An online debate has erupted over the last few days about online privacy, in the light of the outing of ‘the biggest troll on the web’.
On Friday, online news organisation Gawker published the real name, location and photograph of all-round creepy bad guy Violentacrez.
Violentacrez (pronounced Violent Acres) is notorious in online forum Reddit for posting and moderating thousands of morally ambiguous and offensive images, including but not limited to, photos of dead children, sexualised images of children and teens, bestiality, racist memes and images that glorify violence against women.
Violentacrez relished his questionable reputation, proudly labeling himself the ‘creepy uncle of Reddit’. Most famously, Violentacrez has played a key role in two controversial Reddit forums (called sub-reddits) that were later banned. ‘Jailbait’ featured sexualised images of underage girls, often taken from girls’ private online accounts and republished without their knowledge or permission. Violentacrez also moderated a forum devoted to up-skirt and down-top photos taken of unsuspecting women in public places, including underage girls at school.
In an interview with Gawker, Violentacrez proudly states that “I stand by exactly what I’ve done” but pleads for his details not to be released: “my wife is disabled. I got a home and a mortgage, and if this hits the fan, I believe this will affect negatively on my employment.”
The outing of an individual who has played such a key role in curating and uploading offensive, morally ambiguous and potentially illegal content should be cut and dry: name and shame the troll. However, in the world of online communities who champion freedom of speech but also the importance of online anonymity, things are far more murky.
The response to Violentacrez’s outing was swift and decisive, dozens of Reddit moderators (who are not employees of the organization but volunteer their time to manage communities): banned all links to the entire family of Gawker websites.
The Reddit community has tolerated offensive content because the community see themselves as champions of free speech. Whilst much of the content is morally dubious, it is not illegal, they argue, therefore should be allowed. However the also morally dubious but not illegal act of publishing an online troll’s details has been condemned. Why?
“As moderators, we feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable,” a moderator for the r/politics subreddit wrote. “We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you [Emphasis added].”
This story defines the tension we’re all facing as we balance the desire to contribute to online communities whilst also attempting to control how the world sees us.
We all contribute to some form of online community forum, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, the comments section of news websites or a discussion forum such as a mothers board, gardening forum or motoring discussion thread. We often do so under the illusion that our identity remains cloaked, our contributions remain ignored by the world in our tiny corner of the web, that it’s nobody’s business but our own what we say and how we say it. We believe we are safe, hidden, anonymous. But even the most web-savvy and security-conscious amongst have had their real life details revealed.
Violentacrez and many of his cohorts defended many of the pictures of women and girls they publish online, pictures ripped from Facebook or taken in public, decrying that these young girls should not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, even if an image is ripped from a non-public Facebook page by a friend or family member, to then be shared in a forum of adult men for their sexual gratification.
In fact, the publication of images of children, and of people in public places, for the purposes of sexual gratification is illegal in some countries. What is not illegal is the publication of real life details of online trolls, should the information already be freely available on the internet. It just takes a savvy web-user, or determined journalist, to put the pieces together.
What this murky affair has successfully demonstrated is that not one of us is truly in control of our online identity: whether it be young girls sharing innocent photos with friends and family on Facebook, or anonymous “trolls” who get their kicks by sharing controversial opinions or content.
It is time for discussion to move beyond the simplicity of how to implement privacy settings (however important and crucial), and to begin to consider and accept that we need to actively manage our online personality. Just as we censor ourselves at cocktail parties, work meetings and family functions, so we must consider how our words and actions can be interpreted in the online world. Privacy can be managed but not controlled, the content we choose to produce and publish can be.