By Amanda Hess
Posted Monday, Oct. 15, 2012
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.