Power and ideology on the internet: thoughts on the Violentacrez case

I guess anyone reading this will already be familiar with the story of Gawker’s exposé of notorious Reddit mod Violentacrez; if not, the short version is something like this: Violentacrez was well known on the social media site as the éminence grise behind various unsavoury subreddits, like “Jailbait”, which featured pictures of young girls culled from their Facebook pages, and “Creepshots”, a collection of leering photos of unsuspecting women; writer Adrian Chen, feeling that Violentacrez should accept responsibility for his actions rather than hide behind a pseudonym, did a little detective work which revealed Violentacrez’s real identity, one Michael Brutsch, a programmer from Texas; following the Gawker article Brutsch lost his job, and presumably has had some awkward conversations with friends and neighbours.

What are we to make of this? Gawker and Chen have been heavily criticised by the Reddit community for supposedly limiting Brutsch’s right to free speech by violating his privacy and exposing him to intimidation. On the other hand, Brutsch was happy to get his kicks by trespassing on the personal space of countless girls and women without their knowledge or consent, so he can hardly claim that his own boundaries should be sacrosanct.

So three cheers then for Chen and his righteous take-down of a sleazy douchebag. But isn’t there a nagging problem? Like, who elected Chen to be sheriff of the interwebs? How is he accountable? What if tomorrow he, or someone like him, decides that bloggers I agree with, like critics of repressive governments, deserve to be stripped of their anonymity too? What if he thinks I need to be exposed for my serial offences against good literary style?

There are two issues to consider here. The first is the liberal notion of Free Speech, as summed up in Voltaire’s (misattributed) dictum “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”. I fundamentally disagree with this. Not all opinions are equally valid, and there are some that are so toxic that they need to be suppressed. I may get upset when viewpoints which have my sympathy are censored, but I’m not so bothered, in principle, when the likes of Brutsch are marginalised in the public discourse.

(That’s the theory anyway; in practice it’s a little more complicated. The second thing we have to think about is who actually has the power to regulate the promotion of ideas. The people who run the world are not, by and large, fans of my leftist ideology, so if there was an effective mechanism for controlling what appears on the internet, most of the time it would be employed to squash things I am in favour of. Thus I generally find myself campaigning against web censorship, though on pragmatic rather than principled grounds.)

The underlying point is that society is divided between classes whose ideas are incompatible; the liberal ideal of a society where all points of view are given equal respect, presided over by a benign state that sits above the class conflict, is an illusion. The dominant ideology of the ruling class finds its expression in many ways, from the high politics of a presidential debate to the low culture of Reddit’s misogynist underbelly. We can fight this as it presents itself, but we will never fully defeat it until we build up our forces to a point where we have the power to eradicate the ideology of our class enemies; a dictatorship of the proletariat for the information age. This will solve the problems of democracy and accountablity, for, as Lenin put it:

…proletarian dictatorship is the forcible oppression of the resistance of the exploiters, i.e. an insignificant minority of the population, the landowners and capitalists. It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism…

As ever, the problems that arise in the course of online life turn out to have their roots in more fundamental aspects of society; the solutions lie in the offline world too.

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