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Gawker, Reddit's Violentacrez and the internet vigilantes

When it comes to the internet, getting justice can be tricky — but taking matters into your own hands to mete out punishment should never be the answer.

When we use the internet under a pseudonym, we expect a certain level of privacy and protection. Some have a very valid and scary reason for doing so: the ability to interact online without alerting stalkers, for example.

(Cave troll as corporate bully image by Kevin Dooley, CC BY 2.0)

Others prefer a veil of anonymity to divorce a certain level of accountability from their offline lives, and there is a theory that this anonymity leads people to behave in ways that violate the social contracts that allow us to exist in harmony face to face. Although enforced real-name use online doesn't necessarily work for moderating extreme viewpoints, when someone has their online anonymity stripped away, the consequences can be severe.

Over the last few weeks, a Reddit storm has been building.

Actually, it started about a year ago, when news outlets got wind of the "jailbait" subreddit. For those who are unfamiliar with how the site works, it's divided into sub-groups (called subreddits) based on different topics. It's all user created and user run. Any user can create a subreddit; any user can ask to be added as a moderator.

As you might expect, there are subreddits for every area of interest, since Reddit is now one of the biggest websites on the internet, clocking up millions of page impressions daily. And it can get nasty. The aforementioned jailbait subreddit, which has since been banned by the admins, was for sharing sexualised pictures of minors.

The ban came about after Anderson Cooper got wind of the subreddit. Then it came to light that people were using it as a place to privately share illegal material. It makes sense to kill it, right? But considering how hands-off the admins usually are, it caused massive controversy, with users claiming that the site was trying to stifle free speech.

Then last week, two things happened. The first was the removal of another subreddit: creepshots, a place where users could post pictures taken of unsuspecting women. These included a substitute teacher taking pictures of his students and uploading them with sexualising captions, which brought media attention and widespread public approbation.

The second thing that happened was that a power user going by the handle Violentacrez deleted his account. The link between the two? He moderated both of the banned forums (not by himself, of course) and around 400 others, including picsofdeadkids, beatingwomen, rapingwomen, picsofdeadjailbait, chokeabitch, hitler, rapebait and a large number of pornography subreddits. Yet he was massively popular on the site — known as a perverted porn king, but described as a "perfect gentleman" and a really nice guy.

Why? Adrien Chen, a writer for Gawker, was asking around for information on who he is. Chen found out his real name, called him up for an interview and told him that he was going to run a story with his real name and picture.

Some call this investigative journalism about a person of interest. Reddit called it doxxing, and, when Chen's article went live, issued a site-wide ban of the URL (the ban has since been lifted).

Nothing Violentacrez did himself can be deemed illegal. He moderated some morally repugnant spaces; but, according to him, he was often mostly there to keep things in line. He said of Chen's article, "Creepshots was not 'my project'. After it was targeted by SRS [S*** Reddit Says, a subreddit that calls attention to the awful things that people say on Reddit], I was asked to join as a moderator for one reason: to make sure that the things posted there remained both legal and within Reddit's rules, and to respond quickly to requests for removal. I didn't create it, and I didn't post there."

He also claimed that subreddits such as "rapingwomen" were set up to test the site's commitment to free speech — but whatever his motives, he was enabling and creating spaces for some abhorrent material. "I just like riling people up in my spare time," is what he told Chen.

Since he was outed by Chen, the internet has been crowing that he deserves everything he got. Violentacrez, Chen wrote, is a 49-year-old military man with a teenage son, a disabled wife and a love of cats. Since Chen's article went live, Violentacrez lost his job and insurance, which means that his wife no longer has health insurance (a big deal in the US), and he and his family have been receiving death threats.

While I agree that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, I do not agree that vigilantism and internet hate mobs are the answer to abhorrent behaviour. And at the end of the day, this is all that has been achieved. Violentacrez has not stopped using Reddit, and probably never will. He told Chen that he does not regret any of his actions. The spaces he moderated still exist, with many still promoting the same content. Chen's profile could have been just as effective, and brought just as much attention to the seedy underbelly of Reddit, without naming Violentacrez. So only one man out of hundreds of thousands who use and visit those spaces has lost his unrelated job, and is being harassed and bullied.

Those in favour of the article defend it by saying that Violentacrez's actions were harassing and bullying also, but so what? How does harassing and bullying him in return make anything right? "He started it!" is no excuse for children; why is it being treated as an appropriate response for adults? People who had never heard of Violentacrez until this week are baying for his blood, but attempting to destroy the man — or delighting in his destruction — is nothing more than malicious gloating. And make no mistake — this isn't about justice or change, but about hate.

To be clear: the content that Violentacrez was condoning, enabling and contributing to was vile. I do not, in any way, support his actions. But disagreeing with his actions shouldn't have to mean buying into a raging hate mob.

If the response was about change, the best course of action would be to address it from an administrative level. Creating and enforcing anti-hate speech guidelines on Reddit, for example. That won't happen, because the site prides itself on its commitment to freedom of expression, so long as the material being shared stays within legal limits. But whether Violentacrez himself deserves to be punished is a very dangerous decision to leave in the hands of internet mobs, with their pitchforks and righteous fury (take, for example, Anonymous' doxxing of the man they claim blackmailed Amanda Todd — with the wrong address) — especially since they seem to be blaming him for creepshots, a subreddit with which he had little to no interaction until about two weeks ago.

Sharing unsavoury content on the internet is your right (illegal content not included). It is absolutely the right of others to call out that behaviour. Violentacrez even knew there would be consequences if Chen outed him. But it's not up to the populace to decide whether a person's actions are illegal, and punish them when they decide that the legal system is lacking. Take, for example, the death threats against Violentacrez and his family. While Violentacrez's subreddits skirted the borders of legality, death threats are not legal — which means that the response could be seen as being disproportionate to the offence.

Chen had every right to post the information he had; his article is a fascinating read. But answering bile with bile will only lead to further conflict. I'm not asking that anyone try to understand the man, but if you want others to show empathy and kindness, to think of others as human beings rather than objects to be exploited, you can't treat them as anything less than human themselves. To do otherwise is hypocrisy at best, and only serves to perpetuate an online culture of hatred, mistrust and anger.