‘Supertroll’ unmasked in internet showdown

The internet can be a realm of unaccountable, anonymous actions, with no consequences for bullies. This week one man’s real identity was exposed. Can online culture change?

Reddit is one of the most powerful places online. Run almost entirely by 42 million monthly users, it hosts an overwhelming amount of content on every conceivable subject, and is a haven of free speech, where anyone can say anything in total anonymity.

But the ‘front page of the internet’ has a seedy underbelly. Its 100,000 forums, called subreddits, cater for all – including those with a taste for the cruel, violent and misogynistic. Many of the site’s vilest threads are populated by trolls, who anonymously post offensive material designed to provoke outrage.

Of all the trolls, Violentacrez was among Reddit’s most outrageous. His disturbing posts – from images of battered women to anti-Semitic threads – made him an internet celebrity. His latest project was ‘Creepshots’: voyeuristic photographs of women, taken secretly and posted with degrading captions.

But on Friday, Adrian Chen, a journalist at internet magazine Gawker, tracked down the real-life identity of Violentacrez and exposed him. Reddit’s most notorious troll is Michael Brutsch: a 49-year-old IT worker, military father and cat-lover, who lives with his wife and children in Texas.

When Chen made contact, Brutsch begged him to keep his identity secret. He predicted (correctly) that if outed he would lose his job and become unable to support his disabled wife. But he also had more ideological reasons for objecting.

Anonymity is one of Reddit’s most essential principles: with their identity protected, users say, people are able to discuss important, taboo topics that would be untouchable in real life. Today, thousands of Reddit users have rallied behind Brutsch, and blocked Gawker from the site.

This is not the first time online anonymity has come under fire on Reddit. This year, concerned members created a blog called Predditors, where they expose the real-life identity of men who post intrusive pictures. And this week, hacker collective Anonymous released a video exposing the name and address of the man they think bullied Amanda Todd – the schoolgirl driven to suicide by online tormentors.

Under the bridge

Some are concerned at this exposure. The anonymity of sites like Reddit, they say, grants a freedom of debate that, in the real world, would never be allowed. Offensive and distasteful content are the price we must pay for freewheeling, fearless discussion that only these sites can provide.

But in reality, others say, that isn’t the case. The internet is not isolated from real life, and the things people do online have consequences in the real world. Sitting in front of a screen does not mean the rules of accountability, and of civil society, do not apply.

You Decide

  1. Is Reddit an important hub for free speech, or a sinister haven for time-wasters?
  2. Should people be able to stay anonymous online – no matter what they post?

Activities

  1. Make a cartoon of an internet troll, complete with labels about their character and activities.
  2. Create a guide to staying safe online, with tips on avoiding and coping with cyber bullying.

Some People Say...

“The internet is a lawless wasteland.”

What do you think?

Q & A

These guys are gross. I won’t post anything like that.
Maybe not. But internet anonymity allows people to behave in ways they never would in real life – without being punished. And for those who find themselves on the wrong end of that behaviour, that can be upsetting, and even frightening.
What do you mean?
Online bullying is a real problem. Using an online persona as a cover, people can send abusive emails, post insults or offensive pictures on Facebook, or even pretend to be someone without their permission.
What can I do about it?
Keep a copy of any emails, Facebook posts or tweets that you are sent. You can delete your Facebook profile, or make it inactive, or block people who have been harassing you. The most important thing, too, is to tell people what you are going through.

Word Watch

Front page of the internet
Reddit calls itself the ‘front page of the internet’ because it acts as a portal to virtually every (legal) meme, subculture and news item that surfaces on the web. Users – anyone who registers a free username – post links to these items, and other ‘Redditors’ can ‘upvote’ them – the equivalent of a Facebook ‘Like’. Posts with the most upvotes get transferred to the front page of Reddit, where they can be seen by millions of people.
Violentacrez
Pronounced ‘violent acres’, this was Michael Brutsch’s username on Reddit. He was so proud of his online alter-ego that he commissioned an illustrator to create a special avatar of it: a feral, zombie-type version of Reddit’s usual robot logo.
Adrian Chen
As Gawker’s reporter on 4Chan and Reddit, Chen has not shied away from controversy. Last year, he posed as a man dying from cancer on Reddit, ostensibly to expose sexism on the site – when he came clean, Redditors were furious. Chen once angered hacking group Anonymous so much that they refused to give any media interviews until he was pictured, on Gawker’s front page, wearing a tutu. He obliged.
Anonymous
Anonymous is an international ‘hacktivist’ – or online, hacker activist group – that originated out of 4Chan, an ‘imageboard’ website where users can comment and post. Anonymous are fiercely opposed to internet censorship of all kinds, and have supported Wikileaks – although last week they withdrew their support for the organisation. Members can be recognised by the Guy Fawkes masks they wear at protests and in broadcasts.
Amanda Todd
Todd was a Canadian teenager, who was the victim of a campaign of blackmail and bullying after topless pictures of her were circulated online. Teasing and abuse continually resurfaced through online, anonymous campaigns, although Todd moved schools several times. Before killing herself she posted a video to YouTube, in which she displayed cards detailing her experiences with bullying.

Subjects

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