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.
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.