Reddit, Free Speech, the Internet and Misogyny -- The Unmasking of Reddit's Michael Brutsch

“Free speech” arguments are often used to suggest that any kind of content ever should pass without remark or challenge, and that’s not actually how it works. Free speech gives you a right, but it also gives others a right to respond to you.

Oct 15, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that Reddit has attracted a great deal of attention in the last few days in the wake of Adrian Chen’s Gawker piece unmasking one of the site’s most notorious users, Violentacrez, who, it turns out, is a middle-aged programmer named Michael Brutsch.

Depending on how you view him, Violentacrez was a creep, a beloved member of the community, a troll, a moderator, a misogynist, a valued part of the Reddit team and/or a fierce advocate for free speech. As the talent behind a number of racist, sexist and generally horrific subreddits, either as founder or editor, Violentacrez was one of the people who made the utterly foul side of Reddit as foul as it was.

And some people really, really liked him.

While he was well-established and known on Reddit long before, he really burst into the public eye in 2011 when the “Jailbait” community, featuring images of underage girls taken without their consent, became a subject of public discussion. The comm was ultimately banned because of the subsequent controversy, but it barely scratched the surface of a team member who’d been involved in subreddits like “Chokeabitch” and, of course, “N*ggerjailbait.”

He’s the kind of man you don’t want to run into in a dark alley, a person who embodies everything I fear about violent iterations of masculinity in this country. He preyed on young women, exploited them, and was lauded for it and treasured as a community member; he exemplified the troubled waters of online anonymity and the ability to engage in extremist activity without any real consequences.

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Brutsch as a person may not actually take action on any of his ideas, but that doesn’t really matter. He’s a pedophile and a creep and a vile individual and just because he doesn’t physically assault, say, young black women doesn’t mean he’s not committing assault and violating the bodies of his victims. Having images of yourself posted without your consent, being used as a fetish item in an online community you don’t even know exists -- this is violating, and it’s wrong, and the people who commit that kind of violation should face consequences for it.

This charming individual has found himself at the center of a swirl of discussion about free speech, the Internet, gross things, misogyny, and more, and it’s fascinating to see how people fall out along the digital divide. For me, as someone who is not a Reddit user, I’ve been viewing the controversy as a form of comeuppance for the site, which I largely see as a cesspool of hatespeech that at times rivals 4chan. My sole interactions with Reddit have been in the form of abuse hurled at me by the site’s users, to the point that I had to beg feminist Reddit users to stop linking to my content in a misguided attempt to educate the troglodyte demographic.

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This has nothing to do with this article, I just needed a doughnut break.

Yet, other people love Reddit and get a lot out of the site, as a compilation of links and a place to exchange information and ideas. It’s so much a part of the mainstream culture that the President even did an AMA, proving his social media savvy and illustrating that the site serves a range of functions and hosts a huge variety of users. Not all Reddit users are like Violentacrez and his ilk, and some actively oppose the exploitative and generally gross content that crops up on the underbelly of the site.

What intrigues me most about the exposure of Violentacrez is the equally violent and passionate defense of Michael Brutsch, even among users who thought the content he posted, moderated and facilitated was vile. Reddit thrives on an atmosphere of anonymity and safety in numbers as an anonymous group, and many users expressed fear that Chen’s article set a precedent, creating a risk that other users would be outed with their real identities.

As someone concerned about free speech online and the right to anonymous expression, I can see how it would be tempting to defend people like Brutsch. After all, the argument could go, if people can unmask someone doing things that are truly horrific and gross, they could just as easily unmask someone using sites like Reddit for social justice purposes: to expose an exploitative regime, document police brutality, or engage in other activities where it could be dangerous to have your real identity known.

Under that framework, some users seem to feel obligated to defend Brutsch on the grounds that “free speech” needs to be unilaterally protected, and thus it’s necessary to defend violently racist and misogynist content in order to be able to equally defend anonymous users working for the public good.

That’s a mistake, though. I will defend Brutsch’s right to say and do what he wants while I personally think it is disgusting (and I will quite happily and aggressively draw the line at illegal content like sexualized images of minors), but I will NOT defend the right for him to do so anonymously. If you choose to engage in behavior like that, you run the risk of having your identity made public, and that is part of the tradeoff, especially when you provide identifying information, enjoy a high-profile position in the community, and, yes, even snuggle up to Reddit staff and start to be viewed as an unofficial employee.

“Free speech” arguments are often used to suggest that any kind of content ever should pass without remark or challenge, and that’s not actually how it works. Free speech gives you a right, but it also gives others a right to respond to you. Chen was exercising his own free speech rights, both as an individual and as a member of the press, to research Brutsch. His lengthy piece on Gawker is a fascinating profile not just of a troll, but also of Reddit culture itself and the tensions that exist on the site; it’s good journalism.

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Tellingly, many subreddits have taken to banning links to Gawker, which makes their claims of “free speech” all the more ridiculous. They want to argue that people like Violentacrez should be allowed to say and do whatever they want without consequences, enjoying utter freedom on Reddit unless tremendous external pressures (like an Anderson Cooper expose) force the site to remove some of its more obviously illegal content. At the same time, they want to say that other people don’t have the same right, including the site’s own users, who might want to link to Gawker pieces for discussion, comment, mockery or anything between.

What’s good for the goose is not, apparently, good for the gander.

The fact that people are defending Brutsch is an illustration of the pervasive nature of sexism and racism. That people believe these things are entitled to blanket protections is chilling. When you commit acts of violence of any form, you should be prepared for the consequences of your actions, and on the Internet, that might mean having your identity pieced together and revealed, it might mean having employers and other identifiable people contacted and notified, and it might mean having your precious bubble of male privilege and hatred popped forever.

Image credits: Gawker, me, Eva Blue.