Oh, ok. Reddit made him do it

By | October 19, 2012

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Drew Griffin, unmasked Reddit troll Michael Brutsch blamed Reddit’s culture for fostering his deplorable online behavior.

Realizing he had a penchant for angering people anonymously online, Brutsch regularly used Reddit’s unfettered system of open access to create hundreds of subforums dedicated to topics like “Rapebait,” “Incest,” “Pics of Dead Kids,” “Choke a Bitch,” and “Rape Jokes.”

Reddit, in fact, is designed to reward forum creators/moderators for generating page views and audience participation, like Brutsch, regardless of the subject matter.

All these aspects of Reddit’s online culture bred and fed Brutsch’s knack for attracting a crowd and eliciting “discussion,” as well as his propensity to exploit women and children.

Reddit is the same place where President Obama held a town hall meeting with constituents. Reddit also is an online space where people gather to make good things happen, like this notable example: “How The Internet Rallied To Help A Verbally Abused Bus Monitor.”

Since the advent of online discussion boards, most large websites have not moderated online comments. The process is too time consuming. I worked for 12 years as an online producer and editor and can testify that moderating anonymous online comments is an arduous and thankless job that by nature takes place in a “hostile work environment.”

The news organization that employed me did not unmask anonymous trolls and hold them accountable for their posts. The quicker response was to ban them via username and IP address. But that was a short-lived and not-terribly-effective solution.

In the case of Reddit, it was Gawker’s Adrian Chen who made unmasking Michael Brutsch his mission. Funny thing is, Gawker allows anonymous comments on its stories, too. It is no bastion of high journalistic ethics and civility. But Gawker hasn’t (yet) preyed on dead children or encouraged the rape of women, so it at least has some standards in place.

The rule of thumb for most sites that host forums is to rely on its own community to self-police and report inappropriate content/comments.

Even CNN’s website commenting policy says “CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion here, so we do not pre-screen comments before they post.”

If companies that operate forums for large online communities, like Reddit, do not create at least a limited structure for civility (intrinsic human values?) to protect the weakest in society from being preyed upon, exploited and defamed, anonymous animals like “Violentacrez” will continue to run wild. I do not expect Reddit to moderate every online comment. But maybe we can raise the standards bar just a bit higher.

The Rules of Reddit:

Don’t spam.

Don’t engage in vote cheating or manipulation.

Don’t post personal information.

No child pornography or sexually suggestive content featuring minors.

Don’t break the site or do anything that interferes with normal use of the site.

Here’s the problem that’s coming if we don’t do anything. Publicity of these abhorrent incidents of anonymous online speech will eventually put pressure on U.S. legislators to strip Internet service providers of the protections they now enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

If that happens, free speech overall will suffer. That’s bad. We are already moving further and faster in that direction. Online anonymity of the “Violentacrez” sort is chipping away at the meta-value of free speech in the United States. This latest incident with Reddit will undoubtedly add fuel to that fire.

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