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It's time the Internet cracked down on 'creepy uncles'

The suicide last week of B.C. teen Amanda Todd and the unmasking of creepy Internet predator Violentacrez make one thing clear: Freedom of speech doesn't mean a person should be free of criticism.
Amanda Todd, a B.C.-area teenager, committed suicide after being plagued by Internet bullying.

Amanda Todd, a B.C.-area teenager, committed suicide after being plagued by Internet bullying. Facebook

Last week a 15-year-old British Columbia girl committed suicide after being stalked online and suffering brutal harassment which followed her from school to school.

Before taking her own life, Amanda Todd immortalized her story in a video she posted to YouTube,  which has now attracted over five million views. 

In the video, she remains silent, but shows a series of handwritten cards on which she has recorded her nightmare come to life.

It seems that Todd made the mistake of using a webcam to interact with an online admirer, and after being complimented for her beauty, she acquiesced to his request and revealed her breasts. He managed to capture the image electronically, and then tried to blackmail her by revealing that he knew who she was and where she lived, and that if she didn't comply with his demands for another peep-show, he would distribute the photos.

When she refused, her anonymous stalker kept his word and sent the image of her unclothed torso to all of her friends and family, and anyone else that might know her, a fact which she learned at 4 in the morning from the police when they knocked on the door of her home.

Strangely, the people in Amanda's community did not rush to her defense – they did not condemn the anonymous man who stalked, harassed, threatened and exposed her against her will. Instead she was called vicious names. She lost all her friends. When she changed schools, her stalker made sure all of her new acquaintances also saw the photo, and she was again shunned.

It seems, then, as if having a body with breasts which are viewed by others is some kind of heinous moral crime. Only now that Amanda Todd is dead is her story inspiring an outpouring of public sympathy.

Meanwhile, another figure made famous by the internet has also attracted a massive outpouring of public attention this week.

A forty-nine year old married man and a father, Michael Brutsch, has for years operated anonymously on a popular website called Reddit, using an online pseudonym, "Violentacrez." He used this name to post and encourage others to post photos of women and girls, most of the photos taken without their consent, which seems to be part of the joy users take in viewing them. The photos were posted on Reddit chat rooms for discussion, under categories such as "Creepshots," "Chokeabitch" and "Deadjailbait."
 
Violentacrez' real name and photo were revealed last week in an article by Adrian Chen, a reporter at Gawker.com, a website which typically highlights stories of the absurd and which has national reach. The story has attracted over 3000 comments, many of them negative, and has also spawned dozens of stories in other media outlets which are also each spurring a massive debate.

But the debate is – for the most part – not about how it might feel to be a woman whose photo ends up on the internet to be rated and berated. The debate is, for the most part, not about the women in the photographs at all.

The vast majority of the debate is centered on whether Brutsch's right to free speech has been violated. Many commenters seem confused about the difference between being censored by the government for ideas and being written about by a journalist for something that's of interest to a vast number of people.

An article published in national news outlet The Daily Beast Thursday claimed that "If the outing and shaming of Reddit’s “creepy uncle” accomplishes anything, it will be to leave users walking on eggshells" – as if someone's name being attached to the online photo they posted of a woman's body without her consent is somehow detrimental to society.

The author tries to make the case that the freewheeling anonymous aspect of the internet is its most important value, while also advocating that people opposed to freewheeling actions of individuals online should keep their mouths shut. That the freewheeling should only be available to people who want to be creepy, but not to people who are being creeped upon, or to people who want to defend the creeped upon.

This kneejerk reaction to protect the "creepy uncle" at the expense of the creepy uncle's impact on everyone else is commonly known by psychologists as Denial.

This is the same mentality that allows sexual abusers to live on protected by families, churches, schools and workplaces who find it too uncomfortable to say anything.

We're not going to get anywhere near stopping abuses of any kind if we think that it doesn't matter enough to name names.  It's too late to prove to Amanda Todd that her life mattered, but it's not too late to show living girls and women that if they are being abused online, there is recourse, and that it does matter.

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 12:30 a.m. Inappropriate

To paraphrase Rick James, Anonymity is a helluvudrug.

When people don't know who you are, you feel kind of liberated. Most of the time, we are afraid of how people might react to what we say. Any person has many opinions and thoughts that they would never share with their friends, family, bosses, or anyone because they fear repercussions. I'm not talking about Soviet-style midnight knocks on the door, but just people's opinion of you changing. There are questions you can't ask, opinions you can't share. They bottle up inside you and ferment until you start to think you are alone, the only person who thinks the way you do.

I feel it every time I comment on Facebook or on Crosscut. I use my real name. People around here know who I am. I have that little "Crosscut writer" badge. Thus, there are just some things that I think that I don't say. I don't challenge certain points of view I disagree with out of politeness, so I don't offend people I like but who disagree with me. Sometimes, I just don't comment on the notion that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

Some would call that responsibility. From another point of view, it is a denial of one's true self.

But in an anonymous forum, the truth comes out. Let's use reddit, Violentacrez's haunt, as an example. It's not just a site for "creepy uncles," but a place for free and unrestricted discussion. It is a place to make jokes, talk about politics, Tv shows, sex, news, sports, guns, the environment, building your own home, whatever. It's a place for fast food execs or Fox News reporters with a guilty conscience to share the inner workings of the industry, something they can't do with their name attached to it. The list of subreddits is huge: http://www.reddit.com/reddits/ . There's a level of honesty there that doesn't exist when one imagines that one's boss or mom could be reading.

Of course, there's a dark side. You can see it here on Crosscut's comment threads. You can see it in every online forum and community that ever was. Provide an anonymous forum, than suddenly unsavory people with unsavory interests can speak and do things we find unsavory.

You end up with people like Violentacrez.

But it's worth noting that these people already existed. Many of them already had these thoughts. The only thing anonymity did is allow us to hear them.

Jon Sayer

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 9:13 p.m. Inappropriate

@Jon Sayer -
"But it's worth noting that these people already existed. The only thing anonymity did is allow us to hear them."

Agreed. The internet certainly did not invent unsavory people with unsavory thoughts who wished to express themselves under a cloak of anonymity, the KKK being one example, although in that case it was a hood.

The reminder here is that just bc a person really, really wants to remain anonymous doesn't mean they will -- especially if they attract enough attention to become a cause celebre. In the case of Violentacrez, he wasn't all that anonymous anymore anyhow, which was why reddit founders awarded him a "pimp hat" for his "chokeabitch" and "creepshotz" efforts.
Also -- other anonymous online commenters have been publicly outted before -- such as the famous author who positively reviewed his own books -- and I don't recall many people jumping to his defense.

Also agreed that anonymity can foster unfiltered honesty and have a cathartic effect. Continuing with Reddit as the example, with its thousands if not tens of thousands of "subreddits" covering a wide-range of topics, female reddit commentors have come to realize that it's best to use the anonymity to claim to be a male, or risk being automatically downvoted and graphically insulted. Atlantic Wired, among other venues, recently published this summary of the issue (which was posed as a topic on a subreddit and attracted a lot of comments): http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/07/why-reddit-so-anti-women-epic-reddit-thread-counts-ways/55080/

In saying so, I'm supporting your point --- there's value in honest discourse even if in this example the main value is in seeing how much hostility is directed at women solely because of gender. It seems better to know that's there -- and to talk about it (or write about it) than to not know or pretend it's not happening.

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"there's value in honest discourse even if in this example the main value is in seeing how much hostility is directed at women solely because of gender."

Can't disagree with you there. Often, the ones most attracted to the anonymous forum are those who would be judged the harshest by speaking. I think it is important to know that it's there, that barely hidden inhumanity is all around you, even in the head of a "forty-nine year old married man and a father" like Brutsch/Violentacrez.

It may be a more comfortable existence to take their anonymity and silence them, but then we would be living in a world that denies it's true nature.

I want you to know I'm not defending the scum, only the existence of anonymous and semi-anonymous forums.

Jon Sayer

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Where were the 15 year olds' parents in terms of enforcement of household rules against freedom online?

This young girl wasn't supervised enough, and the loss of her life is far to great a price to have paid, however - don't take candy from strangers applies to online anonymous jerks or admirers equally.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article, and comment by Jon Sayer. I think to be fair, though, the article's point is that anonymity helped someone stalk, harass, and assault a kid. The principle of free speech depends on being able to separate speech from action. That's sometimes hard to do on the Internet.

I've been doing some reading about the Puritans and came across this piece of advice by Anne Bradstreet to her son--and I'm quoting it here because it poses such a fascinating contrast to our contemporary ideas about what it means to be a real, authentic, uncensored self:

"That house which is not often swept, makes the cleanly inhabitant soon loathe it, and that heart which is not continually purifying itself, is no fit temple for the Spirit of God to dwell in."

Does someone like Violentacrez have a different philosophy, or is he just a compulsive dumper?

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

""The principle of free speech depends on being able to separate speech from action. That's sometimes hard to do on the Internet."

I sometimes think that we need to establish ownership rights over one's image. I have thought for all of my life that posting, printing or otherwise sharing an image of someone is an ACT, not speech.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 9:23 p.m. Inappropriate

@Carol, I think it's safe to assume that Violentacrez is not operating under the idea that he's a temple for the Spirit of God.

Interesting point about the difficulty of defining speech vs. action online.

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

The point is to figure out how to promote free speech while stopping and punishing those who deliberately humiliate others on the Internet. It would be useful to see solutions and a vote, followed by promotion of the winning idea so it gets implemented. I don't mean to promote this concept, but @10, www.at10us.com does provide a platform through which people can suggest solutions to problems like this and others can vote on them. The author is right, the conversation should not be about free speech, but about how to stop and punish those who are not speaking for a idea, but to hurt others.

ejcarrig

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 6:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Sure, but that is hard to decide. For example try posting anything from a conservative or Republican perspective in a general Seattle blog and a torrent of calumny gets released regardless of the argument.

jabailo

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