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Troll-Hunting

The internet is all crazy over Adrian Chen's expose of Reddit mega-troll ViolentAcres. Here's Chen going all "The Next Rhyme I Write Might Be About You" on some of Reddit's more odious characters:


Last Wednesday afternoon I called Michael Brutsch. He was at the office of the Texas financial services company where he works as a programmer and he was having a bad day. I had just told him, on Gchat, that I had uncovered his identity as the notorious internet troll Violentacrez (pronounced Violent-Acres). 

"It's amazing how much you can sweat in a 60 degree office," he said with a nervous laugh. 

Judging from his internet footprint, Brutsch, 49, has a lot to sweat over. If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit. At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called "Creepshots." Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn't suit him very well.

Brutsch's "Creepshots" were ugly enough, and the product of a hard-boiled, unrepentant misogynist -- the kind of guy who brags about having sex with his 19-year old stepdaughter. But more interesting to me (as a moderator) is the symbiotic relationship Brutsch established between himself as a provocateur and those who live to be provoked. He started several subreddits (including "Chokeabitch," "Niggerjailbait," ""Jewmerica," "Incest" and "Misogyny") which read like chapter headings from The Internet Troll's Guide to the Galaxy:

What happened was, some do-gooder would stumble upon one of his offensive subreddits and expose it to the rest of Reddit in an outraged post. Then thousands more would vote the thing to the front page of Reddit. Cries to censor it would sound out, to be almost inevitably beaten back by cries of "free speech!" The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don't like, you are a whiny fascist. 

Violentacrez explained his trolling philosophy to the internet culture website the Daily Dot in August of 2011. He had sparked yet another controversy by posting a graphic image of a partially clothed woman being brutally beaten by a large man, in "beatingwomen," a subreddit dedicated to glorifying violence against women. 

A Redditor had called out the picture in a post, and it was voted to the front page. "People take things way too seriously around here," Violentacrez said. " I was not surprised by the outrage of the person who made the post, because I see it all the time. What was surprising was the community support for it. Most posts that complain about these things never do very well, and are quickly buried or deleted. I think it's interesting how many people defend my right to act the way I do, while decrying my posts themselves." 

A troll exploits social dynamics like computer hackers exploit security loopholes, and Violentacrez calmly exploited the Reddit hive mind's powerful outrage machine and free speech values at the same time. It was this pattern, repeated to various degrees dozens of times, that made Violentacrez an unlikely hero to many of the white male geeks who make up Reddit's hard core.

The last paragraph is really on the money. My point here is not that Brutsch's bigotry was an act, but that he got off on -- not just on bigotry, but on inciting a response from the offended. And I strongly suspect that those who respond are, in some way, getting off too. So often, you see an obvious troll come through, and the urge to attempt logical refutation proves too hard to resist. I'm interested in the mindset that compels us to call out someone with a forum called "niggerjailbait." 

I am less interested in complaints about the unfairness of outing Brutsch. I regard that argument with the same seriousness that I regard the idea that it is racist to talk about race.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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