Adrian Chen on Exposing an Internet Troll
Reddit is a social news site made up of a series of forums dedicated to every possible interest, from Power Rangers to politics. It has a laissez-faire attitude toward offensive speech, so there’s also a lot of porn and shock content. The millions of users on Reddit are anonymous—the site has very few rules, but not revealing someone’s personal information is one of them.
About a year ago, I started reporting on a Reddit forum, Jailbait, where users posted pictures of scantily clad underage girls that they’d stolen from Facebook. It was created and run by a guy who went by Violentacrez. He also posted a lot of racist content and gore, and he was basically a Reddit celebrity. One of his former Internet friends gave me his real name, but before I could confirm it, Jailbait was shut down. Then a couple of months ago, Violentacrez started moderating a forum called CreepShots, which is dedicated to posting voyeuristic snapshots of women on the street. So I called him. His name is Michael Brutsch, and he lives in Texas.
When I spoke to him, he begged me to back off. “Please don’t out me,” he said. “I’m going to lose my job, my disabled wife is going to lose her health insurance, you’re going to ruin my life.” That’s a lot to live with. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. But I knew that if I wrote the story without naming him, I’d be protecting him and essentially endorsing what he did. The piece I wrote about him on Gawker has had nearly 1.2 million hits. Brutsch did lose his job, and he was on CNN about the story. Reddit says that what I did is a violation of free speech, but I think that’s a red herring. You can talk about free speech as much as you want, but at the end of the day everyone is looking out for their own agenda.
Right now, Reddit is at a crossroads. There’s a lot of infighting—those who are against the violence and misogyny and those who think it was wrong of me to out Violentacrez. Is Reddit going to become more mainstream? Or will it further entrench itself into the geek subculture that it came out of? I think I did the right thing by outing Brutsch. He’s an influential person on an influential website, not just some guy saying racist stuff on a message board. — As told to Claire Suddath