Yesterday was one hell of an interesting day in regards to Reddit’s public image. In the morning, BuzzFeed ran a glowing profile piece on founder Alexis Ohanian, “Why is this man running for President of the Internet“ lauding him for his efforts in helping squash SOPA. Ohanian stood infront of a podium adorned with the motto “Making the World Suck Less.”
It’s not clear how Ohanian was making the world suck less when encouraging, benefiting from, and ultimately protecting the actions of a man who posted photos of underage girls for perverts to leer at. And that’s a fact that Gawker’s Adrian Chen raised loudly and clearly when he published what is, in my opinion, the best depiction of Reddit’s success to date: Unmasking Violentacrez, the Biggest Troll on the Web. If you read nothing else on Gawker, let it be this.
Now, in case you haven’t been following along prior to today, many Reddit subforums had already begun banning Gawker links days in advance, in preparation for Chen’s article. In fact, their was an outpouring of support for Violentacrez, real name Michael Brutsch, despite his habit of posting 14 year-old girls their bikinis. Apparently creating and moderating boards like /r/creepshots, /r/jailbait, and /r/picsofdeadjailbait were just fine but when a journalist chose to reveal VA’s identity, this was somehow a gross violation of his privacy.
With how much work Reddit staff goes to portraying themselves in a humanitarian light, calling themselves “the front page of the internet” and “a force for good in a bad world,” it’s important that we all remember that they knew of Violentacrez’s habits of posting exploitative photos and simply looked the other way. As long as they could benefit from the traffic he brought to the site, they did nothing to stop him.
Some may argue that since Violentacrez is largely portrayed as a troll, that he doesn’t really mean any of the things that he says or does — that he’s pushing the boundaries of what’s permissible by law in order to protect free speech. And given his “free speech” shield he has drawn support from those who say things like, “I may not agree with the things you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” The hypocrisy here is staggering. Violentacrez and all of those who participated in /r/creepshots and boards like it knowingly violated the privacy of the girls and women who’s photos they posted without their consent. And because the moderator who enabled this activity had his own privacy compromised that is somehow worse?
Free speech issues aside, it’s interesting to note that at no point in Chen’s article does Brutsch ever refute that anything he said or did on the site wasn’t an honest portrayal of who he was in real life. On the contrary, he insisted to be exactly who he represented himself as: a man who once performed oral sex on his own step-daughter, and regularly posts pornography to Reddit in front of his own wife.
As the former and original community manager of Know Your Meme, I’m no stranger to the amount of work it takes to delete exploitative, illegal, and disturbing content from a popular site. It seems like every day we were assaulted with a flood of material that you’d just wish didn’t exist in the first place. The workload became too much for our team, every bit as small as the Reddit staff, and so we too turned to community moderation. But the key difference is that we didn’t act like the volunteer mods were capable of self-policing. We didn’t cling to lofty notions of free speech and libertarianism. We were, for lack of a better word, a benevolent dictatorship. We knew we could never expect our moderators to act independently. It took great amounts of oversight. Now, I left Know Your Meme nearly two years ago and I’ve barely done more than lurk in recent months, save for the occasional forum name-changing prank. (But that’s an entirely different story.)
Personally, I’m done with Reddit for good. I was already banned from Reddit a while ago, but now I’m truly done condoning anything to do with the site. Outside of Reddit there’s a larger web of complicity at play. For smaller websites, like the one you’re reading this article on, Reddit can be a huge boon for referral traffic. Understandably, there are many sites that are reluctant to so much as mention that the story is going on. When your livelihood is tied up in the pageview-based economy you don’t want to risk pissing off one of your largest sources of hits. But the story is finally getting loud enough that no one can responsibly make the decision to ignore it. Given the now-public knowledge that Reddit staff protected and encouraged Violentacrez means that any endorsement of Reddit is also an endorsement for the systematic exploitation of young girls.