October 18, 2012

An Internet Monster, Reddit, and Free Speech

There are some topics that I just can't wait to write about. This isn't one of them. In fact, I've been putting this off for days, basically because I find the underlying theme so personally repugnant and disgusting. But the topic is important, and proceed we will.

I don't use the term "monster" lightly. But in the case of Michael Brutsch, the recently exposed uber-troll of Reddit, the label seems to rightly apply.

I will not here delve into the details of his activities. This new CNN article gives a pretty good summary. Research him further at your own risk, and be prepared to possibly be picking pieces of vomit out from your keyboard for days to come.

Regular readers know that I write a lot about free speech -- and also about responsibility. The unholy alliance of Brutsch-Reddit provides us with some immensely painful, but extraordinarily valuable, insights into the meanings of both terms, especially in the Internet age.

Some observers are spending considerable verbiage arguing about who is most responsible for Brutsch's long rampage -- the man himself or Reddit.

For me, the answer seems clear enough -- it was a team effort, with Reddit acting as the enabling agent for Brutsch's nauseating fury.

But in fairness to both, let's dig a bit deeper.

Is it possible to reasonably argue that without Reddit in its current form, Brutsch would not have engaged in similar activities elsewhere? The answer is unknowable, but it does seem apparent that Reddit provided a large audience and the kind of feedback reinforcement on which minds like Brutsch's thrive.

And what of Reddit itself? Let's leave aside their business model and possible ways that their income stream may have been enhanced by encouraging, or at least tolerating, most of Brutsch's activities.

Should we accept the protests of Reddit moderators and others that Reddit couldn't reign in Brutsch significantly without violating free speech?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer takes us to the heart of what free speech really means.

We all know that "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater" is not an accepted form of free speech. And we also know -- as I've discussed many times -- that various governments around the world are now attempting to vastly expand their notions of unacceptable free speech, mostly for their own political control purposes, in a wide variety of ways that we should most strongly resist.

We've also much discussed the important roles of anonymity and pseudonyms in various contexts, both of which can help assure that people are not attacked or otherwise persecuted for honest whistle-blowing, health questions, alternative lifestyle discussions, sexual status, and so on.

But free speech does not include the right to speak anywhere and anytime you might desire. And it is not a requirement for every possible venue to accept and distribute any and all speech that may be submitted to it.

Newspapers normally don't publish every received letter or op-ed. Book publishers don't accept every manuscript.

I have a very active Google+ presence. I choose to make a concerted effort to assure that the comments users append to my postings there are civil and on topic. This means that I delete what I consider to be inappropriate comments, I block those persons I consider to be trolls, and I enforce my own view of what I consider to be acceptable overall.

Am I violating anybody's free speech rights? Of course not. I'm simply acting as the editor and moderator of my own space, and anyone is free to comment on other threads on Google+, or Facebook, or ... wherever. It's a big Internet.

Similarly, the powers-that-be at Reddit, irrespective of the autonomy they've traditionally chosen to provide their users, were not required by law to shut down Brutsch (unless he crossed the line into illegal activities), but they were also not required to permit his monstrous hate spew to continue unabated.

Not everything that is merely legal is necessarily reasonable. And while we certainly don't want laws infringing unnecessarily on free speech, we also must accept the fact that we need to take responsibility for our speech and actions. If we don't do so, we are playing directly into the hands of those politicians who would very much like to make examples -- such as the one under discussion here -- the basis and excuse for draconian legislative crackdowns on free speech that would be disastrous.

Ultimately, it appears to me that both Brutsch and Reddit made the same kind of fundamental error. They behaved as if they were operating in a parallel universe, a place where normal concepts of ethics and responsibility simply didn't apply, didn't matter, didn't have any actual impact on the real world.

They're wrong.

Protests of some "Internet philosophers" notwithstanding, the Net is very much a part of the real world of cause and effect, of national governments, of laws and penalties.

To pretend otherwise is not to protect or enhance free speech, but rather to put free speech at enormous risk from the enemies of liberty, who are always ready to pounce with their own oppressive and nightmarish agendas.

If the saga of Reddit and Brutsch teaches us nothing else, it should remind us that free speech is not a natural law flowing without effort. Free speech is about more than simply having something to say. The endurance of free speech relies on our taking responsibility to use such a powerful idea both wisely and well.

Otherwise, we and our children may come to painfully rue our selfishly allowing such crucial freedoms to slip away through our fingers.


Posted by Lauren at October 18, 2012 07:22 PM | Permalink
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