The Internet can be a scary place. It gives users the ability to connect effortlessly and anonymously to one another across vast physical distances. As Thomas Friedman said: The world is flat.
While the benefits of bringing together diverse and far-flung people of widely varying interests are obvious, there are some very real and tangible downsides to allowing users unfettered access to one another, wrapped in the warm, snug blanket of anonymity the Internet can provide.
Reddit.com is arguably a microcosm of the Internet, itself. According to the website, Reddit had more than 42 million unique visitors to its content-aggregating site in September. There is much good that comes from gathering people together in such enormous numbers — Reddit’s Secret Santa program, for instance, is the largest in the world with more than 17,000 participants — but it is inevitable and a fact of the human condition that such an enormous and anonymous conglomeration of people will magnify humanity’s worst impulses, too.
Three weeks ago, nobody on the national stage knew who Michael Brutsch was. He was a polite, nondescript application developer for First Cash Financial Services in Arlington. He went about his job quietly, and no one complained of any improprieties or misbehavior. He was just another quiet face in the crowd, doing his job, chatting idly with co-workers and going home to his family at night.
Brutsch’s Reddit alter ego, Violentacrez, was a different matter altogether. Posting anonymously, Brutsch drew the attention of Anderson Cooper, who devoted a portion of his CNN show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” to condemning one of Brutsch’s creations — a forum on Reddit, commonly referred to as a subreddit, called r/jailbait, that acted as a repository for suggestive photographs of underage girls.
As Violentacrez, Brutsch was an incredibly influential and prolific user and moderator. He was also responsible for the subreddit r/beatingwomen, which is unfortunately exactly what it sounds like. For Brutsch, it all started to unravel as the result of r/creepshots, which promoted and displayed compromising photographs of young girls taken without their knowledge or consent.
One notable contributor was a Georgia substitute teacher, who was identified and subsequently fired after students in the suggestive photos he contributed were recognized and the photos were traced back to him.
Given the amount of attention being paid nationally to the Violentacrez subreddits and their content, it was only a matter of time before Brutsch’s identity became known, though this was apparently lost on him, and he continued to act as though his anonymity was inviolable and absolute.
The bitter end came when Gawker.com writer Adrien Chen identified Brutsch in early October. Brutsch was fired from his job once his extracurricular activities became known, leaving him and his family with no health insurance. His wife is disabled and hasn’t been able to work in more than a year.
This outing sparked an enormous amount of debate and rhetoric about the right to privacy and anonymity on the Internet. While Brutsch is nominally apologetic about his online activities, he also maintains that his privacy was violated and that Chen wronged him.
Brutsch is by no means on the fringe here. There has been an overwhelming wave of free speech-themed defense of Brutsch’s anonymity, and there is no shortage of people outraged about the perceived violation of a sacred right.
But the world is flat, and that goes both ways. With the amazing and world-altering speed and effectiveness of the Internet in connecting its users, also comes the easy identification of a contributor. Chen didn’t do anything difficult, brave or laudable. He did a little research, took the story and ran with it. He’s not Woodward and Bernstein by any stretch.
Everyone comes out of this story looking worse for it. Brutsch is a sad, unsympathetic character who encouraged and promoted some of the most reprehensible content anywhere on the Internet, and Chen is a sensationalist, yellow journalist who was hardly out for the greater good so much as web hits — precisely the same motivating factor for Brutsch as Violentacrez.
There is no real catharsis. There are bad people everywhere, and they will use all the wondrous and powerful tools decent people use with all the same effectiveness and power. Outing Brutsch may have curbed his activities, but it isn’t a solution.
There really isn’t a solution. Humanity’s darker nature is not going away. The only honorable response is to monitor content they consume and tacitly support or aggressively disapprove of content that violates the rights of others, acknowledging that the good fight will never be definitively won but continuing to fight it nonetheless.