hunt against a guy who only wanted to entertain himself with other people’s suffering.

But in the meantime, Chen has struck one little blow against Internet sociopathy. If I could donate to him, I would.

0 Responses to “Troll-Hunting”

  1. Marie Brennan

    Yeah. That’s why, for me, the big takeaway from this is not Brutsch himself, but the culture of Reddit’s admins and moderators. The fact that they rewarded him — with authority, with popularity, with respect — is a major insight into the structures and patterns that encourage this sort of behavior. That, more than the personal stuff about Brutsch, is what I’m applauding Chen for.

    • maladaptive

      Oh… I think the US system of “free speech” does a LOT to contribute to this. It’s not “technically” illegal, and they are privileged dudes who have never given a second thought to the humanity of other people who aren’t like them. Women are just there for their enjoyment. They need no ethical code to adhere to other than the letter of the law.

      But as soon as the tables turn BAWWWW FREE SPEECH BAWWWWW.

      What I love: legally, Chen did nothing wrong. So by Reddit’s own logic, he violated no ethical code.

      Oh wait, what’s that? It’s different because it affects them? Ha!

      • Marie Brennan

        Redditors are claiming Chen violated the ethical code of respecting people’s anonymity. And if he’d outed Brutsch on Reddit, you could maybe agree they have a point. But he did it on an unrelated site, and the notion that Brutsch has the inalienable right to anonymity and therefore protection from the consequences of his destructive behavior? Is laughable.

        • maladaptive

          But you don’t understand, he’s a dude. Consequences are for underage girls who are such brazen hussies that they dare leave the house. If they didn’t want creepers taking their pictures, they wouldn’t go into public!

          You can’t expect men (particularly white men) to take responsibility for their actions. That’s, like, totally uncool and maybe even illegal.

          • Marie Brennan

            Yeah, it’s funny (haha) how the people who like to talk a tough line about how people need to suck up whatever abuse gets thrown their way suddenly turn into squalling infants the minute any harshness gets pointed at them.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    That’s an excellent article by Chen and another one by you: thank you.
    UK laws are far from perfect — our libel laws are just weird, fora start — but I am deeply grateful that our laws on hate speech are much tighter here than they are in the US and the culture of ‘free speech == the right to trample over others with impunity’ is less well entrenched.

    • Marie Brennan

      I really wonder whether that misreading of “free speech” was as widespread and immune to correction before the Internet got rolling. I’m too young to actually know, but possibly somebody here can weigh in.

  3. novalis

    I have complicated feelings about all this:

    (1) As Brutsch pointed out, our larger society considers it OK to stare at under-18 women — so long as they’re on TV, and so long as you’re not honest about it. There’s something screwed up about punishing honesty. Of course, lots of what was posted on the subreddits wasn’t of people with a reasonable expectation of being seen by the public (e.g. photos in high schools or up skirts), which Brutsch approved. So it’s not just a question of honesty. Still, you could easily imagine someone losing their job just for being honest about what they like (even though what they like is very common). And that worries me, even though Brutsch himself isn’t an actual case of this.

    (a) I’m generally worried about someone who is not a company spokesperson being fired because he or she does unpopular-but-legal things.

    (2) I’m happy that Reddit admins eventually came around on the issue of links to Gawker. I think their initial reaction was a pretty typical story of loyalty and circling the wagons. I’m not really sure why this sort of thing doesn’t get more attention. Maybe because there’s no catch name for the phenomenon as a whole.

    (3) I am strongly in favor of anonymity. But to be truly anonymous, you can’t share details of your private life with strangers (or people you don’t fully trust). You can’t have that basic human connection of, “oh, yeah, I’m a programmer down here in Texas too”. You can’t go to meetups. That’s a pretty serious trade-off, which only people with a strong reason to be anonymous would engage in. And if you screw up, it’s on you (if you’re hacked, that’s maybe a different matter). Still, once the information is out there, it’s out there; you can’t unring a bell.

    And it’s hard not to screw up. I once accidentally linked an anonymous identity of mine to my real identity. Not provably, but enough that the forum admins could have outed me (not that they would have had any reason to, since I was not doing anything even approaching wrong). Fortunately, it was in a case where anonymity was not very important at all (which I guess is why I didn’t do all my anonymous work through tor in an incognito window).

    (4) It’s easy to run a blog or small community site with reasonable rules of conduct. I don’t know of a large site which has reasonable rules; every large site ends up screwing up and banning pictures of breastfeeding women. But I hope someone figures it out, because large sites like Reddit do have value. And even if nobody has figured it out, Reddit could certainly do better than it has.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m all in favor of us having a discussion about at-will employment, what constitutes (or should constitute) “just cause” for firing, etc. But that’s very much on the head of Brutsch’s employer, not Chen etc. (And, as discussions elsewhere have brought up, it seems extremely likely that Brutsch was surfing/modding Reddit while at work, on work machines. So he’s probably not protected in this instance, regardless.)

      But I profoundly disagree with the notion that we’re punishing Brutsch for “honesty.” You say it isn’t just a question of that, but I say it isn’t a question of that at all. It’s a matter of our society not agreeing en masse that it’s okay to stare at under-18 women, and the part that says it isn’t taking steps to try and enforce that standard on the part that says it totally is, because have you seen how those girls dress? Etc. This is decency trying to bootstrap itself up a step or two, and I fundamentally don’t know of any feasible way to make that happen except for these moments of public outrage.

      As for rules of conduct for large sites, I don’t frequent enough of them to judge. But I know Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who is often cited as an excellent moderator and instructor thereof, is involved over at BoingBoing, and I haven’t heard of any horrible failures there, whether of the VA type or the “oops, we banned the wrong thing” type. We have the tools to make this kind of thing work; we just need to foster them better, and stop with the attitude (which I’m not ascribing to you, but to an unfortunately large swath of the internet) of “eh, well, it’s the web, what can you do.” There is plenty we can do. We just don’t yet have enough people who care enough to try.

      • novalis

        I totally agree that Chen is 100% in the right here.

        It’s a matter of our society not agreeing en masse that it’s okay to stare at under-18 women

        But I’m not sure at all that our society agrees about that. Nobody says, “quick, turn that off”, if Britney Spears is on MTV. There is hypocrisy — not unique or unusual, but real.

        BoingBoing isn’t the sort of large site I was thinking of. It gets at most hundreds of comments per day across a few dozen forums — not hundreds of thousands of comments across thousands of threads. There are probably only a few hundred sites on the scale that I am thinking of: LJ, Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, SomethingAwful, Reddit, Digg, etc. You would never see Rome Sweet Rome on BoingBoing (or, for that matter, on Facebook or 4chan). It might be true that there are no moderation failures on BoingBoing (although given the Violet Blue affair, I wouldn’t trust that there would never be), but there are also no great successes; the comments there are rarely interesting.

        • Marie Brennan

          My grammar wasn’t clear: I mean that our society disagrees on whether or not it’s okay to stare at underage girls, not that we agree it isn’t. There are definitely people (and I’m one of them) who have a problem with the sexualization of underage girls, even if it’s something that by and large gets a pass (or even approval) from most of the culture around me.

          Regarding moderation: I don’t think it’s apt to compare LJ, Facebook, and Twitter to Reddit (I can’t speak to the others you listed). The first three are platforms that contain communities within them; they do not have platform-wide admins granting moderation authority to individuals for specific territories. You couldn’t get a Violentacrez type on LJ, because LJ’s staff have no say in who moderates any portion of the site. All they can do are site-wide bans — and yes, those have historically turned out pretty badly.

          But if Reddit is going to be organizing a volunteer moderation force, they can (and should) exercise better judgment in how they do it. Drawing the line at “if it isn’t illegal, we don’t give a damn” is going to produce exactly the kind of result we see here — but nothing says that initial decision has to be inevitable.

          • novalis

            Regarding moderation: I don’t think it’s apt to compare LJ, Facebook, and Twitter to Reddit (I can’t speak to the others you listed). The first three are platforms that contain communities within them; they do not have platform-wide admins granting moderation authority to individuals for specific territories. You couldn’t get a Violentacrez type on LJ, because LJ’s staff have no say in who moderates any portion of the site. All they can do are site-wide bans — and yes, those have historically turned out pretty badly.

            I don’t use Facebook, but on LJ, at least, (as I understand it; last time I looked; I could be wrong) moderation in communities works almost exactly like subreddits. Community admins can decide what can be posted and who can post, and anyone can start a community.

            But if Reddit is going to be organizing a volunteer moderation force, they can (and should) exercise better judgment in how they do it. Drawing the line at “if it isn’t illegal, we don’t give a damn” is going to produce exactly the kind of result we see here — but nothing says that initial decision has to be inevitable.

            I agree, and I think they should have done better. But so far, nobody seems to have found a strategy that is anything like good enough for that scale. That might be a problem of technology, it might be Dunbar’s number, or it might be just that nobody has tried hard enough.

          • Marie Brennan

            I don’t use Facebook, but on LJ, at least, (as I understand it; last time I looked; I could be wrong) moderation in communities works almost exactly like subreddits. Community admins can decide what can be posted and who can post, and anyone can start a community.

            My impression (from Chen’s article) was that Reddit’s paid staff have the ability to grant or revoke that authority from the volunteer mods, which LJ’s paid staff almost certainly do not have the ability to do. (Short of completely banning the user, but I’ve never heard of that happening.) Am I wrong?

            I agree, and I think they should have done better. But so far, nobody seems to have found a strategy that is anything like good enough for that scale. That might be a problem of technology, it might be Dunbar’s number, or it might be just that nobody has tried hard enough.

            My money is on the latter, or at least I think the latter has to be resolved before we can start to suss out what else might be in the mix. Reddit’s people didn’t even bother trying. If you don’t care enough to try, then no trick of technology etc is going to solve the problem for you.

          • novalis

            My impression (from Chen’s article) was that Reddit’s paid staff have the ability to grant or revoke that authority from the volunteer mods, which LJ’s paid staff almost certainly do not have the ability to do. (Short of completely banning the user, but I’ve never heard of that happening.) Am I wrong?

            I actually don’t know whether you’re right or wrong in either case. Chen’s article doesn’t say for sure one way or another. I couldn’t find a case via Google of someone being enmodded or demodded by admins on either Reddit or LJ. In the case of LJ, staff can directly control community moderation, but the policy seems to be to do it very rarely; I’ve never heard of this happening. Reddit seems to have roughly the same policy for abandoned subreddits, but otherwise doesn’t mention admins adding or removing moderators.

          • novalis

            Yes, I read that, but as far as I can tell from reading Reddit’s faqs, it’s simply not true.

            See this quote from the faq, for instance:
            “Again, moderators have no special powers outside of the community they moderate, and are not appointed by reddit.”

            Or “How do you get to be a moderator?
            If you create a reddit, you will automatically become its moderator. If you’d like to become a moderator of an existing reddit, ask one of the community’s moderators! It’s mostly a thankless task, though, but that does mean that moderators are usually looking for volunteers.”

          • rabidfangurl

            From the article, I got the impression that Reddit’s paid staff also have the power to grant extra rights and privileges to volunteer moderators, like control over larger and more popular forums. LJ’s paid staff can’t do that. If you moderate an LJ comm, you moderate that comm and any other comm you’ve started. Taking over another comm can only be done with the owner’s consent.

            LJ is unlike Reddit in that there is no reward system for being a popular moderator. Your community rises and falls on it’s own and the mods of OhNoTheyDidn’t don’t have any more privileges than the mods of a community that gets one post every six months.

            A Violentacrez is much less likely on LJ than on Reddit.

          • timprov

            Two Plus Two is even fuller (by percentage) of young male idiots than Reddit, and does a much better job. You may still not find it acceptable, though.

          • novalis

            Two Plus Two seems to have jailbait threads — despite theoretically being a forum about an entirely different topic.

        • tiamat360

          I spend a lot of time on the Something Awful forums. They’re hardly perfect, and I hardly peruse the entirety of them, but…from what I’ve seen they’re pretty well moderated. Of the threads I read, I’ve seen punishment (banning or probation) doled out for creepy comments on several threads and misogyny and racism on another. Point is, Reddit certainly could do better, because SA already does.

          • novalis

            I have not spent any time on SA at all, actually. I’m pleasantly surprised!

            But it’s not enough to ban people for the bad stuff — you have to also not ban people for the not-bad stuff (i.e. photos that happen to involve breastfeeding; LJ bans people for that).

          • tiamat360

            Hrm. SA has a “not safe for work” tag for image links beyond which things like nudity can be posted without consequence, though I’m fairly certain posting underage nudity, even behind such a tag, is a bannable offense (e.g. in a “post random imgur images” thread I was wading through, I saw several people questioning whether (subsequently removed) nude images were of minors). I am honestly not sure of the policy involving images of breastfeeding, though in a thread on pregnancy I did find a link (without the NWS tags) that led to a site about breastfeeding which featured an image of such on the main page. This link was posted by a moderator.

            There may well be places on the forums that are problematic in either direction, but in my experience the level of moderation seems to follow common sense.

            EDIT: There is also a “not mind safe” tag for things that might gross people out (ranging from crawling spiders to gore). The general feeling with both the NMS and NWS tags is that…you’ve been warned. If you click on the link and are offended because you find things that are not work safe or not mind safe, that’s your own damn problem. Excepting, again, things like child porn.

          • novalis

            I just did a bit more research. It looks to me like SA has a fairly arbitrary banning policy (e.g. the war on furries), which I guess is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. I try to avoid sites like that, because I don’t particularly care for worrying about being banned. It’s not that I tend to break rules; it’s that you never know when you’re going to end up on someone’s bad side.

  4. timprov

    The first amendment does apply, though perhaps not in the way you’re thinking. In the US, a person does not have the right to control the use of their image except in a commercial context. In general, rights accrue to the artist, not the subject. Changing this would have wide-reaching and unpleasant consequences; among other things, it would destroy about 80% of art photography.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not arguing that we should change the legal status of photography, and neither are 99% of the people I’ve seen discussing this. The “free speech” angle is directed at whether people have a constitutional right to have their fun on subreddits like Jailbait and Creepshots, and whether it’s “censorship” to enforce moderation standards for a community. You do have the constitutional right to say stuff; you do not, however, have the constitutional right to say it on Reddit, and so blame does accrue to the moderators for not only permitting but fostering this kind of antisocial behavior.

      And, as somebody pointed out in Scalzi’s comment thread, Reddit’s brand of free speech crowds out other kinds. Unfettered reedom for the trolls and the racists and the misogynists and the homophobes and all the other antisocials creates an environment that suppresses the speech of people of color and women and QUILTBAG individuals and so on, because they’re frightened and humiliated into silence. Good moderation creates greater freedom for that latter category of people, at the expense of the former category. And, to echo Chen, I’m OK with that. I’m not asking for legal enforcement of such things — even anti-hate speech laws are a complicated and thorny problem — but community enforcement, yes.

      • timprov

        And yet, it’s not your community. If you want to impose that standard on Reddit from outside, then it is censorship. Whether it’s by government or by peer pressure doesn’t really matter.

        Everyone’s free to not pay any attention to Reddit. From my own experience, it turns out to be quite a solid strategic decision.

        • cofax7

          Everyone’s free to not pay any attention to Reddit.

          Except those women and girls who get their photos taken and posted, without their consent, in a “jailbait” forum, and possibly amended with slanderous and/or threatening text.

          You think none of the hundreds of thousands of redditors never saw any faces they recognized on that site? Or never entered any of the photos into Google image search to identify the girls?

        • aulus_poliutos

          I don’t even know what Reddit is. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Marie Brennan

          Nine times out of ten — actually, probably more often than that — when I see people start wailing about censorship, they’re blurring the distinction between government-sanctioned and -backed suppression of speech, and the right of an individual or group to control what you’re allowed to say in their “house.” (Which may be their living room, their convention, their outdoor fair, their blog comments, wherever.)

          But sure, if you want to call the latter category “censorship,” I won’t disagree. I fully support the right of a community to censor things that are distasteful to their members. And I also fully support the right of broader society to censure them for their decisions on that front: whether they’re too lax (“if it isn’t illegal, we don’t care”) or fascist (“we’ll kick out anybody who doesn’t toe the party line”).

          What’s going on here is broad censure of Reddit for excessively lax censorship. We don’t have the power to impose any control there; we don’t have mod privileges. But we can give them the stink-eye, and we are.

          The rest of the time, yeah, I don’t pay any attention to Reddit. But it’s been rising on my radar despite that, because they’re getting more and more of a reputation for being a libertarian jungle in which women and other “target” groups aren’t safe. That’s the point at which I start to care. Allowing antisocial behavior to fester there has spillover effects for the rest of the world, that I can’t just ignore.

          • timprov

            The minute you decide that someone else is responsible to you, you become a proto-government. The only difference between you and the established government is market share. Since posts like this are designed to gain market share, I think it’s entirely reasonable to treat you and the people you’re banding together with as a government.

            Anyway, what I see is that you think it’s a good idea to shame people for their sexuality as long as you find it icky; that you want to drive them out of society in order to preserve the “safety” of people you care about more than them; and that actually doing the work to get rid of them is somebody else’s job. This is, of course, exactly the same attitude conservatives take toward homosexuality. You can’t both be right, but you can both be very wrong.

          • Marie Brennan

            That’s a remarkably expansive definition of “government,” and one I can’t get behind. I don’t think that word is apropos until the people I am theoretically attempting to be responsible for decide to legitimate my authority in some fashion: by acclaiming me as their leader, by bowing to my ability to exert coercive force over them, whatever. And that hasn’t happened here. Calling me and the other parts of society who disapprove of antisocial behavior a “government,” proto or otherwise, strikes me as very wide of the mark.

            And no, I’m not “shaming people for their sexuality” because I “find it icky,” nor am I attempting to “drive them out of society” (even if we define “society” here as “Reddit”). If this were an argument over a community of guys who get off by finding unsuspecting women and girls and punching them in the face, it would be more obvious that what’s at stake here isn’t “ickiness” but rather harm, and that the point isn’t to shame them, it’s to limit their ability to do harm. As for the work to get rid of them — or more accurately, to moderate their behavior — I’m doing what I can right here, by promoting attitudes that say this kind of predatory behavior isn’t okay. I don’t have the power to do anything more directly, because I’m not a Reddit mod. In theory I could join the community and try to build up the cred to earn that authority, but given that you were advocating a solution of ignoring Reddit just a bit upthread, I’d be surprised if you’re telling me that’s what I should be doing.

            As for you mapping my objections here to conservatives against homosexuality . . . I acknowledge that they believe homosexuals are, in fact, harming themselves and others by their behavior, in which respect their attitude is comparable to mine. But I also believe they are extremely wrong about this. Do you think I am wrong to believe that creepshots etc are harmful to others? You say we can’t both be right, but we can both be wrong; you say nothing about one of us can be right and the other wrong. By dragging that in here, it really leaves the impression that a) you believe Brutsch’s behavior should be condoned like that of gays in a consensual relationship or b) you’re attempting to score some kind of cheap rhetorical point, for what reason I cannot discern.

          • timprov

            1. Peer pressure is coercive force. Ask any teenager.

            2. Do you think I am wrong to believe that creepshots etc are harmful to others?

            Yes. Photographs are not voodoo dolls.

          • Marie Brennan

            Photographs do, however, contribute to the sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies, especially when they’re combined with captions and/or commentary about the sexual acts strangers now want to commit on those bodies (as is the case here). They contribute to the sense that women exist to be ogled, that by wearing a swimsuit on my vacation and then posting the pictures for friends to see I am inviting the world at large to objectify my body, and so on down the line to some things that do indeed result in direct physical or psychological harm. And when these things are being done to underaged girls, it passes well beyond “icky” into something far worse.

            And let’s not forget that the issue here is not merely the Jailbait subreddit, but the Deadjailbait subreddit (pictures of teenaged girls’ corpses), the Creepshot subreddit (shots taken up the skirts or down the blouses of unsuspecting women), and a whole crapton more of things that are offensive on other axes, like racism. Ickiness is not remotely the problem here.

          • tiamat360

            Anyway, what I see is that you think it’s a good idea to shame people for their sexuality as long as you find it icky; that you want to drive them out of society in order to preserve the “safety” of people you care about more than them; and that actually doing the work to get rid of them is somebody else’s job. This is, of course, exactly the same attitude conservatives take toward homosexuality. You can’t both be right, but you can both be very wrong.

            …Excuse me? Just so everyone’s on the same page here, we’re talking about condemning the action of posting inappropriate photos of underage girls publicly online (and hence adults’ attraction to underage kids), and you are comparing that condemnation to homophobia. Yes?

            Okay, if I’ve got that correct…No. Absolutely not. This is sort of a slippery slope argument that you’re trying to make, in reverse (usually it’s “homosexuality –> pedophilia,” and it seems you’re trying to argue that “homosexuality = pedophilia so don’t diss on pedophilia”). You and the people who make the former argument always forget one really, REALLY important fact: a homosexual relationship involves two consenting adults. A pedophilial relationship does not. This has very important social and legal implications in our society that, personally, I tend to agree with.

            Please correct me if I’ve read your statement above incorrectly and that therefore my interpretation is wrong, but from what I can see you are comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, and that is extremely offensive to me.

          • timprov

            We’re not talking about child porn here. We’re talking about random photos of teenagers. They’re “inappropriate” only in that you find the use of them squicky.

          • Marie Brennan

            See my comment above. It is far more than simply “random photos of teenagers.”

  5. pghbekka

    Popehat has some great discussion from the legal perspective: http://www.popehat.com/2012/10/17/follow-up-a-few-questions-about-reddits-stance-on-free-speech/

    And there’s some really good discussion both there and in the Scalzi comments on the subject of employment rights.

  6. Anonymous

    Right, except it’s harmful to find that sexualised photos of you were put online without your consent. Also, the consent line is why the OP isn’t shaming people for their sexual behaviour because she finds it “icky” but because it involves arguably exploitative, certainly non-consensual images of minors. Which is why shaming this /= shaming queerness.

    Not even getting into your government comments.

  7. Anonymous

    Yep, that’s fair, there are several things you can be banned for that might not be apparent or obvious to outsiders.

    …I’ll still take it over Reddit any day.

  8. jennifergale

    No time to say anything but….here-here!

    Also, it was good to see you at Sirens again this year. ๐Ÿ™‚

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