Was it ‘ethical’ for Gawker to unmask a Reddit troll?

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Last week saw a lot of drama across the internet with Gawker Media’s decision to unmask a Reddit troll known as ‘Violentacrez’ – revealed to be a 49-year-old man from Texas. Some Redditors retaliated, putting a self-imposed ban on any Gakwer-related websites and calling the move ‘unethical’. But was it?

Unlike ‘professional journalists’, bloggers don’t have a professional body to dictate ethics. However, since the line has pretty much blurred to the point where they are almost interchangeable, we will be using the code of ethics from professional bodies in journalism. Also, I should stress that while I am at university, I’m not undertaking a course in journalism.

But who was Violentacrez? We know he was a troll – but as the article by Andrew Chen reveals, a well connected one. He was also notorious in posting very controversial material on Reddit – including pictures of scantily-clad underage girls and creating a ‘safe area’ on the site called ‘Jailbait’ so others could share such material. Violentacrez was also moderator of several other controversial subreddits, including ‘Misogyny’, ‘Incest’ and ‘Hitler’.

The Ethics

And here lies the problem – despite posting such clearly offensive and controversial material, should he maintain his right to privacy? According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, it notes that journalists should (emphasis is mine):

Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

So, is unmasking a troll a justification to intrude on someone’s privacy? The problem with ethics is that its predominantly subjective. What one believes to be ‘ethical’ doesn’t necessarily mean another will think the same. In this case – publishing Violentacrez’s identity.

Some Redditors don’t think it was ethical. In retaliation, some are putting a self-imposed ban on Gawker Media sites (which includes Gizmodo) after revealing the identity of a troll, citing a rule by Reddit that no one should post personal information about a user on Reddit.

In fact, it is one of the golden rules of Reddit. According to its FAQ, “it is not [okay] to post someone’s personal information, or post links to personal information… We all get outraged by the ignorant things people say and do online, but witch hunts and vigilantism hurt innocent people and certain individual information, including personal info found online is often false.”

Revealing personal information of a user with an internet pseudonym is called “doxing”, and for sites like Reddit who believe in the freedom of expression and speech, such practice undermines its core beliefs. As the Daily Dot puts it:

At Web communities like Reddit, which thrive because users are free to say and do anything they want, doxing is a severe crime, both to users and the site’s staff. It’s far worse than offensive speech like racism and homophobia or, yes, even posting surreptitiously snapped photos of innocent women for creeps to perv over. Why? Because doxing undermines the community’s structural integrity: Reddit simply would not exist as we know it if users weren’t operating under the freedom of a flexible identity.

Another problem is the words “public need”, or public interest. The BBC’s own editorial guidelines state that “there is no single definition of public interest”, adding examples such as “exposing significantly anti-social behaviour”, among other things like corruption, negligence and to protect health and safety.

The reason why I’m bringing the BBC into this is because they have also this year exposed an internet troll known as “Nimrod Severen” – which would had to be justified before revealing his identity for a documentary. Nimord Severen was notorious in that he would go on Facebook memorial pages and posts offensive comments on them. When exposed and asked by a BBC journalist to explain, he says that it is an “open forum” and doesn’t care about the consequences.

However, under UK law, trolling is considered to be ‘anti-social’ behaviour. In the US and the rest of the world, it’s still a grey area.

So, was it?

I do believe that Chen’s article was somewhat ethical. There is an overriding public interest present in this story – to expose the people who post such privacy-invading material such as /r/creepshots and /r/jailbait. It also exposes the problem with Reddit’s free speech mantra – does posting such photos constitute freedom of speech? It is ironic in that Reddit’s moderators don’t see a problem with people posting scantily-clad photos from Facebook, or covert photos of women’s breasts and asses, that obviously invade other people’s privacy, and yet take issue with the revelation of a user.

However, Chen’s article appears to be an unmasking on the whole family, revealing the usernames of his wife and his son rather than just Violentacrez himself. The fact that now we know the real identity of Violentacrez makes it easier to find the real identities of his family. Violentacrez definitely should be accountable for what he posted, the rest of his family shouldn’t have their privacy sacrificed in the process.

Of course, with such revelation, there has been a lot of fallout. Gawker Media articles have been banned by moderators on Reddit in order to show solidarity; while Violentacrez has lost his job. However, one has to be accountable for their actions – regardless how severe it is.

To Chen’s credit, it has sparked a conversation across the Internet on ‘free speech’, and does deleting items violate ‘free speech’. As put by Lauren Weinstein (which I suggest you should read in full, and not this brief extract):

… 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. [...]

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…  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.

So, what do you guys think? Do you think it was ethical for Gawker to unmask Violentacrez? Do comment below. (and please, be civil)

Image: Eva Blue/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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