Unmasking One Of The Internet's Biggest 'Trolls'
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now a story about the intersection of privacy and decency. It involves the social media site Reddit, a star-maker on the Internet. Ideas bubble up from its anonymous contributors and often take off across the Web, into blogs, Twitter, even the mainstream media. Reddit calls itself The Front Page of the Internet.
But Reddit also has dark corners - racist rants, threads devoted to sexual violence against women, photographs of unsuspecting people taken by voyeurs. And now, a big pusher of offensive content, a man who went by the handle Violentacrez, has been unmasked.
Adrian Chen did the unmasking. He's a reporter for the website Gawker, and he told the world last week that Violentacrez is really a Texas programmer named Michael Brutsch.
Adrian Chen joins me now from New York. Adrian, welcome to the program.
ADRIAN CHEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: You call Michael Brutsch the biggest troll on the Web. Why don't you help us understand what a troll is.
CHEN: Well, a troll is somebody who tries to get the biggest reaction from people on the Internet by being as outrageous and offensive as possible.
BLOCK: OK. And when you say the content is as offensive as possible, Brutsch was the creator of a number of sections - as you put it, he issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny and incest. So let's talk about one section he created, which is a photo site called "Jailbait." What was it?
CHEN: Jailbait was a section dedicated to pictures of mostly scantily clad underage girls. And a lot of them were taken from their social media profiles - like Facebook or, you know, Flickr accounts - and then put in front people who were basically sexually attracted to underage girls.
BLOCK: And we're not going to go into some of the other sections because they're extremely offensive, but was any of the content that Brutsch was responsible for putting up there illegal?
CHEN: No, not that I can tell. And he swears that he would take down anything that was illegal on any of the sections that he moderated.
BLOCK: And just to be clear about Michael Brutsch, he was posting this content, but he also had more of a role within Reddit itself, right? He was some sort of volunteer administrator. How would you describe what he did there?
CHEN: Well, Reddit is run by a handful of paid employees, but their real power comes from thousands - 20,000, about - community moderators who are volunteers. And he was one of those moderators in charge of filtering out spam, acting as kind of an editor of these other sections. And he was one of the most powerful because he'd been around for a long time and he moderated 400, about, subsections that were among the most popular.
BLOCK: When you figured out the identity of Violentacrez and were talking to Michael Brutsch and letting him know you were going to out him, you were going to unmask him, what was his reaction?
CHEN: He was actually surprisingly calm on the phone when I called him. He kind of begged me not to publish his name. He said he would get fired, that he had a disabled wife who would lose her health insurance. And he also owned up to everything. He said, I stand by exactly what I've done and just please don't tell people my name.
BLOCK: There is an irony to somebody who violates privacy in everything he posts begging for privacy, essentially.
CHEN: Yeah. I mean, I actually really do value anonymity on the Internet, but I feel like it's not a universal good or a right and it's something that we should really value to the extent that it helps less powerful people protect themselves from powerful people and say things that powerful people might not like. And Michael Brutsch was actually using his anonymity to take advantage of vulnerable people, of the women and the unsuspecting girls that he posted.
And I don't think that that's a legitimate rationale for anonymity and so I felt okay with taking that away.
BLOCK: Well, you published Michael Brutsch's identity less than a week ago. Since then, it's been reported that he's been fired from his real-life job at a payday lender. What other fallout has there been from this?
CHEN: Well, he has taken to Reddit to try to get a new job, actually. He's been advertising himself as a programmer for adult websites. Reddit's CEO has been pretty quiet, but the other day, he posted to a private forum for moderators and staff of Reddit saying that Reddit stands by free speech, that they won't delete any offensive material and he spoke out against a ban that a lot of the moderators had implemented on Gawker links in retaliation for me publishing this article.
BLOCK: And what about all those sections on Reddit that Violentacrez was moderating?
CHEN: Well, a lot of them have been shut down, either since he went away or even before that. Jailbait, which was his most famous one, was shut down after Anderson Cooper covered it on CNN and there was a lot of outcry. Creepshots was another one that was dedicated to posting voyeuristic snapshots of women and that had been shut down, although there are other clones springing up.
Reddit said that they won't shut down that kind of content.
BLOCK: Adrian Chen is a staff writer at the website Gawker. Adrian, thanks very much.
CHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.