Reddit, Trolling, Doxxing, Free Speech & Anonymity: Whoo Boy, Is This Stuff Complicated
from the keeping-up dept
In case you haven’t been following last week’s big controversy on Reddit, there are a number of debates going on about a variety of topics, concerning free speech, trolling, anonymity and more. The very short version is as follows: there had been some (quite reasonable and understandable) concern about the subreddit /r/CreepShots in which people (almost all of whom are likely to be guys) were posting surreptitiously shot photos of others, usually women, usually focused on sexually objectifying the subjects of the shot. The subreddit was one of a number of similarly disturbing subreddits that focus on objectifying women — often very young women. Reddit tends to take a mostly hands off approach to this kind of thing, letting the community do what the community does. In extreme cases where the terms of service have been violated (and laws have been broken) stuff gets shut down — but for the most part, Reddit lets the community police itself. Some Redditors figured out that the best way to deal with information they don’t like is with more information and they started exposing information about the moderators of CreepShots, sometimes naming them publicly (and getting a teacher fired for posting cameraphone shots of his students — ick).
Jezebel published an article about outing CreepShots moderators, and from that came the news that Adrian Chen at Gawker was getting set to expose one of the more well known moderators/trolls on the site, ViolentAcrez. Before this even came out, some of the moderators on one of the most popular subreddit, /r/Politics announced that they were banning links to all Gawker sites “until action is taken to correct this serious lack of ethics and integrity.” Chen went on to publish the story anyway — a well-written, thoroughly detailed story about the guy, Michael Brutsch, who admits to enjoy being a “troll” in order to get a reaction out of people. Over the weekend, Brutsch was apparently fired from his job.
There has been a lot of talk about all of this — and about the ethics of pretty much everyone involved. Someone named Navneet Alang directly challenged us, claiming that if Facebook had “censored” an article, we’d be “raging” about it — but that since we’re somehow aligned with Reddit, that’s not the case.
The truth — as always — is a lot more complex. First of all, let me be clear on a few things: I think that /r/CreepShots and various other subreddits like that are very troubling and ethically dubious. I equally think that the decision to ban Gawker stories from certain subreddits was stupid and really counterproductive if the intent was to draw attention away from the article. That said, the goal may have been more to create chilling effects for other journalists. And, on that front, I’m with Adrian Chen. I think he did a fantastic piece of reporting (actual journalism, yay) and should not be punished for doing so. I tend to think it makes the mods who decided to do the ban look childish and, if not directly hypocritical, very much open to charges of hypocrisy.
That said, the situation is not so simple. This is not the same thing as Facebook banning links — because that’s a company’s decision that impacts its users. Reddit, on the other hand, has always been driven by its users with the mods having significant power over each subreddit they control. If they want to make a decision like banning every Gawker site — no matter how stupid and counterproductive such a decision might be — they have the right to do so. In some ways, the “Facebook analogy” would be more proper if the person had said that any individual had the power to block links on their own wall. Which they do — and which no one complains about.
The different subreddits are playgrounds controlled by those mods, not by “Reddit” itself. Sometimes amazing things come out of there, and sometimes absolute crap comes out of there. This is the nature of the internet, and shutting down something or silencing one’s speech doesn’t change any of that. It just reshuffles the deck.
I believe quite strongly in the importance of anonymity online — but that’s mainly to the extent that the government should not be able to force anonymous speech to be connected to the speaker, except in extreme circumstances. That, however, is entirely different than an enterprising reporter discovering the details that connect someone’s account to their name. The accusations by various Reddit moderators that this is somehow an unfair “doxxing” seems like an extreme overreaction. Chen put together information and reported on it. That’s journalism.
But, at the same time, I think it’s unfair to blame Reddit itself or its management for the (admittedly dumb) decision to block links to Gawker. Reddit is very much about what it’s community decides it wants to do, and with that comes some good and bad decisions. I can (and will) criticize what I think is a bad decision by the moderators who did this, but that doesn’t mean a condemning of Reddit as a whole, any more than criticizing someone who blocks others from posting to his Facebook wall or Google Groups or personal blog, automatically implicates those platform providers.
Free speech does not mean you are free from the consequences of your speech. And, in the end result, this whole situation encapsulates the power of “more speech” being the best answer to “bad speech.” A giant conversation has been started and (almost) none of it has involved getting the law involved to step in and decide who is bad and who is good. Instead, in occasionally messy ways, the community is working out its own norms, and that’s fascinating to watch.