Few people look good after this week's outing of "the biggest troll on the web" by Gawker. Certainly not the troll, and certainly not Reddit, where the troll was given free rein to post, or facilitate the posting, of all kinds of horrible stuff. But also not Gawker, nor many of the people weighing in on the story, many of whom don't seem to understand what free speech is and what it isn't, or what the First Amendment protects, and what it doesn't. Which seems odd because it's really not that difficult a concept.
Gawker sometimes does good work. On balance, though, it's an amoral sleaze factory interested not in illumination so much as in drawing traffic and money to itself and its chief, Nick Denton. (Everybody publishing on the web wants traffic and money. When it's the primary motivation, though ... well, you get what so much of the media is now shaping up to be: crap.)
Gawker's Adrian Chen, who outed the troll, has garnered lots of praise from people whom Kashmir Hill of Forbes dubs "the cool kids of the Internet," including, for example, Slate's Farhad Manjoo, who called Chen's article "the best story about the web I've read all year." Which is ridiculous. (The Internet's "cool kids" can be identified by the amount of time they spend on Twitter, often talking to each other in a closed feedback loop. I have noticed that the work many of the journalists I follow on Twitter has declined in inverse proportion to their number of tweets, which can be dozens or even hundreds -- yes, hundreds -- of tweets per day.)
Chen's article was certainly worthy of attention, but it's not really a "story" at all. Aside from the revelation of the true identity of the creepy Reddit moderator who goes by "Violentacrez," there's really not much to it, despite all the words.
Gawker's and Chen's motive is revealed by the headline: "Unmasking Reddit's Violentacrez, the Biggest Troll on the Web." That headline, and the story that follows it, makes it clear that all Gawker or Chen really cared about was the unmasking itself and the attention (clicks) it brought. Chen didn't do much to help anyone understand anything, including the troll, who turns out to be a rather pathetic 49-year-old Texas man named Michael Brutsch.
Brutsch was responsible for the "subreddit" Jailbait, where he and his emotionally stunted pals posted pictures of underage girls in swimwear for men to jack off to. The pictures, many of them gathered from Facebook without to kids' knowledge, are legal, Brutsch and his defenders are quick to point out, as if that makes everything okay. Brutsch was also involved with another subreddit called Creepshots -- which was pictures of women and girls taken without their knowledge in public places and posted to Reddit for men to jack off to. Some other subreddits Brutsch was involved with: Chokeabitch, Niggerjailbait, Beatingwomen, and Jewmerica.
Yes, it's a wonderful world. Anyway, Brutsch, clearly suffering from some kind of (disturbingly common) psychological malady, told Chen he's basically just a regular guy whose hobby simply happens to be doing horrible stuff online. "I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the Internet," he said. "I just like riling people up in my spare time."
He reportedly has a disabled wife who apparently knew what he was up to. He has been fired from his job. Some Redditors -- many of them unabashed fans of the guy -- are raising money for him.
His wife notwithstanding, Brutsch deserves whatever he gets. He and his defenders on Reddit (of which he has a disheartening number) think that all this has something to do with "free speech," as if the First Amendment means that you get to say or publish anything you like without consequence. The government hasn't weighed in at all on any of this, and nobody's speech rights have been abridged.
As for Gawker, well, who are they kidding? Blogger Freddie deBoer says: "I'll take honest depravity [Brutsch] over depravity masked as righteousness [Gawker]." This is an overstatement, and it teeters on the edge of defending Brutsch, but the underlying point is sound: Gawker, sort of like the Huffington Post, is a sleazy web tabloid with pretensions not only to righteousness, but to seriousness. deBoer writes:
Gawker's writers and audience partake in essentially the same thing that many Redditors who frequent the uglier sub-Reddits do: being titillated, in various ways, by content that they simultaneously disclaim and enjoy. Gawker, after all, comments on any and all sex scandals and questionable behavior, most certainly including those involving underaged women. Perhaps Gawker doesn't host, say, the latest photos of a scantily-clad Miley Cyrus, but it has certainly linked to them, and its readers certainly click those links.
This is a false equivalency: Gawker isn't nearly as bad as what the creeps of Creepshots did. Gawker doesn't publish anything like Chokeabitch. And posting titillating stuff about Miley Cyrus isn't quite as bad as posting down-blouse shots of unaware girls on the crosstown bus.
But Gawker does regularly and quite purposefully appeal to our lesser selves, and in that way it joins those terrible subreddits in being Part of the Problem.