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Online trolls can hide behind pseudonyms—until they’re exposed, anyway—but can you really separate an online identity from your “real life?”
Just who do you think you are?
The news online this week has been all about revealing “real” identities.
In one major bombshell, Gawker revealed the real-life identity of violentacrez (pronounced “violent acres”), one of Reddit’s biggest trolls and most powerful moderators. He created or helped lead some of the most notorious forums on Reddit, including r/jailbait and r/creepshots. The first was dedicated to sexy pictures of underage girls and the second to provocative shots of women taken on the sly.
This incident of doxing—publishing an anonymous user’s personal identity—has shaken Reddit to its core. At least one other prominent moderator has deleted his account, and moderators in general are considering going on strike until Reddit beefs up its user protections. They’ve even given it all a catchy name: “Doxtober.”
It has upset mods for good reason. Michael Brutsch, the 49-year-old Dallas programmer who was the man behind violentacrez, was fired from his day job after the news of his online activities came out. Reddit has seen its share of witchhunts over the years, which is why the first of Reddit’s two rules forbids doxing. Doxing can, and has, led to on- and offline harassment, death threats, and worse—in addition to job loss.
Meanwhile, Redditors have rallied around Brutsch. When he announced on Reddit that he was fired, he said that his wife has not been able to work for a year, and he thought their savings would last about three weeks, without health insurance. In response, Redditors have started a campaign to raise money to help Brutsch make ends meet. As of Tuesday, they’d donated $110.
Also this week, a young girl in Canada, Amanda Todd, committed suicide after years of bullying—bullying that began online. Todd, like many teenagers, hung out on BlogTV, a video-chatting site popular with teens, at the impressionable age of 12. Someone she met told her how beautiful she was, how “stunning.” Then he asked her to flash the camera, and she did.
He took a picture.
That picture was circulated online and sent to her family and friends. She changed schools repeatedly, but the picture—and the shame—followed her. A boy convinced her to hook up with him when his own girlfriend was out of town, only to show up at her school with the girlfriend and friends a day later to publicly shame her and eventually beat her. She drank bleach, but was saved in the emergency room. Online, people said that she deserved it and hoped she wouldn’t screw it up next time.
She posted her story on YouTube and, a month later, killed herself.
The Internet, belatedly, rode to her rescue. Anonymous tracked down the alleged user who took that picture and doxed him. The media and the police showed up at his door—it was the wrong address.
The person that Anonymous accused, however, was already in police custody for other crimes. He said that he wasn’t the one who took the picture and started the bullying, but he knows who did.
Sadly, this is a pattern that has repeated itself. Many teenage boys and girls have fooled around with a stranger in a chatroom and quickly found themselves blackmailed into much worse than flashing. One man, arrested after blackmailing a boy to have oral sex with a friend, confessed to having done the same to 100 other victims.
A man in England used Facebook to track down his wife’s alleged rapist. He told the rapist’s friends he was planning a surprise party and got his physical address, where he assaulted the man. His wife’s revelations about her rape came after arguments between the couple about the lack of intimacy in their relationship. The alleged rapist denies the charges.
A North Texas woman, angry at a cop who testified against her friend, posted his picture on Facebook. He was undercover. His picture was eventually posted in flyers after spreading on Facebook, and the poster has been charged with felony retaliation.
Brutsch described his life like this: “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.”
The cardinal sin of Reddit is revealing someone’s personal information—their “true” identity. In Brutsch’s words above, there’s an assumption that what he was doing online, under his pseudonym, wasn’t his “real” life. It was a hobby. A joke.
After he drew heat for posting a picture of a large man beating a half-naked woman last year, Brutsch said, “People take things way too seriously around here.”
Is it really that easy? Can we really slip in and out of online personas as easily as we might change our clothes? Can we laugh off our worst behavior as a goof?
In Proverbs it says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” James Allen expanded on this notion, saying, “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”
Brutsch chose to spend hours of his time in brutality and sexual victimization. He chose to diminish others. He may have thought his crimes were “victimless” because they lacked real world consequences. But they weren’t. He was the victim. Pretend as he might, violentacrez is not an account he can just delete. Whether he’s ever doxed or not, his truth is that he is as much violentacrez as he is Michael Brutsch.
And what of Amanda Todd’s tormentor, whoever he is? There was a real-world victim there, but does he tell himself the same thing that Brutsch does? Does he look in the mirror and say “I am Dr. Jekyll. mr_hyde is just a game. It’s not real. It’s not who I really am. If this girl killed herself, it’s because she took things too seriously. It’s not me”?
Even if the weapon was virtual—even if he did not put a gun to Amanda Todd’s head—he did destroy a person. Whatever he tells himself, Jekyll cannot shake off Hyde. In fact, what we choose to do when we think no one’s looking is, arguably, more true than anything else we do.
So his truth is this: He is a killer.
Amanda Todd, in her YouTube video, notes that once something’s on the Internet, it’s out there forever. Because it is infinitely reproduced in digital form, nothing can be destroyed. The same is true of ourselves. Whatever name we use online, how we spend our time is part of who we are, and every comment we leave behind, every picture we upload, every search we commit, even our browsing history reflects our true selves back to us—clearer, deeper, vaster, truer than any mirror.
When we finally dare to look there, may we each like what we see.
Photo by malias/Flickr
Nicholas White is the founder and editor in chief of the Daily Dot. His work has appeared in Wired, PBS, the Associated Press and elsewhere, and his reporting has been honored for excellence in journalism by the Associated Press.