Monday, July 13, 2020
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Is “Outing” an Internet Troll Going Too Far?

If you don’t know the word “troll,” you probably haven’t been on the internet enough. An “internet troll” is like a cyber-bully, except they usually don’t have a specific target. They essentially say things to get a reaction, probably because they feel that that’s enough to momentarily alleviate their feelings of insignificance in a world where they don’t get enough attention. The anonymity of the internet makes it possible to get away with saying hurtful things, so there is a whole sad subculture of individuals who have far too much free time, trolling away as if to say “someone acknowledge me!” But with all the freedom of speech and censorship issues in the news recently, it’s important to consider: Is it ever ethical to out an internet troll?

The Troll Who Always Was

Earlier this month, Adrian Chen from Gawker contacted a programmer who works for a financial services company in texas. The programmer’s name is Michael Brutsh, and about a week ago, Chen wrote a blog post entitled “Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web.” This is an amazing story, of which I was completely oblivious until a few days ago. Here’s what Chen had to say:

I had just told him, on Gchat, that I had uncovered his identity as the notorious internet troll Violentacrez (pronounced Violent-Acres).

“It’s amazing how much you can sweat in a 60 degree office,” he said with a nervous laugh. Judging from his internet footprint, Brutsch, 49, has a lot to sweat over.

If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit.

At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called “Creepshots.” Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn’t suit him very well.

But Michael Brutsch is more than a monster. Online, Violentacrez has been one of Reddit’s most reviled characters but also one of its most beloved users. The self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit” has played a little-known but crucial role in Reddit’s development into the online juggernaut it is today. In real life, Brutsch is a military father and cat-lover. He lives with his wife in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas. There are many sides to Violentacrez, and now that I had Michael Brutsch on the phone I hoped to find out where the troll ended and the real person began.

[. . .] Since Brutsch stumbled on Reddit from a link on the internet culture blog Boing Boing in 2007, he has pushed the boundaries of Reddit’s free-speech culture. He has done this mostly through creating offensive subreddits to troll sensitive users. [. . .] Reddit, for the uninitiated, is essentially a social news site; with a free username, anyone can submit and vote on content and can do so anonymously. And anyone can start a forum on Reddit dedicated to their interests, known as a subreddit. [. . .]

I first became aware of Violentacrez last year, when controversy erupted over a section, called “Jailbait,” that Violentacrez had created on Reddit dedicated to sexualized images of underaged girls. [. . .] Violentacrez decided to create a safe space for people sexually attracted to underage girls to share their photo stashes. [. . .] [He] and his fellow moderators worked hard to make sure every girl on jailbait was underage, diligently deleting any photos whose subjects seemed older than 16 or 17. [. . .] [They] worked hard to make sure every girl on jailbait was underage, diligently deleting any photos whose subjects seemed older than 16 or 17.

Violentacrez himself posted hundreds of photos. Jailbait became one of Reddit’s most popular subreddits, generating millions of pageviews a month. “Jailbait” was for a time the second biggest search term bringing traffic to Reddit, after “Reddit.” Eventually, Jailbait landed on CNN, where Anderson Cooper called out Reddit for hosting it, and Violentacrez for creating it. The ensuing outcry led Reddit administrators to reluctantly ban Jailbait, and all sexually suggestive content featuring minors.

[. . .] Unlike Jailbait, which apparently sprung from a sincere interest, many of Violentacrez’s most offensive subreddits were created just to enrage other Reddit users. At this they were very effective. What happened was, some do-gooder would stumble upon one of his offensive subreddits and expose it to the rest of Reddit in an outraged post. Then thousands more would vote the thing to the front page of Reddit. Cries to censor it would sound out, to be almost inevitably beaten back by cries of “free speech!” The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don’t like, you are a whiny fascist.

Michael Brutsch / Violentacrez

No one’s trying to vilify the random Reddit users who essentially enable this behavior; and it’s understandable that free speech must be protected. But if anyone wants to walk away with a feeling of integrity, they had best be cognizant of what speech they are fighting to protect. Then again, integrity is not particularly valued by your average anonymous internet user.

Chen goes on to explain what was going on in the mind of the troll.

Violentacrez explained his trolling philosophy to the internet culture website the Daily Dot in August of 2011. He had sparked yet another controversy by posting a graphic image of a partially clothed woman being brutally beaten by a large man, in “beatingwomen,” a subreddit dedicated to glorifying violence against women. A Redditor had called out the picture in a post, and it was voted to the front page.

“People take things way too seriously around here,” Violentacrez said. ” I was not surprised by the outrage of the person who made the post, because I see it all the time. What was surprising was the community support for it. Most posts that complain about these things never do very well, and are quickly buried or deleted. I think it’s interesting how many people defend my right to act the way I do, while decrying my posts themselves.”

A troll exploits social dynamics like computer hackers exploit security loopholes, and Violentacrez calmly exploited the Reddit hive mind’s powerful outrage machine and free speech values at the same time.

It was this pattern, repeated to various degrees dozens of times, that made Violentacrez an unlikely hero to many of the white male geeks who make up Reddit’s hard core. They saw Violentacrez as a champion in the fight against the oppressive schoolmarms: “He upheld a certain amount of freedom for the worst of us to ensure freedom for all of us,” wrote one user in a post mourning his departure. Fans followed him wherever he went on the site.

As his fame grew, Brutsch began selling T-shirts with an illustration of a zombified version of Reddit’s alien logo, designed by a professional illustrator, that he had adopted as Violentacrez’s logo. He created a subreddit called Violentacrez, dedicated to news and posts about himself. Last year, the Daily Dot named him the most important Redditor of the year. Violentacrez was the most influential user of one of the most influential websites on the internet.

A Mutual Friendship

Apparently Brutsch had not only been instrumental in Reddit’s popularity, but he had personally known several people who worked at Reddit. This unlikely relationship was mutually beneficial, despite the fact that everyone acknowledged that what he was doing and saying was deplorable.

Violentacrez’s privileged position came from the fact that for years he had helped administrators deal with the massive seedy side of Reddit, acting almost as an unpaid staff member. Reddit administrators essentially handed off the oversight of the site’s NSFW side to Violentacrez, according to former Reddit lead programer Chris Slowe (a.k.a. Keysersosa), who worked at Reddit from 2005 to the end of 2010.

When Violentacrez first joined the site and started filling it with filth, administrators were wary and they often clashed. But eventually administrators and Violentacrez came to an uneasy truce, according to Slowe. For all his unpleasantness, they realized that Violentacrez was an excellent community moderator and could be counted on to keep the administrators abreast of any illegal content he came across.”Once we came to terms he was actually pretty helpful. He would come to us with things that we hadn’t noticed,” said Slowe. “At the time there was only four of us working so that was a great resource for us to have.”

Administrators realized it was easier to outsource the policing of questionable content to Violentacrez than to dirty their hands themselves, or ostracize him and risk even worse things happening without their knowledge. The devil you know. So even as Jailbait flourished and became an ever-more-integral part of Reddit’s traffic and culture—in 2008 it won the most votes in a “subreddit of the year” poll—administrators looked the other way. “We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn’t particularly legal,” Slowe said. “I know I didn’t want it to be my job.”

[. . .] Moderators become more or less powerful in direct relation to the number and popularity of the subreddits they moderate, so they try to take over other subreddits to boost their profile in the community. Inevitably, Reddit’s administrators develop relationships with the most influential moderators. Like feuding medieval lords vying for the king’s favor, moderators form alliances or wage epic flame wars over power struggles.

This is how Violentacrez, Reddit’s creepiest user, also became its most powerful. Sure, he was responsible for the absolute worst stuff on Reddit, and by extension, some of the worst stuff on the internet. But Violentacrez was also seen to be, as Chris Slowe put it to me, “a trustworthy and a positive member of the community.” He moderated more than 400 subreddits and had many high-profile friends, amassed over many years. His stable at times included hundreds of popular mainstream subreddits, like Funny and WTF, that reach audiences of millions. Violentacrez further solidified his reach by becoming a mentor to other moderators. He created the first FAQ for Reddit’s rather unintuitive moderator interface. He also helmed a number of subreddits dedicated to providing guidance and camaraderie for other moderators, including the essential modhelp.

So it was no surprise that when news got out earlier this week that I was working on a story that would expose Violentacrez’s real identity, other moderators on Reddit rallied to defend him. The popular politics subreddit led the charge, by banning all Gawker links.

“As moderators, we feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable,” they wrote. “We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you.”

Some have taken this as an expression of Reddit’s users’ fondness of Violentacrez’s pornographic generosity. In fact the ban was probably more an expression of friendship by the Politics subreddit moderators. Violentacrez probably trained some of them. They were mad that their buddy was going to be outed for simply, in their mind, exercising his free speech—his unalienable right to anonymously post stalker shots of women.

When Chen got to asking the hard questions, he was expecting something very different.

When I called Brutsch that Wednesday afternoon and told him I knew who he was, I was a little taken aback by how calm he remained during our intense but civil hour-long conversation. I had figured that a man whose hobby was saying horrible shit just to screw with people online would rise to some new horrible level when conditions on the ground actually called for it. Instead he pleaded with me in an affectless monotone not to reveal his name. [. . .]

I asked if he regretted anything he had posted, now that he’d be found out. No, he said. “I would stand by exactly what I’ve done.” The problem was, he explained, that if his identity got out, his many enemies would start attaching lies to his name because they simply don’t like his views. They would say he was a child pornographer, when all he had done was spearhead the distribution of thousands of legal photos of underage girls. They would say the fact that he created a subreddit dedicated to Hitler meant he was anti-Semitic, when really it was just trolling. (Brutsch says he’s got Jewish blood himself: “If you see a picture of me, I’m about as Jewish looking as they get.”) They would Google-bomb his name and the word “pedophile” along with his publicly-traded company’s name.

[. . .] He asked a number of times if there was anything he could do to keep me from outing him. He offered to act as a mole for me, to be my “sockpuppet” on Reddit. “I’m like the spy who’s found out,” he said. “I’ll do anything. If you want me to stop posting, delete whatever I posted, whatever. I am at your mercy because I really can’t think of anything worse that could possibly happen. It’s not like I do anything illegal.”

Chen Draws the Ire of Reddit

The information this man says about his family is quite disturbing, too. The wife and his son are also on Reddit – in fact, the couple sometimes sit in bed together Redditting away (but the wife is not a troll and doesn’t participate in the same things as he does). Also, the things his son knows and says about him are… well, it’s all just a little twisted. He also apparently admitted – on Reddit, no less – to having had oral sex with his 19 year old step-daughter. Chen doesn’t paint him in an especially positive light; but he’s fair.

The extent to which trolls separate, or fail to separate, their online and [offline] lives is as varied as people themselves. [. . .] Observers often cite the psychological theory called deindividuation, which argues people literally lose themselves when granted anonymity. But Violentacrez/Michael Brutsch upset this idea by blurring his online and offline lives.

Brutsch adopted a new name for trolling, but he built his horrible character on many details from his real life. In real life, Brutsch is an unabashedly creepy old man with seven cats and two dogs and a disabled wife and a teenage son about to join the Marines. He was all of that online, too—only he was famous for it.

Both offline and online he could be either a creepy uncle, or a loyal friend and helpful guide. Violentacrez had a surprising number of friends on Reddit, for someone who once created an entire subreddit dedicated to pictures of dead teenage girls (Picsofdeadjailbait).

[. . .] Brutsch is an internet minister, and he said he once married a pair of Redditors in real life, though they only knew him by his “clean” handle: mbrutsch.

One longtime Redditor I spoke to talked about Violentacrez with the warmth of an old college friend. “He’s a really a good guy,” she said. This user was in the Arlington area for business once, and she stopped by Brutsch’s house for lunch. “He has the manners of a Southern gentleman,” she said. “A bunch of neighborhood kids were over playing at his house.”

The only thing missing was joining the name Violentacrez to the name Michael Brutsch, and even that information he had given to many of his online friends. Reddit administrators have long known his real identity, Brutsch said, which he gave them in order to prove that he had nothing to hide. But Brutsch was still anonymous to the people he wanted to be, mainly his employers, and by unmasking him I am sure to get criticism for supposedly violating his privacy.

Even before I published this article, Reddit had already exploded in outrage. (Gawker sites are now banned from over 60 subreddits, and some pissed off user has signed me up for approximately two dozen mailing lists.) The irony of being upset that a noted custodian of “creepshots” is getting some unwanted attention himself is obvious. Jailbait defenders would often argue that if 14-year-olds didn’t want their bikini pictures to be posted to Reddit, they should not have taken them and uploaded them to their Facebook accounts in the first place.

The Daily Dot gave this explanation regarding the actions against Gawker:

At Web communities like Reddit, which thrive because users are free to say and do anything they want, doxing is a severe crime, both to users and the site’s staff. It’s far worse than offensive speech like racism and homophobia or, yes, even posting surreptitiously snapped photos of innocent women for creeps to perv over. Why? Because doxing undermines the community’s structural integrity: Reddit simply would not exist as we know it if users weren’t operating under the freedom of a flexible identity. So redditors aren’t banning Gawker to protect violentacrez, they’re doing it to protect themselves.

Chen sums this up by saying that no matter how bad the filth that Violentacrez said, outing him for it was even worse in the eyes of the Reddit users, “because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.” How does Chen feel about breaking the unwritten rule of not outing someone just for practicing free speech? “I am OK with that,” he says.

What Happened to Him?

After Chen’s damning expose, Brutsch claimed to have been fired from his job. Damon Poeter of PCMag said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say on this issue:

I think legislative attempts to somehow ban Internet anonymity are misguided at best and in some cases, outright assaults on free and open political discourse. I think whistleblowers play a hugely important role in countering the worst corporate and government excesses. And I absolutely bristle when somebody who uses his real identity online bashes anonymous critics as “cowards” without any acknowledgement that there are legitimate reasons why some folks must post anonymously, often tied to their livelihoods, not to mention that anonymous political commentary had a fundamental role in the founding of this country in the first place.

But I still think Violentacrez deserved to be outed, doxed, and hung out on a virtual clothesline for everybody to see, including the bosses whom he says fired him less than 24 hours after his identity was exposed by Gawker.

Indeed, I feel no sympathy for Brutsch. He deleted his main Reddit account but still has several others that he uses. One of those was recently used to ask for donations to a PayPal account. Is this what passes for “a good cause” nowadays? I don’t understand why someone who spends so much time making the world a worse place doesn’t just give up his online life to contribute to society and support his family. With all the time spent wasted in the virtual world, he could be making money instead of annoying people. Doing what he did was, technically speaking, impressive. Reddit would not have been as popular today as it would have been without him. But sometimes there’s a price to being a total fucking asshole.

I know it’s hard for people who feel they are entitled to free speech to say whatever they want with no repercussions – this is especially common in the US – but “anonymous” people should really not be so surprised when they receive harassment later. Just like the recent Americans who took pictures of hanging a chair in a tree to signify that they were lynching their own president. One Texas man was shocked from the harassment. But why? It’s just free speech, right?

As long as you enjoy the legal freedoms that allow you to say whatever you want, don’t be shocked when people get offended. Yes, it’s scary to have your personal information released on the internet… but you probably shouldn’t spend your time trying to offend others. After all, everyone’s known to someone. Even if your address is released on the internet, you still lived there in the first place. The thing that makes it all scary is the simple fact that everyone hates you. So I hope trolls understand that anonymous doesn’t necessarily mean unknown.

The Bottom Line

Chen is not suing him, and he’s not making this a legal issue or anything of the sort. Therefore, Brutsch is not getting jailtime. He’s just getting identified. If he didn’t want someone to punish him (i.e., his employer) for what he said, he simply shouldn’t have said it. There was a chance that Brutsch would have been found out through his own negligence, and that was a risk he was willing to take from day one – in fact, Brutsch was the one who told his employer about the impending article after his call with Chen.

Chen can’t be blamed for getting him into trouble. Brutsch was the troll who yelled into a microphone – Chen was just the guy who shined the spotlight on him. And, as Brutsch himself says, “I really have no one to blame but myself.” That’s correct. Any responsible adult would not risk the security of their family for something so worthless. Maybe the next subreddit he inevitably makes is going to be a more introspective one, like one appropriately titled “FailBait.”

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