Michael Brutsch, ViolentAcrez, and Online Pseudonyms

Lindsay Beyerstein

Last week, Adri­an Chen of Gawk­er exposed Vio­len­tacrez, Red­dit’s top troll, and there was much rejoic­ing. The troll turned out to be one Michael Brustch a pro­gram­mer for a com­pa­ny spe­cial­iz­ing in pawn shops and pay­day loans. Appar­ent­ly, Brutsch’s employ­er decid­ed he was too exploita­tive even for a debt peon­age oper­a­tion and sum­mar­i­ly fired him. If you read Chen’s piece, you’ll see why. He was tru­ly the King of the Trolls with an audi­ence of millions.

Emi­ly Bazelon of Slate feels sor­ry for Brutsch, even though she sup­ports his out­ing. She’s a more com­pas­sion­ate per­son than I am. She sees his fir­ing as evi­dence of a mob men­tal­i­ty. I see it dif­fer­ent­ly. Brutsch’s boss­es fired him because they did­n’t want the inter­net’s lead­ing pur­vey­or of creepshots on their pay­roll. It was a sim­ple mat­ter of accountability.

No soon­er had Brutsch been out­ed than fan­boys start­ed bleat­ing about how it was unfair to expose him because what he was doing was per­fect­ly legal. Which it large­ly was. The law, as they say, is a blunt instru­ment. It’s easy to for­get because it’s so per­va­sive, but most anti­so­cial behav­ior is held in check by social, rather than legal sanc­tions. Jerks don’t get asked back. Liars and promise-break­ers are shunned. The tact­less get dirty looks. The indis­creet get elbowed.

In prac­tice, our legal free­dom to speak our minds is con­strained by our account­abil­i­ty to the peo­ple around us. They know who we are, they know where we live, they will kick us under the table when we get out of line. In real life, we only have one body con­nect­ed to one name, and we’ve got to weigh the sat­is­fac­tion of speak­ing our minds against the long term effects on our rep­u­ta­tions and relationships.

This is a pret­ty ele­gant sys­tem, albeit an imper­fect one. It puts the soci­ety” in free soci­ety.” In real life, we have the legal right to say pret­ty much what­ev­er we want, but we are enmeshed in a net­work of social checks and bal­ances that keep us account­able for our speech. Nobody can force us to shut up, but lots of peo­ple can make their dis­plea­sure known to us. It’s a good bal­ance that allows peo­ple to share ideas freely with­out rend­ing the fab­ric of the community.

Pseu­do­nymi­ty is great because it allows peo­ple to speak with­out the usu­al con­straints, but it can also be ter­ri­ble for the same rea­son. As Vio­len­tAcrez, Michael Brutsch opt­ed out of all social con­trols on his speech and ran amok. He could say things he would nev­er have said under his real name because they’re right­ly regard­ed as hor­ri­fy­ing. Until recent­ly, he did­n’t have to live as that Hitler/​Misogyny/​Creepshot Guy (all sub­red­dits he start­ed). He did­n’t have to endure his neigh­bors cross­ing the street to avoid him.

As Vio­len­tAcrez, Brustch could brush off com­plaints and crit­i­cism as long as he kept his online and offline rep­u­ta­tions sep­a­rate. He gen­er­at­ed plen­ty of crit­i­cism on Red­dit. His con­tri­bu­tions made it to the front page as often as they did because so many users rushed to denounce him. But the com­mu­ni­ty was pow­er­less to make him stop.

As long as Brutsch remained pseu­do­ny­mous, Red­dit could opt out of respon­si­bil­i­ty, too. Even though he was an unpaid func­tionary of the site, they could still act as if they weren’t respon­si­ble for his behav­ior. They could main­tain the fic­tion that he was just some guy on the inter­net. Who knew? Who cared? Once Chen put a name to the pseud, Brutsch’s cozy rela­tion­ships with the top brass at Red­dit came into focus.

Online pseu­do­nymi­ty is large­ly a social cour­tesy. We all agree not to reveal the pseu­do­nyms of the peo­ple we meet online, even though we prob­a­bly could. A pseud is like show­ing up at your local with a paper bag over your head and insist­ing that nobody knows you. In fact, they know per­fect­ly well, or they could eas­i­ly find out; and either peo­ple play along, or they don’t. The dif­fer­ence between a bar and the inter­net is that the inter­net has devel­oped a social norm against out­ing. That’s a good thing.

Respect for pseu­do­nymi­ty is impor­tant. Cour­te­sies are the lubri­ca­tion that make social inter­ac­tion pos­si­ble. With­out this norm, many impor­tant voic­es would be lost. Peo­ple would be afraid to share their polit­i­cal opin­ions and per­son­al expe­ri­ences. So, those of us who care about a thriv­ing online com­mu­ni­ty have every rea­son to take this norm seri­ous­ly and insist that oth­ers around us do likewise.

We should shun peo­ple who friv­o­lous­ly or mali­cious­ly reveal the iden­ti­ties of oth­ers. We should ostra­cize those who out oth­ers to set­tle per­son­al scores or silence dis­sent­ing views. It’s cru­el, it’s destruc­tive, and it’s wrong.

How­ev­er, some­times it’s nec­es­sary to out a bad actor in order to stop him from hurt­ing oth­er peo­ple. Michael Brutsch was doing just that and there was absolute­ly no oth­er way to make him stop.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the creepshots for which Brutsch is infa­mous are among the less objec­tion­able mate­ri­als he dis­sem­i­nat­ed. At least creepshots snapped by creeps in pub­lic are tech­ni­cal­ly legal, though moral­ly rep­rehn­si­ble. Until Red­dit reluc­tant­ly shut down the Jail­bait sub­red­dit, Brutsch was also traf­fick­ing in the stolen face­book pic­tures of chil­dren and broad­cast­ing them to a poten­tial audi­ence of hun­dreds of hun­dreds of thousands. 

Brutsch’s audi­ence was so large that some of his creepshot and jail­bait vic­tims were bound to be rec­og­nized by peo­ple they knew. Some fan­boys have argued that creepshots are a vic­tim­less crime because the tar­gets often don’t real­ize that they’ve been creepshot. But we’ll nev­er know how many women have faced ridicule or even vio­lence after being rec­og­nized in a creepshot or a jail­bait pic. We’ll nev­er know how many women have been fired from their jobs, or not hired because of some­thing Brutsch posted.

As a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and a civ­il lib­er­tar­i­an, I feel strong­ly that pub­lic creepshots should remain legal. I don’t see how we can leg­is­late against them in a way that pre­serves a pho­tog­ra­pher’s right to take pic­tures in pub­lic. But creepshots are not vic­tim­less. In addi­tion to the harm to indi­vid­u­als, the trend impinges on every wom­an’s free­dom because you nev­er know who might be lurk­ing with a cell phone cam­era on your sub­way car. That’s why we need strong social con­trols to dis­cour­age this pro­found­ly anti­so­cial behavior.

Mores have to keep pace with tech­nol­o­gy. In this age of tiny cam­eras and inter­net con­nec­tions, we need an iron­clad norm that You Do Not Creepshoot. We have to enforce this norm through our free speech rights, because the law is not an appro­pri­ate tool for this job. The norm should be that if you dis­re­gard wom­en’s dig­ni­ty and pri­va­cy by post­ing creepshots, we’ll dis­re­gard your pseudonymity.

Even if creepshots are legal, unmask­ing Brutsch opens the door to oth­er legal recourse. On top of every­thing else, he was fla­grant­ly vio­lat­ing copy­right by repost­ing pho­tos stolen from face­book. Now that he’s unmasked, I hope he gets sued by some of his vic­tims. Unmask­ing him was nec­es­sary for his vic­tims to seek jus­tice. As iso­lat­ed teenage girls, they were unlike­ly to fig­ure out who had stolen their pic­tures on their own, but Adri­an Chen has giv­en them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fight back. Brustch was­n’t mak­ing mon­ey but Red­dit is osten­si­bly a for-prof­it com­pa­ny. As Chen explains Brutsch was build­ing traf­fic for Red­dit while legal­ly insu­lat­ing the high­er ups by culling obvi­ous child porn from the site’s NSFW zones. They even made him a pimp hat” badge to mark his spe­cial sta­tus on the site. At least Red­dit has deep­er pock­ets than a recent­ly unem­ployed pro­gram­mer for pawn shops.*

When some­one is abus­ing pseu­do­nymi­ty to mate­ri­al­ly hurt oth­er peo­ple, and there’s no oth­er way to make them stop, out­ing” may be an appro­pri­ate last resort. In extreme cir­cum­stances, we rescind the usu­al social cour­tesy of ignor­ing the per­son­’s iden­ti­ty. Vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ties are real com­mu­ni­ties, too. On the inter­net, we need a net­work of social checks and bal­ances akin to the one we enjoy in the real world.

A lot of peo­ple are uncom­fort­able with this idea because they fear that the prin­ci­ple will be abused to out inno­cent peo­ple. No doubt that’s true. But unless you want to argue that nobody should ever be out­ed for any rea­son, you’re faced with the dif­fi­cult task of artic­u­lat­ing when it’s appro­pri­ate to lift the veil. That’s the nature of infor­mal social con­trols, they get applied by reg­u­lar peo­ple, with vary­ing degrees of fair­ness and accu­ra­cy. Peo­ple need to under­stand the nature of online pseu­do­nymi­ty and decide whether they want to put them­selves out there.

Pseu­do­nymi­ty is an impor­tant cour­tesy that we extend to each oth­er, not a moral or legal right. When we speak in real life, we weigh the val­ue of express­ing our­selves against the poten­tial con­se­quences. Pseu­do­ny­mous writ­ers have to make the same cal­cu­lus. They’ve insu­lat­ed them­selves from crit­i­cism and social stig­ma, but they haven’t cre­at­ed an arti­fi­cial con­se­quence-free speech zone around them­selves just by using a pseud.

*Update: A some­times pseu­do­ny­mous lawyer friend tells me that the grounds for a law­suit for copy­right infringe­ment via Face­book are a lot weak­er than I thought, thanks to some dodgy lan­guage in Face­book’s terms of ser­vice, but zie adds that there might be oth­er grounds for a law­suit, such as defama­tion or inva­sion of pri­va­cy. My friend is more opti­mistic about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of crim­i­nal charges against the creepshoot­ers who crouch to peer under skirts, because many juris­dic­tions have laws against the peep­ing itself. What­ev­er legal avenues the vic­tims may have at their dis­pos­al, they can’t even get start­ed until they know who the perp is and what state he lives in. That’s one rea­son why it was nec­es­sary to expose Brustch by name instead of sim­ply report­ing on his bad deeds.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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