The following conversation is the first in a monthly (or whenever-we-feel-like-it) series of discussions about INTERNET. Today Whitney Phillips and I will be talking about the Violentacrez/creepshot controversy, paying particular attention to the weird ethical issues the story unearths. TAKE IT AWAY, US.
Kate: One of the things I find to be most interesting about the whole Violentacrez thing is how free speech and the right to anonymity/doxing have been brought to the fore. It’s something that I addressed in this post — clearly, free speech doesn’t mean free from repercussions.
Whitney: Yeah, I’m torn about the specifics of the case. As usual I have a bunch of overlapping opinions, some of which are slightly incompatible with each other. For example, whatever the moral/ethical issues raised by Brutsch, by Adrian Chen, by the social justice Tumblr trolls who have declared October “doxtober” and have taken to collecting information on a whole host of creepshots guys, I welcome the controversy — at the very least it throws into immediate question a number of unexamined assumptions about the democratizing nature of the internet (particularly on Reddit), about the social implications of anonymity (for better or worse), about the coherence of claims to “FREE SPEECH,” essentially about who the bad guys are and who the good guys are and what should be done to support one and combat the other. I think these questions are important, particularly the last one, and am glad people are asking them.
Kate: I agree that these are things that we need to talk about, but I don’t know that there are any easy solutions. The problem with things like free speech and anonymity/para-anonymity is that you can’t selectively grant them. That’s my issue with Section 127 here in the UK– it depends on a moral and subjective position on “offensiveness” and “indecency” which I think is just too risky. The UK isn’t the US and doesn’t have a Tea Party, but who’s to say that they won’t at some point? Obviously this is a tough area to navigate, and in the Violentacrez situation, I don’t disagree with Adrian entirely, and I also don’t fully disagree with the people who are upset about it, either. Not that I give a shit about Michael Brutsch, but deanonymizing (is that a word? Probably not) people in general is something that just makes me a bit squirmy.
Whitney: Well, doxing in Adrian’s case is a bit of a misnomer. He was told Brutsch’s name; he contacted Brutsch and told him he was doing a story about creepshots; Brutsch asked him not to out him; Adrian declined. That’s not doxing, that’s investigative reporting.
Kate: This is a very good point!
Whitney: The line between those two things is obviously fuzzy, but as far as I can tell, Adrian did everything entirely above board — it’s just that the implications of his choice to move forward on the story (a story which by the way served the public interest, i.e. should have been reported) was that a man’s life, a man who also happens to be a sexual predator (whatever bullshit excuse Brutsch might give; sorry buddy, if you’re fapping to young girls, or merely helping other men fap to young girls, you’re at the very least an enabler of other sexual predators), was ruined. I don’t feel sorry about that one bit, although I do understand why some people, for example Emily Bazelon at Slate, might have some major reservations.
Kate: I mean, I kinda sorta see her point here:
But there’s something so unsettlingly selective about the way in which we punish the few people whose bad Internet behaviors become mainstream notoriety. When prosecutors enforce the law to go after criminals, they’re supposed to do it uniformly. That’s often not how it works in practice but it’s always the standard. And that standard isn’t even on the table in the court of public opinion: We smell blood, and we circle. I wish Michael Brutsch could bear his share of responsibility and sprinkle the rest onto all the other trolls out there. That’s not how viral stories go, I know: We need someone to make an example of. But when the crowd turns vengeful, it gets ugly.
Right, so there are a few things here. First, making examples of people. As I discussed in my aforementioned post about Section 127— clearly, it’s really unfortunate that Matthew Woods made those incredibly tasteless jokes about April Jones, but I think he’s a good example of the “unsettling selectivity” that Bazelon is talking about (and there are others who agree). I have seen much worse than what Woods wrote (as I’m sure you have) and there wasn’t any prosecution of those incidents, because they were under the radar. However, when it comes to online “speech crimes” (side note: I also don’t think that offensively black humor is a crime), you can’t have the sort of uniformity of prosecution that Bazelon holds up as the standard, because then you’re then entering into the territory of The Online Content Police, which NO, thank you, and also, even China doesn’t have that figured out, so good luck with that.
I also think that her point about Brutsch being unfairly singled out is a bit off the mark. Brutsch spearheaded a lot of the activity that is now being reviled. He enjoyed his position of authority within the Reddit community. Heavy is the head that wears the crown— leadership is a double-edged sword. If you are a ringleader, then you are the one who is going to be targeted for backlash if you’re doing something awful (like posting naked pictures of underage girls). It was all well and good when he was beloved by Reddit, but now All The Trolls are supposed to share in his downfall? I don’t buy that. CONSEQUENCES.
Whitney: CONSEQUENCES indeed. And I don’t mind saying that my heart bleeds not a drop for Brutsch. I agree that the internet hivemind can turn real ugly real fast, and hope I never do something so gross, so sustained, over such a long period of time that I end up in the hivemind’s crosshairs (I do hope my sarcasm comes through on that — it’s not like Brutch made one stupid mistake or simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time like SO MANY of the hivemind’s unwitting victims). So yes, sure, vigilantism is a double-edged sword. But who is being targeted by whom MATTERS. This is not a case of an 11 year-old girl being thrown to the mercy of mostly-male, mostly-white Anonymous. This is an adult white male who gleefully exploited women and children. Sorry, but those details impact how I think about the outcome. Furthermore, Brutsch isn’t the only guy on the business end of both blades. The aforementioned Tumblr trolls are already working on an impressive dossier of dox, and let’s not forget that pedophiles have long been a favorite snack of self-identifying trolls. It may seem counterintuitive, but trolls LOVE screwing with pedophiles. Brutsch will not, in other words, be the only pedo to fall. And I won’t feel bad about any of it.
Nor will I feel bad if the resulting unmaskings force a bunch of gross entitled creeps (because in addition to being about sexual exploitation, creepshot-type behavior is ultimately about entitlement) to think twice before exercising this particular brand of “free speech.” Honestly, I think that people on the whole, and particularly gross entitled creeps, could do with a bit less “free speech” (although the notion of “free speech” is often muddled; when people talk about “free speech” in the context of offensive online speech it’s almost always the cartoon version that doesn’t actually mean anything other than “I am a special snowflake and you can’t tell me what to do” aka “waaaaaah”). Which isn’t to say I’m against “free speech” (again, I’m rolling my eyes at that term), but I do think that the “free speech” defense is, more often than not, a cop-out for those who don’t want to deal with the consequences of their own behavior. This is where my position becomes somewhat untenable, because the idea of CONSEQUENCES is actually a pretty slippery fish.
Kate: The slipperiest of fish! My point about the consequences in my post about Section 127 was that “consequences” in the UK now involve incarceration, as opposed to social ostracism (which can be equally harsh, but there is definitely a line there). That is why it’s so bothersome to me— it puts the UK in the same company as Russia (guh). Now, I don’t think that Violentacrez should have been protected for all of the reasons we’ve discussed. However, the thing that makes me uneasy is how, while most people think that the guy deserved what he got (and I don’t disagree), this would be an entirely different story if the person whose identity was revealed was a 16 year old gay kid in rural Alabama who was outed by homophobe scum and then targeted (“deserves what he got” is likely a very different story in that situation). While guaranteed anonymity is not a right, it’s an important tool in many situations, particularly for vulnerable groups. While I agree with you that who is being targeted by whom matters, that gets superbly messy very fast. I don’t think many people would agree that outing a pedophile is problematic, but it becomes very much so when the same processes are used by bigots and crazies to target innocent people. The tools of “justice” are available to everyone, and it’s not the Michael Brutschs of the world that I’m concerned about. I just think that we need to be careful about how celebratory we are about doxing (or revealing identities, whatever), no matter how “good” it is.
Whitney: I agree; the assertion that “he (or whoever) got what he deserved” is a dangerous claim to make, because as you point out, in the “wrong” hands, that same assertion could be used to justify, for example, homophobic violence. It’s a self-righteous position, one that only works so long as the person making the utterance is a “good” person with “good” motives. This isn’t to fall back on some subjectivist nonsense, i.e. I have a right to believe that gay people are people and you have a right to want to murder them. Some people are wrong, and need to shut the fuck up — or be made to shut the fuck up. But again, that’s a tricky argument, because what does it even mean?
WHAT DOES ANY OF IT EVEN MEAN???
Kate: I KNOW. I’ve been worried that by coming down squarely on the side of “free speech” in the Stacey/Woods debacle, people would think that I was like, “Racism/sexualized comments about an abducted child with cerebral palsy LOL WHATEVER”, which is not AT ALL the case. But the thing is, any time you make a subjective judgment when it comes to something legal (of course some people could argue that our entire legal system is based upon subjective moral judgments, but…ugh) it gets really complicated. I mean, I think that there is a big difference between some ignorant fuckwad spouting racist vitriol and an evil woman manipulating a teenager who suffers from depression (cyberbullying, another fun/agonizing topic!), mainly that we can choose to ignore the ignorant fuckwads. Yes, we want to support the good guys and combat the bad guys, and for all of my criticism of it, I think that’s what Section 127 is trying to do. My main concern is that laws like that are the types of things that end up getting abused, because “good”, “bad”, “indecent”, etc can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
Whitney: I definitely agree with the point that subjective judgments about legal behavior are tricky tricky, but the thing about Brutsch is, I don’t see how what he did WAS legal. At the very least it falls —seems to fall— into an (un)comfortable legal grey area, because although what he posted may not have “technically” met the legal threshold of child pornography (what a disgusting semantic distinction to draw), it certainly constitutes child endangerment, which the last time I checked is very much illegal. So it’s not just that our personal opinions are complicated and often context dependent, the laws themselves are complicated and often context dependent. So…..I don’t know.
What I do know is that those who rally around Brutsch in support of “free speech” (again, eye roll) is completely bizarre, and tethers an ultimately facile political philosophy (“I have the right to do and say whatever I want and so do you, unless you’re using your speech to criticize my speech”) with the sexual exploitation of minors. It’s one tiger trap wrapped in another tiger trap, this story is.