‘Cultural Scavengers’: Violentacrez, Reddit, And Trolls

By Guest Contributor Tope Fadiran Charlton, originally published at Are Women Human?

Trigger warning: sexual violence and rape culture, racism, misogyny, online harassment, suicide.

Everyone is buzzing about Adrian Chen’s article for Gawker unmasking the identity of Michael Brutsch, better known as Violentacrez, a superuser who contributed to and moderated several of the creepiest, racist, and misogynist forums on Reddit. With reason: it’s a well-written and impressive piece of investigative journalism, and does important work unmasking someone who’s done a huge amount of harm–and the broader user and company culture at Reddit that allowed him to get away with it for so long.

That said, I have some reservations about the piece and how it’s been received. While the behavior of Brutsch and other Redditors is particularly disgusting, it’s worth noting Chen writes for an outlet that’s far from innocent when it comes to racism and misogyny (for starters).

For example: In a piece Chen wrote last year about the”Jailbait” section of Reddit, Gawker included the very images of a 14-year-old girl (stolen from her hacked Photobucket account) that Chen rightly criticized Redditors as “pervs” for posting. Is disseminating these images, without any real journalistic rationale for them, somehow better or more justified when a media outlet does it?

This isn’t an exception with Gawker and other Gawker Media properties. This is the same outlet that gave Cord Jefferson the greenlight to write an article that sexualized the rape of a 7-year-old girl and was extremely insensitive and harmful to survivors of sexual violence. Earlier this year, Jezebel posted screenshots and detailed descriptions of a Libyan woman being raped. They refused take the images down in response to backlash, on the grounds that it would be impossible for them to report the story without those images:

Jezebel, noticing the backlash, further pixelated the photos, including the faces, and updated the post with an editor’s comment:

“This post is ultimately about the existence of a video, thus the images ARE the story — without them, there’s nothing. To remove them would be, in effect, to un-report the story. Which is not going to happen.” (The Daily Dot)

The reporting on Brutsch’s actions and identity is welcome. But I can’t help but note that Gawker Media profits from the very culture Chen calls out of viewing girls and women’s bodies as public property to be exploited. Of course, Gawker is hardly alone in this respect.

So, I was really glad to see a fantastic article by Whitney Phillips, a scholar whose dissertation was on internet trolling culture, unpacking how Violentacrez’s behavior has implications beyond the harm he’s done individually. She points out that 1) troll culture is built on the assumptions of white male privilege, 2) individual trolls like Violentacrez are supported by a “host culture” whose values they reflect–in VA’s case, he was wholeheartedly embraced by fellow Redditors and tolerated by the highest levels of Reddit staff, and 3) there’s not that much difference between VA’s racist and misogynist trolling and the sensationalism of “corporate media culture.”

The money quote in Phillip’s piece:

 Trolls are cultural scavengers, and engage in a process I describe as cultural digestion: They take in, regurgitate, and subsequently weaponize existing tropes and cultural sensitivities. By examining the recurring targets of trolling, it is therefore possible to reverse-engineer the dominant landscape.

Consider trolls’ deeply contentious but ultimately homologous relationship with sensationalist corporate media. For example, when trolls court emotional distress in the wake of a tragedy by posting upsetting messages to Facebook memorial pages and generally being antagonistic towards so-called “grief tourists,” they are swiftly condemned — and understandably so. But when corporate media outlets splash the most sensationalist, upsetting headlines or images across their front page, press the friends and families of suicide victims to relive the trauma of having their loved one’s RIP page attacked by trolls (and in the case of this MSNBC segment, by forcing them to read the hateful messages on camera), or pour over every possible detail about bullied teenage suicides, despite the risks of “copycat suicide,” the only objectively measurable media effect, and in so doing slap a dollar sign on personal tragedy, it’s just business as usualIn both cases, audience distress is courted and exploited for profit. Granted, trolls’ “profit” is measured in lulz, not dollars. Still, the respective processes by which these profits are achieved are strikingly similar, and in many cases — which I chronicled throughout my dissertation — indistinguishable.

I am not arguing that members of the media are trolls, at least not in the subcultural sense. I am however suggesting that trolls and sensationalist corporate media have more in common than the latter would care to admit, and that by engaging in a grotesque pantomime of these best corporate practices, trolls call attention to how the sensationalist sausage is made. This certainly doesn’t give trolls a free pass, but it does serve as a reminder that ultimately, trolls are symptomatic of much larger problems. Decrying trolls without at least considering the ways in which they are embedded within and directly replicate existing systems is therefore tantamount to taking a swing at an object’s reflection and hanging a velvet rope around the object itself. [Emphases mine]

What this means is–to quote Susan Werner (@pyroshy)–if our response to Chen’s exposé is to focus solely on Michael Brutsch, “we’re letting all the systems that enable him off the hook,” and losing sight of the broader culture of complicity in attitudes that lead to extreme cases like Violentacrez/Reddit’s creep culture. In fact, I’d argue that the real story in Chen’s piece is not so much the disclosure of Violentacrez’ identity as it is the culture at Reddit that enabled him–and the parallels to how our culture as a whole produces and consumes sexualized and exploitative images of girls and women.

A related concern is how many commentators seem to consistently confuse the disclosure of Violentacrez’s identity with actual accountability for his harmful behavior (again, thanks to Susan Werner/@pyroshy for elaborating the issues here). Precisely because Brutsch’s actions are part of a broader culture of exploitation, outing him as an individual is not the same thing as addressing misogyny and racism in online media/culture.

violentacrez’s behavior isn’t acontextual. It’s enabled by society’s woman-hating/rape culture and anti-black racism. ain’t there something odd about outing him TO THAT SAME SOCIETY THAT ENABLES HIM…to generate accountability?…I think outing violentacrez was the right thing to do and would have done it too! I, however, have issues w/ outing-as-accountability… just because certain forms of abuse are more demonized DOES NOT MEAN victims of it get more or more useful support…

outing creeps and abusers and predators is a tool. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. let’s talk about when it works and when it doesn’t, and talk about *how* it works, rather than being self-congratulatory that violentacrez was outed as being a racist woman-hater. – Susan Werner (@pyroshy)

It’s not even necessarily accountability for Brutsch as an individual; yes, he’s now lost his job, but there’s still a horde of Redditors and other free-speech fetishists prepared to support him not only with their words, but also with their money. Brutsch’s reputation is damaged, but there’s nothing to stop him from continuing with his behavior (which he still believes is perfectly justified). I suspect both he and Reddit will emerge from this largely unscathed.

I want to be quite clear that I have no objection whatsoever to Chen’s piece. If Michael Brutsch didn’t want people to associate him with harassment and violence, he shouldn’t have engaged in such behavior.

But unmasking Violentacrez is a first, not a final, step. The profile of his behavior and the culture that supported him is much more than an occasion to castigate him; it’s an opportunity to turn the mirror on ourselves and our media culture. If we neglect that opportunity and are merely satisfied that a creep was uncloaked, the only benefitted parties here would be Gawker and Adrian Chen, who have another viral piece on their hands and come out looking like heroes despite their own participation in the culture they’re calling out.

This would be a shame – but it’s also precisely what I expect will be the overall outcome of all this.

The bottom line, I guess, is it would be a mistake to treat this as a story where Redditors are the “bad guys” and everyone else is blameless and good. I say this a lot, because it seems to frequently need saying; we have to look at these issues at a cultural and systemic level if we ever hope to address them substantively.

Philips’ piece on trolling culture and its connections to broader cultural values is long but well worth reading. Some other thoughtful pieces (+ excerpts) addressing the cultural context for Violentacrez’ behavior and responses to it/Chen’s profile:

  • Blackamazon writes about the connections between doxxing (connecting someone’s online persona[e] to their offline identity), internet mobility, and online cultural capital for people of color and other marginalized groups. That is, the negotiations PoC and other marginalized people have to make between the need for safety and privacy, and the credit, compensation, and ability to challenge dominant narratives that come with having an established and/or “real” identity online:

    The hyper visibility of being a POC in a culture where visibility is becoming more and more everything can be flipped to opportunities BUT once you use that , you’re left open to those consequences.BUT

    staying “safe” often compromises your creativity and credit, especially if unlike most of the folks running around you deal with employment that does not allow for cultivation in a studied direct war or lots of downtime.

    The internet isn’t outside of our cultural norms and where it is is where we are seeing these great fissures. Access and secrecy have always worked in our society.

    The issue was who got to use tools in what way. People like violentacrez and spaces like creepshots have always existed , but they have been coupled with a culture that through racism , hegemony, etc have needed the participants ( middle class white men, and their colluders aspirants) ad the upholding of propriety more than adherence to the stated cultural values.

  • Lili Loofbourow talks about how “free speech logic” applied to creepshots turns girls’ and women’s passive existence into active consent to invasions of privacy while presenting the active decisions of trolls to disseminate images of girls and women without their consent as passive and also frame the revelation of a man’s name as an invasion of privacy that circulating images of female bodies without permission is not:

    The free speech defense—as applied to posting photos of underage girls and dead underage girls in an explicitly erotic context meant to humiliate and degrade—rests on the logic that “she posted these photos, so they’re fair game.” Posing for photos constitutes an act for which any and all retaliation and “use” is fair, no matter how private their original contexts—including ex-partners circulating erotic photos, including photos taken of women unawares, including men commenting on and masturbating to them. The implication is that posing=guilt, that owning a body and being photographed in it is an action for which reprisals are fair and should have been anticipated before the subject of the photographs did what she did. In contrast, Violentacrez’s activities are framed as passive. All he’s done is circulate existing photos, and “frame” them differently. He has “done” nothing and deserves nothing, whereas women have owned bodies and posed in them. Circulating is passive, existing is active.

    ETA: Loofbourow adds an important follow-up post on the argument that Adrian Chen has “ruined” Michael Brutsch’s life and how this concern erases girls’ and women’s lives ruined by creepshot-style violations (e.g. Amanda Todd).

  • Aaron Bady/zunguzungu unpacks the “legal culture” behind objections that outing people like Violentacrez is a violation of “free speech” rights.

It is only when you believe that an act is not criminal that prosecuting it, for any reason, will seem like a violation of free speech (as so many people seem to believe). It is only when society has no legitimate interest in regulating, prohibiting, or punishing a particular form of behavior, that it will seem to you that “free speech” protects it. Otherwise, we accept all manner of infringements on speech. It’s just that, on those occasions, we understand that speech to be a vehicle for some other kind of act or violation. In those cases, it isn’t the speech that’s being criminalized, but the act of violence it’s being used to commit….[so] when people invoke “free speech” to defend a person’s right to take pictures of unwilling women and circulate those pictures on the internet, they are saying that it is okay to do so. They are saying that society has no legitimate interest in protecting a woman’s right not to have pictures of her body circulated without her consent.

Image Credit: Scenes from hereCC license.

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  • http://twitter.com/graceishuman Grace

    Thanks, Liz! Good point re: “trolls” vs. “trolling.” And it ties into the issue of media accountability, especially in a new media context where some outlets and writers deliberately look to inflame controversy or outrage as a way of trolling for page hits. I think we’ve also seen a lot of incidents lately where people called out for privileged or bigoted behavior/speech on new or social media in particular lash out in ways that are arguably trolling as well…e.g. the recent incident with Caitlin Moran.

  • Elton

    Reddit is one big circlejerk. Redditors like to believe that they’re smarter and more enlightened than users of say, Facebook, Pinterest, and 4chan, but I’ve found Redditors in general to be insecure, narrow-minded, conformist, and slightly stupid. I think it’s the upvote/downvote system, combined with meaningless “karma points,” that leads to a virtual lack of diversity, quality content, and productive conversation on Reddit.

    If you have a repost of a cat picture or an image macro (which Redditors only enjoy ironically, of course), post uncritical adulation of a Reddit-approved celebrity (e.g. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Bill Gates, Hunter S. Thompson), or it’s simply your “cake day,” you’ll get flooded with upvotes. If you have something novel or unpopular to say, or disagree with the hivemind, you’re downvoted to oblivion. Diversity of opinion is the antithesis of Reddit, unfortunately.

    Reddit is a place for a very narrow segment of the population who are looking for validation that other people think just like they do. That is the definition of a circlejerk.

    • Anonymous

      To me you are greatly downplaying what reddit actually is. “Oh well, just a small segment that are stupid”. What about the racism, antisemitism, misogyny and cyberbullying that destroys lives?

      • Elton

        That’s not what I said at all. If you want to quote me, please quote exactly what I said. If you would slowly and carefully re-read my comment, you’d find that we’re actually on the same side.

        I said that “I’ve found Redditors in general to be … slightly stupid” and that “Reddit is a place for a very narrow segment of the population.” In other words, Redditors are narrow-minded because the user base of Reddit is not diverse. In addition, the very nature of Reddit enables, to paraphrase your comment, racists, antisemites, misogynists, and cyberbullies to thrive.

        How much more clear can I be? I had hoped to make my point more subtly, but you’re asking me to spell it out for you. Reddit is largely made up of self-centered young white American males with a lot of privilege and free time but not a lot of intelligence or compassion. Reddit does not represent the full range of world perspectives, because Redditors only make up a small segment of the world population. A large segment of Redditors are stupid and spoiled.

        I was highly critical of Reddit, and you accuse me of downplaying.