This is not an exit

The never-ending debate: ethics, online privacy and Reddit

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2012 at 6:30 am

Who is Violentacrez?

Because of Gawker’s Adrian Chen, the world no longer ponders the answer to that question. And by “the world,” I really mean Reddit and anyone who cares to pay even remote attention to Internet personalities. For those of you who don’t fall into either camp — and I don’t blame you if you don’t — here’s a bit of background:

Violentacrez, known in his offline life as Michael Brutsch, was one of the most high profile users on Reddit, a site that quite accurately claims itself “the front page of the Internet” and is likely the origin of whatever cute cat photo you stumbled across this morning. The site’s primary mechanic is simple: Users submit content, whether it be text, photo or video, and if other users — known collectively as Redditors — like that content, they “upvote” it. Collect enough upvotes and your post makes it to the site’s main page, which sees some of, if not the, highest traffic on the Internet.

Subreddits, themed pages that host only certain types of content, also exist aside from the main page. Try and think of any topic and it’s likely got a subreddit, from Nintendo and Xbox to shirt bleaching and unhealthy/unattractive-looking food. If posts made exclusively to these subreddits receive enough upvotes, they still appear on the front page. What Brutsch was most notorious for was the creation or moderation of subreddits like r/jailbait, r/creepshots and r/incest (And those are the tamer ones.)

Redditors looked up to Brutsch and other mods sought his advice. According to Chen’s article, site administrators accepted Brutsch’s dubious activity because of his keen eye for evident troublemakers. Although Brutsch and the folks who posted to his subreddits weren’t breaking the law with the content they uploaded, they definitely danced the line and ventured into grey areas more often than not.

Plenty of Brutsch and company’s posts incited outrage from Redditors. But as anyone even vaguely familiar with the site’s community can tell you, Reddit sure does love its First Amendment rights. Anonymity comes in at a close second. These two principles often converge in interesting ways, such as this thread that asks those convicted of rape what exactly they were thinking upon committing the act.

It’s understandable that the people who post in that particular thread wished to remain anonymous. After all, if you were trying to recover from a part of your life you’re not particularly proud of, it wouldn’t be wise to run around announcing your past transgressions on one of the most popular sites on the Internet.

But it’s the shady areas of freedom of speech and moral ambiguities present on this and other threads that beg the question: When is online anonymity an acceptable practice and at what point is it in the public’s best interest to know who’s behind the handle? The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that many working reporters employ in these very instances. One of the main points of this philosophy is that news gatherers must minimize harm in their reporting. Well, soon after Chen’s story went live, Brutsch was fired from his position at a financial services company. Although harm was most certainly inflicted upon the man formerly known as Violentacrez, this same code makes exceptions for instances in which the public’s need to know any bit of information exceeds the harm it does to an individual. It’s this exact balance redditors — most of them unknowingly — cite when decrying the Gawker story outing Brutsch.

Redditors refer to Gawker posts like this one, which chronicles Lindsay Lohan’s descent from clean-cut Disney starlet into the personification of the tabloid front page, as a blatant show of hypocrisy on the blog’s part. One user asks, “Why is it ok for Gawker to do this kind of thing, but not Reddit? Is it because taking photos of girls with no names attached is worse than celebrities?”

Here’s one explanation:

Prominence is a tenet of news that’s taught in most introductory reporting classes (at least the ones that employ Tim Harrower’s Inside Reporting as the required text.) Lindsay Lohan is a prominent public figure who chose to place herself in the spotlight. The victims of the photos posted on r/creepshots and other similarly themed subreddits never asked to be acknowledged on the national stage. Not to mention that some of the photos posted to these subreddits may violate privacy laws in their countries of origin. U.S. law dictates that it’s illegal to photograph an individual in an area where he or she has a “reasonable expectation to privacy,” a law on which which r/creepshots submissions likely infringe.

Brutsch similarly falls into this category. At the height of his career as a moderator for several subreddits — he was in charge of up to 400 at one time — Violentacrez was in near-constant contact with Reddit administrators and his content and advice was sought by many in the community. With that kind of influence and that amount of attention being paid to his everyday activities, I’d argue that Brutsch was fair game for the kind of story he was the focus of.

Aside from the prominence/public figure angle here, one of the aspects of journalism I hold in high regard is accountability. The Lindsay Lohan posts Gawker publishes are accompanied by bylines that tell you exactly who’s digging up the content and writing the accompanying article. Online handles don’t exactly work that way. Should any redditor upload illicitly illegal material, the only reprimand is a slap on the wrist and the content’s deletion from wherever it was submitted. And the folks who post content that dances that line between questionably moral and downright illegal don’t have to answer for their actions. There’s no sense of accountability for those who wish to sneak upskirt pictures of gals on their way up stairs and post them to voyeuristic sites.

Then again, the candidness with which some people speak online when anonymous can also lead to more productive and engaging discussion, just as some sources spill the biggest beans when promised they won’t be named in an article. In the end, I agree with Chen’s assertion that this was, indeed, newsworthy material and Gawker’s decision to publish the article.

But the process and its after effects prove that there are so many things to consider when reporting these days. It’s as if a new dilemma arises with every website that’s born into this world, which, according to Mr. Feeny, happens every six seconds.

(God, I love that King Koopa reference.)

Reddit and its community are unique in a multitude of ways. And it’s inevitable that sooner or later another site will spring up that brings with it a new dynamic and its own outlook on what is permissible behavior in its users and viewers. It’s not always easy to translate standards and practices scribed long ago as these communities appear and evolve, but upholding those values is necessary if we’re to do this job responsibly.

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