I've been cheering Adrian Chen's outing of Violentacrez, troll-in-chief of Reddit, last week. But now, as the consequences hit Michael Brutsch, the real person behind Violentacrez, I’m having misgivings. Not about Chen’s piece, which is fair and strong, but about the way the Internet chews up and spits out whoever it’s had enough with.
Let’s start here: Free speech protections don't have to include the right to post creepy photos of underage girls anonymously. Reddit's own user agreement bars sexually suggestive content featuring minors, along with a host of other conditions that are at odds with how the site's dark corners actually work. I'm with Amanda: I don't buy the argument that the Internet isn't real, or that Violentacrez's Jailbait posts didn't hurt anyone. I've written about women who've been targeted by trolls. Their reputations are smeared, they live in fear of who has seen the photos and posts put online to humiliate them, and it's hard for these women to use the courts to stop any of this. It's a nasty world, this cruel Internet subculture, and I welcome journalism that shines a light on it.
Here's why I feel a bleat of sympathy, though, for Brutsch, who turns out to be a 49-year-old computer programmer working at a Texas financial services company. Or worked, I should say, since he says he lost his job after being outed. Brutsch comes across as loathsome and pathetic in Chen's telling. But he's now not just one of thousands of loathsome and pathetic trolls—he's the one whose story has gone viral and whose disabled wife stands to lose her health insurance as a result. I'm not saying Chen shouldn't have outed him and I'm not even saying we shouldn't be talking about it. I'm doing that myself. And I see, of course, that Brutsch is only subject to the kind of notoriety he courted for every girl whose photo he lifted from Facebook. Tit for Internet tat.
Still, I wonder about the singling out of one jailbaiter from the many. In terms of volume and content, Brutsch was king troll. That's enough to justify Chen's story and maybe it means I'm wasting my sympathy. But there's something so unsettlingly selective about the way in which we punish the few people whose bad Internet behaviors become mainstream notoriety. When prosecutors enforce the law to go after criminals, they're supposed to do it uniformly. That’s often not how it works in practice but it’s always the standard. And that standard isn’t even on the table in the court of public opinion: We smell blood, and we circle. I wish Michael Brutsch could bear his share of responsibility and sprinkle the rest onto all the other trolls out there. That's not how viral stories go, I know: We need someone to make an example of. But when the crowd turns vengeful, it gets ugly.