Monday, October 15, 2012

The Ugliness of the Internet

We all know ugly things are done under the umbrella of free speech.

But Michael Brutsch of Arlington, Texas, has done quite a bit on his own to spread such ugliness.

He admits to Gawker writer Adrian Chen – in a profile wherein Chen outed Brutsch as Violentacrez, described as the “biggest Troll” on the web – that he likes “riling people up,” and spent untold hours doing so by posting everything from soft-core pornography to shots of underage girls in bikinis, racism, anti-Semitism and any other trash you could care to name on the “front page of the Internet” – Reddit.

Brutsch is now fearful that his outing could cost him his job (apparently it has), untold social harm on the Internet if his legal, yet nefarious actions were linked to the real person behind the trolling, and other such violations of his rights to privacy as he and Reddit violates the privacy of others by hiding behind the oft-abused Free Speech Amendment.

Chen’s profile is fascinating. I thought – briefly – of sharing it with my BYU-Idaho students, who begin a unit on writing a personality profile this week – but even in Chen’s kid glove treatment of Brutsch’s ugliness there’s a bit too much to share with the tender flowers in my online English classes.

Chen’s brilliant headshot of the free-speech-protecting-scumbaggery comes here:
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.
Increasingly, those who are opposed to the ugliness of exploiting women and children, upholding “traditional values” and such are forced to the sidelines and urged – sometimes shouted at – to be silent, in the name of tolerance and free speech and whatever other nice-sounding protections and behaviors the spewers of filth can dredge up from the best places to protect what they call their rights.

Chen again nails it on the head when he describes what occurs on the Internet not as democracy – free speech and such – but rather as feudalism:
When it comes to mods, the political model of Reddit is not so much a vast digital democracy, as it's often framed by fans and users, as online feudalism. Moderators like Violentacrez are given absolute control over their turf in exchange for keeping the kingdom of Reddit strong. 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.

As long as Brutsch was able to keep things under “control” in his vast feudal state – and control seemed limited to ejecting outright hard-core pornographic images, though he also moderated a slab of filth called jailbait, where he worked hard to ensure that the legal images stored therein were indeed of only underage girls – Reddit turned a blind eye to what went on in their sewers.
That blind eye is getting poked, according to Slate, with law enforcement now buzzing about, looking for the creepiest of the creepy on Reddit.

That is something Reddit should truly consider rejecting unequivocally if they want to continue being the front page of the Internet. Here’s what Joel Johnson writing at BuzzFeed says on the matter:
One of the things about finding your place in the world is realizing that compromise is never fun. But as you grow up, you find out things about yourself and your ideals that don’t always jibe with the way you wish the world operated. And as an adult (if I may wax condescendingly parental), I’ve learned that empathy and graciousness are almost always the brighter path, which is why I hold hope that the people who make up the community at Reddit will recognize that they can choose how they define themselves as a community by choosing what sort of behavior they want to endorse. I hope they’ll take a moment to think about the possible ramifications of being the subject of a “creepshot” for young women who are also still figuring out how they will interface with the world. I like to think Reddit will understand that for the young women exposed there is a lot to lose by being objectified, and that to repeat the marginalizing behavior that caused nerds–often white, male, American nerds, although I mention that only as a baseline matter of perspective–to seek camaraderie and solace on the internet is to become the very self-hating bully we all have run from in our pasts.
I can’t imagine Brutsch – if he has a daughter – would want the creepy uncles of the Internet drooling over photos of her, even if they were purloined not from a private stash or taken surreptitiously by some camera-toting pervert, but from other public Internet sources ranging from Facebook to 4chan. But he sees nothing wrong with ogling other peoples’ daughters, simply because to him – and to the scum he’s supplying – they’re objects, not people.

Brutsch is not contrite, according to Chen. He just didn’t want his name connected with his nastiness. He stands by what he has done, but doesn’t want to, say, lose a job, or be harassed himself. Per the Chen article:
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.

"My wife is disabled. I got a home and a mortgage, and if this hits the fan, I believe this will affect negatively on my employment," he said. "I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time."

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.
Poor baby.

It says something quite brutish about Brutsch's view of life inside and outside the Internet that he's more worried about what "lies" will be spread about him than the ramifications of his own reprehensible behavior. Reflect the blame on society, on my enemies, not on me, who have done everything within legal boundaries, though with the morals of an alley cat.

Again, Chen nails it. If you don’t want to get in trouble for something, DON’T DO IT. And remember, even if its’ legal, that don’t make it right:
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. If Brutsch did not want his employers to know that he had become a minor internet celebrity through spending hours every day posting photos of 14-year-olds in bikinis to thousands of people on the internet, he should have stuck to posting cat videos.
What free-speech advocates forget (aside from the obvious fact that the free speech amendment discusses only government impingement of free speech, not, say, corporate or communal or individual impingements, which allows, for example, Reddit to ban Gawker and Jezebel links) is that free speech, whether it is being endorsed or strangled, implies a modicum of restraint and self-control.

Adds Johnson:
Reddit should not be a place where the last throes of old internet entitlement have safe harbor; it could be a place where (some of) the once outcast voices of the internet finally understand the dense interleaved social contracts that exist in the world, fairly or unfairly, and choose to err on the side of patience, consideration of each individual as a human being, and the sort of tolerance that was not afforded to all of us evenly when we were younger.
Brutsch is not a victim here. He is a creepy uncle who deserves to be slapped down for this crapola. I don’t envy his future, whether he loses his job or is Googlebombed or whether nothing happens to him at all. He wanted to be an anonymous creepy uncle on the Internet. No more anonymity.

I have a personal dog in this fight. I have a brother who right now is in jail on pornography charges. I have no idea who supplied him with the naughty pictures he was caught with, nor where he sought them out. But it’s creeps like Brutsch who laugh and chuckle at pornography, thinking it does them no harm, who purvey the stuff to others, where harm is inflicted. Brutsch’s wife and soon-to-be-Marine son may be tolerant of his irresponsible behavior and Reddit may have the right to aid and abet his purveyance, but he should know that his ilk led to my brother losing employment, losing a marriage and losing his freedom because he stepped beyond the extremely ill-defined boundaries Reddit and Brutsch chose to acknowledge or enforce and got caught – rightfully – by the short arm of the law.

You, Mr. Brutsch, are a purveyor of filth, and Reddit, your blind-eyed accomplice. Congratulations. By upholding your version of free speech, you succeed in daily ruining lives. You could have both spent your idle hours uplifting people, rather than belittling them, demeaning them, objectifying them and otherwise playing with them – real people, with real lives and real careers and personalities and rights to privacy which you seem to cherish. But instead you continue your loutish behavior while hiding behind that tattered, shit-stained banner that is free speech. My brother, for all of his faults, is a much better human being than you, Mr. Brutsch. Yet he is the one suffering for the choices he made in life. Maybe it’s time for Brutsch and Reddit to suffer a bit as well.

Grow the hell up. Realize that your actions have consequences in real life for real people. Get your little buzz thrills from helping people out, rather than beating people down.

And Reddit’s approach of banning links to Gawker (and sister site Jezebel) because of Chen’s profile – even before it came out – well, that entirely feudalistic of you. Every subject of a Brutsch jailbait photo thanks you.

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