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Separating Predation from Trolling

One of the good things to come out of the /r/jailbait and /r/creepshots mess is that I discovered the work of Zeynep Tufekci. She is a sociologist who studies “the interaction between technology and social, cultural and political dynamics”. She has one of the best posts on the “free speech” question that I’ve seen so far.

First, let’s point out that defenders of “absolute free speech” actually do understand that speech has power—and are more than ready to ban it to protect themselves. If you were following the story, you know that this all became a public brouhaha after Adrien Chen exposed the real name and location of the main editor of “creepshot” forum in an article in Gawker. All of a sudden, defense of “free speech” became a secondary concern for Reddit management and they banned linking to Gawker from the site. Leaked text of Reddit moderator chats discussing the situation make it very clear that even those who don’t think Gawker should be banned agree that the Gawker reporter did an awful thing. This deep hypocrisy in Reddit’s position that posting names of child predators [as it is predation to post pictures of minors for sexual exploitation] should be banned, but child predation should be protected by Reddit as “free speech” is so blatantly obvious that one could almost stop there (or read this great post by Lili Loofbourow.

Rather, let’s look at this as a good example for why “free speech” as an absolute value for any community that is not balanced by any other concern is at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.

It’s a wonderfully chewy post. Go read the whole thing.

The reason Tufekci came to my attention, however, was a couple of tweets that I agree with but think miss an important part of this story.

Aarrgh. People discussing "trolling" as if it applies to cases of jailbait forums. These are NOT attempts at attention. They'd rather hide.
@techsoc
Zeynep Tufekci
Don't conflate trolling -for attention, to annoy, for politics, whatev- w/ predatory behavior towards minors (where attention is unwelcome).
@techsoc
Zeynep Tufekci

I answered Tufekci briefly on Twitter, because I assumed our understanding of trolling would be similar enough to come to a certain amount of agreement in 140 characters. As I predicted, we did. However, I think it’s also worth laying out my position on this at a bit more length, if for no other reason than it is an excellent illustration of what a troll is and why.

The context for this is that ViolentAcrez has been described repeatedly in the media as a master troll, the internet’s biggest troll, Reddit’s pet troll, the King of Trolls, etc. In fact, all of that is true.

It is important to remember, though, that this is not where this story started. This is not why we’re talking about pseudonyms and privacy and corporate responsibility. We’re doing that because of /r/jailbait, which sexualizes women under the age of consent, and because of /r/creepshots, which fetishizes the lack of consent of its subjects.

Neither of those, as Tufekci correctly points out, were trolling. There was no performance aspect to them, except perhaps in the sense of an unhealthy performative masculinity. The audience for that, though, was an appreciative one, other men performing masculinity the same way and men whose socially unacceptable fetish was normalized by that performance. This was not done to annoy anyone. It was not done to distract. It was not done for lulz.

Ironically, it was ViolentAcrez’ attempt to deflect attention from /r/jailbait that ended up leading to his cozy relationship with Reddit and, thus, his outing. He didn’t police /r/jailbait for illegal pictures out of some overwhelming respect for the authority of law. That appears fairly obvious from the interviews he’s done. The obvious reason to do something like that would be to keep authorities from having to pay attention to the subreddit.

Of course, it was inevitable that /r/jailbait would eventually be discovered by people who had very good reasons to object to it. That was when the trolling started.

Like a trail of breadcrumbs, ViolentAcrez created a series of subreddits to draw the attention of those who would object to /r/jailbait. Racism, death porn–calculated offense. No longer there to titillate, it was there to distract and defy. “Oh, you think this is bad? Well, look at this!”

It worked, too. People couldn’t talk about /r/jailbait without talking about a world of other disgust. ViolentAcrez was now a monster, an anomaly that no one should be expected to understand instead of a man partaking in a part of our culture with deep roots. This is what allowed Gawker to report on him without the tiniest bit of reflection on similar behavior of their own.

That is trolling, successful trolling. It did what trolling is intended to do. It took over the conversation, deflected everyone’s focus from what they had shown up to discuss. It directed the camera where ViolentAcrez wanted it pointed.

Away from /r/jailbait.

ViolentAcrez didn’t start his Reddit career as a troll. He did become one when his purpose there was challenged.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    Although not at issue in this case, I would point out that there is another (minority) species of trolling: the Devil’s Advocate. The DA posts an on-topic but unpopular position, generally not hir own, to draw a conversation away from sterile groupthink.

    The “Poe” is an example.

    It’s not only rare, but difficult. Difficult to do well, and also difficult to discern from malicious trolling. Perhaps especially for the practitioner, who is all too often not completely clear on hir own motives.

    I return you now to the original topic.

  2. Rodney Nelson says

    T.F. Charlton’s post at Racialicious, which Stephanie linked to in the OP, has an interesting comment:

    I’d argue that the real story in Chen’s piece is not so much the disclosure of Violentacrez’ identity as it is the culture at Reddit that enabled him–and the parallels to how our culture as a whole produces and consumes sexualized and exploitative images of girls and women.

    Violentacrez/Brutsch couldn’t have run all those NSFW subreddits without Reddit’s blessing. They knew he was bringing them lots of hits and so they let him continue. The Avenue Q song “The Internet Is For Porn” is not a light-hearted jab at certain parts of the internet. It is a major part and is exploitative of women.

    On a slightly different note, Brutsch was fired from his job because of what Violentacrez did. This shows the people who say the internet and real life have no connection are wrong.

  3. says

    Note that there was a list of the subreddits that Violentacrez was administrating or created. Deleted when the Gawker story ran, here is the Google cache:

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Q9ox-gk1FSgJ:code.reddit.com/wiki/help/faqs/violentacrez+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    If you still think Violentacrez isn’t an “evil” man, try r/beefFlaps, r/ButtSharpies, r/Cutters, r/Incest, r/ChoppedPenis, and many more extremely disgusting areas that he was responsible for.

    We’ve been discussing this on Wikipediocracy, because Reddit’s problems are very similar to Wikipedia’s problems. They sometimes even involve the same people — large numbers of Wikipedia insiders have Reddit accounts, and have trolled Reddit threads.

    http://wikipediocracy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1017

  4. pramod says

    They knew he was bringing them lots of hits and so they let him continue.

    Of course they knew it! They even gave him a fucking award. And if you remember 2008 or so when all this really started, reddit was the upstart that looked like it might or might not survive and Digg was *the* social news aggregator website that ruled the interwebs. Reddit needed pageviews to stay in business and they were happy to take them any which way they came. For a long time, “jailbait” was one the most popular search queries that led to reddit, which is why they didn’t just look the other way, they actively encouraged Brutsch with their awards and pimp trophies. And when they got cornered over the whole thing by Anderson Cooper, Alex Ohanian, who is one of the founders of reddit went on the record seemingly blaming the victims of jailbait for the whole fiasco.

  5. F says

    I was reading at the linked pages and following links from them, but then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments (same old privileged fallacious arguments) here:
    http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/creepshots-and-the-self-fulfilling-prophecy-of-free-speech/
    I had to stop because I simply don’t have the wherewithal to register and go all SIW(OTI) everywhere, especially when the argument was already addressed in the article to which these comments are a response. Hopefully, they were or will be addressed downthread.

    So I have to say this: I cannot begin to fathom how affected groups, like women, who this shit directly attacks, feel as a result when I have had far beyond enough.

  6. jhendrix says

    Cross posting my comment from Pharyngula, since we had argued on this previously:

    The article did a good bit to helping change my position. Dichotomies presented by technology shouldn’t bind us completely.

    The article is completely right to point out the hypocrisy of Reddit where they hold the “outing” of Violentacrez as some terrible violation, but what he did being somehow less OK.

    Freedom of speech cuts both ways, and it’s pretty awesome that the creeper got outed.

    What I do fear is the authoritarian streak of censorship that is lurking behind this. The notion that since we’re not talking about the government here, that this has nothing to do with “Free Speech” is ludicrous IMO. We should value any company or venue that gives people the right to “free speech” online.

    This isn’t “absolute free speech”, since harmful things are limited (child porn being the biggest).

    I think the solution needs to be making certain things illegal, like intentionally taking upskirt/downshirt photos. There are good arguments to be made that such things violate an expectation of privacy, even in the public space where situations can make glimpses of such things possible.

    I actually understand women not wanting to have pictures of themselves in tight/revealing clothing in public being put online as some kind of erotic material. It’s pretty fucking creepy. It’s a type of trolling, an abuse of the fact that when someone is in public they have no right to an expectation of privacy.

    What I am afraid of coming out as a result of this restrictions on photography.

    It’s like the above is a necessary evil. I don’t like that, but I’m afraid of putting limits on that kind of speech. How can we ensure that any rights we give to block sharing of certain photos isn’t abused to restrict important speech? I don’t see an easy solution to this problem.

    At some point I find it necessary that internet platform providers like Reddit, Facebook, and Google need to stay neutral with respect to content. At some point I think the ethos of “if this is legal speech, you can put it here” should be adopted by these places.

    But this is problematic with things like /r/jailbait. I think the solution is to expand child porn laws so that showcasing minors (even clothed ones) in a sexual context should be made illegal. This way the above ethos of “legal speech allowed” can be respected while at the same time policing shit like jailbait.

    Yes the creepers can still dive through Flickr/FB accounts for pics, but at least it can’t be aggregated, easily accessed, and normalized as the article states. If we can accomplish that, then it’s a huge step forward.

  7. amm says

    jhendrix @7:

    What I do fear is the authoritarian streak of censorship that is lurking behind this. The notion that since we’re not talking about the government here, that this has nothing to do with “Free Speech” is ludicrous IMO….
    I think the solution needs to be making certain things illegal,…

    I don’t see how “making certain things illegal” is an improvement on pressuring the megacorporations that bankroll places like Reddit to limit things. The main difference is that the State has the option of putting you in jail and Condé Nast does not.

    If you read Ms. Tufekci’s article, she points out that, in practice, “free speech” is very much about power. The fact that Brutsch’s “free speech” was promoted and supported and his victims’ was not is very much a reflection of how misogyny and exploitation of women is promoted and exploited in our society.

    When people talk about “free speech” as if it were something divorced from the power or powerlessness of the speakers and their backers (in Brutsch’s case, both Condé Nast and a large number of people on the Web), they are lying by omission.

  8. jhendrix says

    I don’t see how “making certain things illegal” is an improvement on pressuring the megacorporations that bankroll places like Reddit to limit things. The main difference is that the State has the option of putting you in jail and Condé Nast does not.

    If you read Ms. Tufekci’s article, she points out that, in practice, “free speech” is very much about power. The fact that Brutsch’s “free speech” was promoted and supported and his victims’ was not is very much a reflection of how misogyny and exploitation of women is promoted and exploited in our society.

    When people talk about “free speech” as if it were something divorced from the power or powerlessness of the speakers and their backers (in Brutsch’s case, both Condé Nast and a large number of people on the Web), they are lying by omission.

    I believe that making things like specifically aggregating “jailbait” style pictures, and that posting images that are illegal to take (like the upskirt stuff) is the way to go over using commercial pressure for two main reasons.

    The primary reason is that I strongly believe in having hosting providers and platform providers using a policy of “if it is legal we will host it” is important for the internet to stay a venue of free speech. I don’t buy the argument that “this isn’t the government, so it’s not a free speech issue”.

    I don’t want large corps/companies being pressured to remove certain kinds of speech, if that can happen to a large degree then the internet is no longer a venue for free speech. The power and new norm forming abilities the internet brings can be much more easily curtailed if that’s the case.

    That said, I don’t want to be on the side of defending shit like creepshots and jailbait. Previously when I argued against reddit having to take that stuff down I was operating under wrong assumptions and let myself be ruled by the technology dichotomy. Now I realize we can ban aggregating that type of content, even if we can’t/shouldn’t stop people from posting pictures of themselves in ways others will pervert online. I also don’t know how creepshots were allowed to even be hosted when other illegal content was removed.

    The second reason is that eventually the pressure thing won’t work. Eventually someone can take the position “it’s legal, I’ll host it even if it pisses off the world”, and even if the mega corps won’t touch it – such a place will grow very quickly on revenue from exploiting the fact that they’ll touch the shit and others won’t. If/when that happens and we don’t have laws against things like creepshots and jailbait, then I do fear what the author was warning against – free speech being curtailed.

    I don’t deny that free speech is directly related to power, I read the article and agree with her point. But I do think that hosting providers need to provide platforms to all, that’s the equalizing power that the internet brings.

    I’ve never argued that Reddit’s position of ‘it’s ok to post creepshots, but not OK to out our members’ was consistent. Their banning of Gawker links was similarly hypocritical; though the CEO rescinded that in order to restore consistency to their position and go back ‘under the banner of free speech’.

    I just want a way to ban shit like the creepshots and jailbait while also making sure that providers can always be available for the legal but unpopular speech.

  9. says

    What I do fear is the authoritarian streak of censorship that is lurking behind this…

    Yeah, the same “authoritarian streak of censorship” that lurks behind everyday judgement-calls by TV producers and publishers, restrictions on obscene phone calls, and organizational rules of behavior that say you can’t talk dirty to coworkers on company time. OH, THE SPIRIT-CRUSHING HORROR!!!

  10. says

    But I do think that hosting providers need to provide platforms to all, that’s the equalizing power that the internet brings.

    And you really think that getting rid of blatantly obscene, invasive, insulting matter is imposible without degrading the “equalizing power” of the Internet? Seriously?

    You really need to get out more. Us grownups know there’s plenty of web sites providing useful information and services to all without allowing any obscene or pornographic material on their sites! I know, crazy, innit? Somehow there’s plenty of news, information and social-networking sites that can make themselves available to all, without having to make any space for skeevy non-consensual photos of minors — or, at the very least, keeping that sort of thing hidden from anyone who isn’t actively looking for it.

    In fact, I think that getting rid of the obvious sleaze would make a service like Reddit MORE available to all, not less so: there’d be fewer people staying away to avoid the toxic content.

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