State of the Web: Can Reddit’s freedom of speech principles survive its pornography fiasco?

state of the web reddit web privacy

The Web lit ablaze late Friday afternoon after Gawker’s Adrian Chen outed the identity of infamous Reddit moderator Violentacrez, the intensely popular social new site’s “creepy uncle” who we now know as 49-year-old Michael Brutsch of Arlington, Texas.

As Violentacrez, Brutsch created and cultivated Reddit’s ghastliest “subreddits,” or communities devoted to a single topic, including one called “Jailbait” that featured barely legal photos of underage girls, many of which were swiped from personal Facebook accounts. Another revolved around pictures of dead children. Rape, incest, domestic violence, misogyny, racism — the intentionally detestable communities Brutsch brought to life are as vile as the law currently allows. And the vast Reddit community, true to its label as a bastion of free speech and online privacy, largely defended Brutsch’s right to anonymously rile and disgust anyone with sensitivities who paddled into his wretched wake.

So it should come as no surprise that Reddit’s collective reaction to Chen’s article has been a violent one. Dozens of subreddits, including the hugely popular “Politics” and “TodayILearned” communities, have banned all links to Gawker Media articles based on the argument that Chen’s article violates the strict Reddit rule against revealing users’ personal information, a practice known on the Web as “doxxing.”

“As you may be aware, a recent article published by the Gawker network has disclosed the personal details of a long-standing user of this site,” wrote a TodayILearned moderator, “an egregious violation of the Reddit rules, and an attack on the privacy of a member of the Reddit community.”

The irony of banning one kind of free speech — Gawker articles — to protect the ability of Reddit users to engage in free speech themselves is lost on no one except, perhaps, the Reddit community itself. As Chen so concisely put it, “Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.”

One could go mad attempting to untangle the knotty ethics here. Far more clear is the failure of Reddit’s ability to successfully self-regulate.

Unlike, say, Facebook’s staff, Reddit administrators take a famously hands-off approach to what does and does not fly on the popular social news site. Instead, this job is primarily left to unpaid moderators, the volunteers, like Brutsch, who create and regulate the subreddits that make up the big Reddit. Each subreddit is free to make its own rules for content, save the handful of site-wide polices, like the one against doxxing, to which all so-called redditors must abide.

Of course, this idea of self-regulation is not exclusive to Reddit — it lies at the heart of America itself. The political Right in American politics is, at its best, based around the idea that government should have as little power as possible to allow the people to police themselves. The political Left, which sees self-regulation as fundamentally weak, counters the ideal of self-regulation with calls for stronger government to safeguard against the pitfalls of people (or industries) failing to properly police themselves. It’s Tea Party versus Occupy. Republican versus Democrat. Or, in this case, Reddit versus Facebook.

By standing firm for the rights of Brutsch/Violentacrez — rather than with the countless women and children whose pictures he posted for the grungy hordes of horny redditors — Reddit has made itself vulnerable to pressure from outsiders who see its policy of self-regulation as dangerously flimsy. Parents groups, politicians, law enforcement — all these and more could soon wage war against the free speech Utopia of Reddit.

This prophecy may sound outlandishly hyperbolic, but such is the natural process of society. We saw this cycle impose itself on the deregulated financial industry following the stock market crash of 2008. And chances are, we will see this happen with Reddit as well. Chen’s article could prove to be Reddit’s crash.

As a longtime redditor, I do not wish for this outcome. The Reddit community is a valuable one largely due to its devotion to free speech, online privacy, and the often vibrant content and commentary allowed by such an environment. Nor do I believe Reddit administrators can voluntarily ban the abhorrent (but legal) content so deftly selected by Violentacrez and his scummy ilk without sacrificing Reddit’s fundamental worth.

This is exactly why the widespread ban on Gawker links is not just hypocritical, but another damaging failure of Reddit self-regulation. Yes, Chen violated Reddit’s rules against revealing users’ personal information. Fine. But nowhere in the rules does it say that sweeping bans on entire media companies is the due course of action for the existence of a pesky article or two. I hope, for Reddit’s sake, that such a rule is never put in place.

What the Reddit community seems to forget is that the site has a built-in cleansing system, one that relies not on administrators or moderators, but on users themselves — up and down arrows that allow each redditor to “upvote” and “downvote” every post and comment on the website. Upvoted content rises. Downvoted content falls. Redditors would be wise to use the down arrow more often to prevent hideous content and users from defining the community. And if the Reddit community uses that power to downvote Gawker articles into the ground as well, so be it.

Had more redditors utilized the power of the up and down arrows to keep its underbelly from seeing the light of day, the community would not be in this mess. Chen would have had to find something else to write about. And Brutsch/Violentarez would still have his job and his anonymity.

Alas, that is not what happened. Reddit insulated itself in a wet blanket of righteous likemindedness. It used the up arrow haphazardly, pushing Violentacrez and his brand of filth into the spotlight, and eventually into the harsh glare of the public at large.

Thanks to Reddit’s intrinsic system of self-regulation, however, the community has the power to avoid a repeat of this depraved, perplexing saga. But if it fails to do so — if redditors don’t want to isolate users like Brutsch — then the community will suffer consequences imposed by a public that will be too blinded by the filth people like Brutsch promote to recognize the more important values Reddit stands for.