Last week, Gawker’s Adrian Chen revealed the real-life identity of one of social news site Reddit’s most notorious users. Online, the man known as Violentacrez has been active in such Reddit forums as “Chokeabitch,” “Misogyny,” “Incest,” and “Creepshots,” a subreddit that encouraged men to snap sexualized stalker photos of women in public, then share them online with creeps everywhere. IRL, Violentacrez is a 49-year-old computer programmer at a Texas financial services company named Michael Brutsch. His outing on Gawker has reopened a longstanding debate surrounding anonymity, freedom of expression, and harassment online. The big question: Is the Internet real life?
In the early days of online communities, anonymity was the norm. Users relished in crafting their new online personas, and becoming anyone they wanted to be. (When I surveyed various Internet personalities about their first online handles last year, those thrilling new identities included “Darius007” and “PrincipalRichardBelding.”) The rise of social media has devalued anonymity. Now, we compete to boost our real-life profiles in Google searches and amass more Twitter followers. And in some networks, like Facebook and Google+, real names aren’t just encouraged—they’re required.
Not so on Reddit, where the only community value more important than saying whatever you want is not saying who anyone else is. The special mix of anonymity and anything-goes speech encourages radical conversation on the most taboo of topics. And Reddit’s most devoted users sink a lot of their real-life hours into this corner of the Internet, where no one holds them personally accountable for what they write, and the rules of society do not apply. Oddly enough, that freedom of expression often just frees users to engage in the same bottom-feeding commentary you see offline, too—the harassment of gays, minority groups, and women. “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,” Chen wrote. After Chen outed the troll, many subreddits banned all Gawker links.
Users like Violentacrez may defend their online domain as a “thought experiment” divorced from real life. But the truth is that though Reddit users can always create a new handle, they can’t really change who they are. When Chen sought out the “man behind the troll,” he found a guy just as depraved as his online persona—a middle-aged white man who admits to an attraction to underage girls, boasts about having oral sex with his 19-year-old stepdaughter, and apologizes for nothing. Online, his reach goes that much farther—he’s not only empowered to exert his control over members of his own family, but also to exploit any 14-year-old girl from around the world.
Yes, the Internet is real life. But the trolls are correct—the rules of society do not always apply here. Reporters like Chen can help bring the Internet’s worst offenders back to reality, where the “free speech” of harassment is less valued. Violentacrez was canned from his real-life job soon after Chen’s story broke. But holding anonymous users accountable is hard work. When trolls are exposed in real life, they can always slip into a new skin and continue the destruction online.
Last month, a group of anonymous Reddit users rebelled against the site’s anything-goes mentality. They began systematically outing the men behind Creepshots, labeling them “Predditors,” and alerting campus and law enforcement authorities to the worst offenders. One of these men was Christopher Bailey, a 35-year-old substitute teacher who had been using Creepshots to post photographs of his “hottest” students and add his own suggestive commentary to the pics. Jason Fetner, the sheriff’s investigator who caught Bailey, told Jezebel that he had trouble convincing a judge that Bailey’s Reddit behavior was worth investigating—you know, using his position as a high school teacher to present his female students to a bunch of self-described “creeps” online. Why? Because Bailey was posting anonymously, and the tipsters were anonymous, too.
Fetner eventually got the go-ahead, met Bailey, and found the teacher’s phone stacked with “multiple texts and nude photos that he sent to girls as young as 16.” (As it turns out, Bailey’s private life was even more objectionable than his anonymous persona.) “Until the laws in this country catch up to technology, we’re going to continue to see these types of problems,” Fetner said.* Law enforcement is adapting slowly: Some countries are even experimenting with serving process through Facebook or text message to catch defendants who can’t be tracked down in person. Even then, Fetner says, police will rely on members of internet forums “looking out” for offenders.
That’s how it works in real life, anyway—you notice a man in your community harassing teenage girls, and you report him. On Reddit, the rules are different. You notice a member of your community tattling on a creep, and you ban him. The majority of Reddit’s millions of users (and 20,000-plus volunteer moderators) aren’t creeps, harassers, or sexual predators. But the community’s ground rules—essentially, don’t post actual child porn and never out your fellow members—makes Reddit a lot safer for creeps than it does for everybody else.
Correction, Oct. 15, 2012: This post previously misattributed two quotes to Christopher Bailey. They were spoken by investigator Jason Fetner.