Some weeks you just want to burn down the whole Internet, and—well, until yesterday’s torrent of hilarious post-debate memes, anyway—this has undoubtedly been one of those weeks.
Last Friday afternoon, as you might have heard, or read, or absorbed via social-media osmosis, Gawker’s Adrian Chen posted a long, suspenseful post that unmasked a guy named Michael Brutsch, a 49-year-old Texan who for years has been one of Reddit’s most prolific and most disturbing contributors. Known online as ViolentAcrez, Brutsch created “subreddits,” or forums, with titles like “Incest,” “Chokeabitch,” “Rapebait,” and “PicsofDeadJailbait,” and oh so many more, and was one of the main curators of the lately notorious “Creepshots” forums, in which dudes post photos of women taken surreptitiously in public, in order to perv out on both the photos themselves and their nonconsensual provenance.
Chen’s post quickly went viral and resulted in, among other things, Brutsch losing his job in IT at a Texas financial-services company that serves payday-loan businesses. Not for being disgusting online, necessarily, but because his employers felt he reflected badly on the company, and also possibly because he was Creepshotting and posting to the “r/Hitler” subreddit or whatever on company time. Pro tip, everyone: If a job in a supremely sleazy industry thinks you’re reflecting badly on it, you may want to rethink some stuff. Which Michael Brutsch will now have some time to do.
This isn’t a Douchebag Decree about Michael Brutsch, however. It could be, because HOLY FUCKBALLS is this guy a douchebag. He proudly described himself as the “creepy uncle of Reddit.” He bragged online about having a sexual encounter with his 19-year-old stepdaughter. He created a logo of himself that he wore to Reddit meetups. And may I remind you: “PicsofDeadJailbait.”
No, this is about the legions of people online who protested Chen’s piece, and Gawker’s publishing of it, on the grounds that it violated Brutsch’s right to “free speech.” These concerned folks worried that, despite everything he did on Reddit being legal, Brutsch would be punished in non-Internet realms (like real-life employment), and suffer the consequences of having his real name connected to his formerly anonymous online presence. Take these comments in response to Chen’s post:
“I don’t like the guy, but what Gawker has done is setting an uncomfortable precedent, that it is ok to ruin a persons [sic] public life just because some people don’t like him.”
“I’m not sure what anyone is getting out of his identity being public. if people don’t like the stuff he posts, they should look into shutting down the site he posts it on (good luck) or getting them to change their posting standards/policies (again, good luck). This was an interesting insight into the world of Reddit and its moderators, but i wish it didn’t come at the expense of someone who seems to intelligently grasp the value of Reddit and it’s [sic] community.”
Reddit itself framed the outing of a prized contributor as a blow to free speech, and proceeded to issue a sitewide ban on all links to Gawker in its subreddits. (Free speech!) And Brutsch, confronted over the phone by Chen, protested that “It’s not like I do anything illegal” in posting his legions of creepshots or creating blatantly racist subreddits with names like “Jewmerica.” In the interview with CNN that will be broadcast tonight on Anderson Cooper 360, he whines that his online activities were “what I did in my spare time to unwind from my 10-hour-a-day job. That’s how I relaxed in the evening.” Racism and sexism, you guys—they’re as relaxing as Sudoku!
This is not a new story, as we all know. Just a couple months back, the Internet erupted in free-speech defending when Daniel Tosh told a “joke” that involved a female heckler in his audience being gang-raped “by, like five guys,” with about a zillion people complaining that the heckler’s behavior was tantamount to censorship. It happened in 2010 when when Dr. Laura Schlessinger, after being called out on a particularly racist incident on her Sirius radio show, announced that she would be leaving broadcasting in order to “regain my First Amendment rights.” And, of course, it happened in 2007 when that class act Don Imus had his long-running show, Imus in the Morning, terminated by CBS after Imus referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” The decision didn’t involve the FCC, yet it was widely framed as a violation of the notoriously racist shock jock’s First Amendment rights.
In other words, when what a shit-ton of people don’t know about free speech can be gently shoehorned into the Hoover Dam, perhaps it’s time to have a bit of remedial discussion on the topic.
Point A) “Censuring” is not the same as “censoring.” They look and sound similar, but nope.
Point B) Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from repercussions. As Michael Brutsch now knows. As last week’s D-Bag honoree, Andrew Goldman—who has been suspended from writing for the New York Times for one month—knows. (Please note that I am not equating these two.)
Point C) Internet anonymity, which, yes, is often a condition of people feeling that they can speak freely, is not a right. And it’s definitely not some kind of Fortress of Solitude.
This last point seems particularly crucial. Sady Doyle, writing at The Guardian, points out that outing epic trolls like Brutsch ends up looking a lot like mere sensationalism, and furthermore takes the heat off the hundreds of thousands of lesser trolls who did (and continue to do) the same things he does:
“Ending bigotry and sexual harassment is not as simple as selectively unmasking one or two perpetrators. It relies on all of us working daily to create a culture in which such behaviours aren’t tolerated. Harnessing internet outrage is much easier – and more immediately satisfying – than changing the attitudes of the culture itself.”
Well, that’s true. But I’d actually argue that unmasking one or two Goliath harassers (besides ViolentAcrez, the Internet has also brought us this week the purported outing of a sexual predator who blackmailed British Columbia teen Amanda Todd for two years, distributing topless photos of her and cyberbullying her until, two years after the campaign of harassment began, Todd committed suicide last week at the age of 15. See what I mean about wanting to set this whole mess on fire?) does effect some change in those cultural attitudes, especially with regard to Internet anonymity and community self-policing. Though Chen ultimately wrote the piece that outed ViolentAcrez as Michael Brutsch, it was one of Brutsch’s fellow Redditors who passed along the information he needed—more than a hint that some within the Reddit community are ready to change how the ostensibly neutral site enables its most controversial (and most lucrative) participants. If these two outings put the expectation of anonymity on notice, if they challenge the idea that some people’s privacy (those posting Creepshots, for instance) is worth more than the privacy of others (those who have their photos unwittingly taken and posted to a Creepshots forum, let’s say), then they are chipping away at “the culture itself.”
Point D) People who equate “free speech” with “my God-given right to perpetual access to women’s bodies, no matter how ill-gotten or exploitative” can eat a big plate of Cry Me A River, and then fuck right off.
Online responses to this week’s stories, as you might expect, have ranged from infuriating to stomach-turning. Several people have, in all seriousness, made the argument with regard to creepshots that women have no reasonable expectation of privacy once they leave their houses, especially what with having boobs and stuff. Many others protest that since creepshots are, on paper, completely legal, ViolentAcrez is being unduly punished by a hopelessly P.C. mindset that just doesn’t get how FUN it is to be racist, sexist, and…well, whatever the word is for people who get their trouser jollies from PICSOFDEADJAILBAIT. (That word is “revolting,” by the way.)
Also, at least two people have attempted to make the argument that because the original exposé of Brutsch was published on Gawker—a site that’s definitely, aboslutely not above its own sexism, racism, and lurid sensationalism—it is de facto invalid. And that’s just kind of dopey. Listen, I have no doubt that Gawker honcho Nick Denton would run over his own grandmother on a moped if there were one million pageviews on the other side of her, but attempting a purity argument in a case like this makes no sense. In fact, what all these responses suggest is that the dudes who are standing up for free speech (and they are, in almost every case, dudes) are really standing up for their own privilege to laugh at or get aroused by words and images that demonstrably victimize other people, and suffer no real-world consequences for it.
I’m just saying, I didn’t see any of these people taking to their blogs to advocate for, say, the women of Pussy Riot in order to protect their free speech—and that case is actually about free speech, as in actual government censorship and detainment. The people hand-wringing about “Internet vigilantism” and “witch hunts” in the case of Michael Brutsch and whatever shitstain harassed Amanda Todd to her death are not the same people who are concerned with the repercussions of outing, say, social-justice bloggers who operate under pseudonyms for a variety of reasons (for instance, feminist bloggers who regularly receive death threats). No, these are people conflating freedom of speech with freedom from accountability, the wounded privileged who are outraged, OUTRAGED that you don’t get a free pass, particularly on the Internet, to be sexist, racist, bigoted, offensive, and also completely private. Like Dr. Laura and Imus and Rush Limbaugh, these are not people who want free speech. What they want is to be able to do and say whatever ugly, hateful nonsense they please, and not have to engage with the equally free speech of those who point out that what they’re doing and saying makes the world just that much shittier for everyone to live in.
In her piece for Forbes.com on this week’s events, social-media and tech stalwart Deanna Zandt writes that
“What for me is ultimately one of the most critical pieces in all of this discussion is that the level of intolerance for misogyny, racism, homophobia, abuse and much more online seems to be finally reaching a boiling point for many, especially women. We are seeking out and building actionable tools to level playing fields and hold abusers and exploiters finally accountable for their behaviors, online and off.”
It’s an acknowledgment that what we talk about when we talk about free speech is changing because spaces like the Internet demand ever-more nuanced thinking. But it’s also an assertion that, right now, we’re not all prepared to die on the hill of PicsofDeadJailbait.
Above image via Gawker