Reddit vs. Gawker: The Violentacrez controversy and freedom of speech online

Becca Caddy Trending

reddit-logo-large.jpegSo WTF is Reddit?

It’s hard to describe what Reddit is to anyone who hasn’t browsed through the site and its reddits and subreddits much in the past. But here we go, known as “the front page of the internet”, Reddit is essentially a kind of forum, which allows users (or redditors) to publish links and posts that are then voted “up” or “down” by the community. The ones that get the most votes appear higher up on the site or on the front page and so on.

The site (let’s call it a site even though it’s all kinds of things rolled into one) was founded by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, but has since been acquired by Conde Nast (yep, the people behind Vogue and the like) and now operates under Conde Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications.

All kinds of topics are covered on Reddit and subreddits (specific subject areas) include gaming, movies, atheism, WTF and worldnews to name just a few. It’s the huge breadth of content on the site that’s made it so incredibly popular, Gawker reports that it had more than 3.4 billion pageviews in August alone and even Obama turned to the platform to hold a Q&A session earlier in the year.

Why has it been in the news recently? Something to do with Creepshots?

Despite Reddit’s popularity, the huge range of topics covered on the site were always bound to invite controversy. Over the past few years, the site has come under fire because some redditors were setting up subreddits containing offensive and illegal content, like photos of dead bodies and upskirt shots of young teens.

However, in recent months specific subreddits called Creepshots and Jailbait, which feature really seedy and gross photos taken of girls, have got everyone talking about Reddit and how the freedom of the site has led to a congregation of creeps, offensive shots and some illegal activity, given there’s a focus on minors in many of the subreddits in question.

Despite being criticised by the press and many different groups across the globe, certain redditors have been continuing to publish photos and others are continuing to search for them.

Who’s this shady Violentacrez guy?

A lot of pressure has been put on those who founded and now own the site, but Gawker has decided to take a different route to solve the problem, by publicly revealing the identity of one of the key names behind the gross subreddits, Violentacrez. Or just Michael Brutsch, which doesn’t sound half as interesting, does it?

In a kind of expose piece published on the 12th of October, Gawker’s Adrian Chen revealed the identity and of Brutsch and took a more in-depth look at his online habits, moderating lovely subreddits like “chokeabitch”, “incest” and “rapebait” and encouraging the posting of more and more extreme photos. Why don’t we like this guy again? He sounds delightful.

But the thing that’s causing all kinds of controversy here is that a lot of what Brutsch is doing is gross, offensive, super distasteful (we could go on), but is it all illegal? Well yeah, many of the photos of young girls are, but his general topics of discussion aren’t. So should his identity really have been publicly revealed? Because if online reports are anything to go by it’s already cost him his job. Bah we just can’t feel sympathetic right now, sorry Mikey.

Well as with a lot of similar cases at the moment there’s no clear cut answer here. There certainly seems to be a very blurry line between what’s illegal and what’s just offensive and Brutsch has been sitting on that line for some time.

How has Reddit reacted to the controversy?

But regardless of whether you think Violentacrez’s real name should have been publicly outted or not, it’s now interesting to see how the Reddit community has reacted. At first many redditors condemned Gawker’s doxxing (disclosing personal information publicly) of Brutsch and attempted to ban any links of the whole Gawker network from the site.

However, Reddit’s CEO Yishan Wong reveals the site’s new rules, policies and thoughts about freedom of speech in relation to Violentacrazgate in a statement published on The Verge earlier today:

“We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that’s the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that’s what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn’t clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit. Now it’s just reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).

“We stand for freedom of speech. We will uphold existing rules against posting dox on reddit. But the reality is those rules end at our platform, and we will respect journalism as a form of speech that we don’t ban. We believe further change can come only from example-setting.

“So we must draw a line, and we’ve chosen to do the following: 1. We will ban doxxing posted to reddit. 2. We will ban links to pages elsewhere which are trivially or primarily intended for the purposes of doxxing (e.g. wikis or blogs primarily including dox).

“But, we will not ban things which are legitimate investigative journalism. Free speech is expressed most powerful through the press, and many times throughout history a bad actor has been exposed by an enterprising (even muckraking) journalist, and it has been to the benefit of society. We include in this definition blog posts that a reasonable person would consider a piece of journalism that happens to include a link to #2 above.”

Whatever your view may be of Reddit generally, Brutsch and freedom of speech online, you have to admit the above statement does seem fair given Wong had the (let’s face it) impossible task of pleasing so many different people. However like many out there we’re not sure it’ll be possible to deliver on the promise of removing illegal content, because at the end of the day that’s what’s caused all of this uproar in the first place. BUT SRSLY JUST STOP POSTING CREEPY SHOT WEIRDOS. GO WATCH SOME PORN OR SOMETHING. FFS.

So what does this mean for the future of freedom of speech and online creeps?

The whole Violentacrez scandal has actually come at a really interesting time when many questions are being raised all over the globe about freedom of speech online. Earlier in the month 19 year old Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for making sick jokes about April Jones on his Facebook profile. Yep it’s gross, he’s not a nice guy, we get it. But should he really have faced a prison sentence for being a bit sick?

An article over on The Telegraph today highlights the need for more guidance in order to help law enforcers decide which offences are worth pursuing and which are not. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions said a number of recommendations will be made here in the UK and discussions need to take place in order to define what’s “grossly offensive” and what isn’t, while protecting the public’s freedom of speech. Sure this sounds great in theory, but defining whether something is offensive or not is so subjective and certainly not a job any of us envy….

You can read Gawker’s doxxing story here: Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web

By Becca Caddy | October 17th, 2012

Must read posts: