Reddit, Gawker, trolling, and the dangers of online anonymity

Gawker journalist Adrian Chen outed a man known for anonymous online "trolling" on the website Reddit and started a discussion about free speech online.

Gawker staff writer Adrian Chen got himself into a bit of trouble with some internet users recently, for a story he wrote about one of the most well-known internet trolls on the social news website Reddit. The man Chen profiled, called Violentacrez, had launched and moderated some of Reddit's more controversial community-generated forums, also called subreddits, including one called "Creepshots" and one called "Jailbait." Creepshots included suggestive photos of people in public -- mostly young women -- who didn't know pictures were being taken of them. Jailbait was a sort of collection of sexually suggestive photos of underage girls.

The trouble for Chen was that, before it was even posted, rumors of his article for Gawker got his work and the website's content banned from Reddit by some of it's volunteer moderators. Considering the huge number of page views a publication can get for having a piece posted on Reddit, that can mean less page views for Gawker. It was arguably an ironic result, since Reddit users and readers tout the site as a place where free speech reigns supreme.

"I think it's extremely hypocritical that Reddit, which has become known as a kind of defender of free speech and internet freedom would implement a filter on its site," says Chen, "that would be in place in China or some kind of oppressive regime that is actually preventing its users from sharing journalism."

Perhaps even more troubling is the kind of stuff Violentacrez was peddling on Reddit. Some of subreddit titles this user was involved with aren't printable on these digital pages. So who was the guy in real life?

"He was a 49-year-old computer programmer from Arlington, Texas," says Chen. "Over the years he's become almost a celebrity on Reddit for being a very distasteful, almost a Larry Flynt character."

This may be something with which the online world has to come to grips: This tension between allowing people to preserve their anonymity, their privacy as they speak out, yet it protects people who are hurtful. Reddit is owned by Advance Publications, the Conde Nast people, who also publish the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Architectural Digest. And in a world where -- as some have pointed out -- Violentacrez's activities could come close to breaking the law, or at least enabling law breakers, anonymity on sites like Reddit is a growing issue.

"I always go by the principle: Is this anonymity protecting someone who is less powerful from somebody who is powerful," Chen says. "In this case, I think Violentacrez was using his anonymity to actually exploit people who were less powerful than him."

Yet, that power relationship can change in the blink of an eye online. When Chen called Violentacrez saying he was about to get his real name published?

"Well, he said, 'please don't out me,'" says Chen. "'I have a job. I have a disabled wife. This is going to ruin my life and I just like riling up people in my spare time.'"

The man behind Violentacrez, who Chen identified as Michael Brutsch, has reportedly lost his real life job. Did he deserve to? It's a tricky question to answer. Chen's piece is successful in one respect: It's inspiring debate about just when people should be allowed to stay behind the digital mask and when they shouldn't.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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