Saturday, 20 October 2012

Some Thoughts About Reddit, Doxxing, and the Anonymity of Images

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, here’s some background on the Reddit-Predditors series of events.

I’ve been reading a lot of pretty great analysis that goes well beyond the obvious “uh, if posting photos of non-consenting women in public is free speech, then me calling you an asshole for doing it is also free speech”, and there’s been a ton written about putting r/creepshots, Amanda Todd, and 12-year-old Slut Facebook pages in the context of a society that is often actively hostile to women and girls more generally. I have some general-ish thoughts about the nature of online anonymity, why we value it, and who benefits from it, so here they are.


First: The irony! Are we all being punked here? Outrageous.

The Rest: Lots of people think it’s totally fine and cool that technically legal photos of non-consenting women were posted on a site with the specific intent of getting off on that lack of consent (I shouldn’t have to outline why, exactly, fetishizing non-consent might be a problem. Right?). Because those voices have been very, very loud, and in the aftermath of AdrianChen’s outing of Violentacrez as Michael Brutsch, the mainstream discussion of the Violentacrez/Reddit issue has become, in many ways, a conversation about whether or not internet anonymity is a thing that should continue to exist at all. Many who believe that Chen was right to out Brutsch are pinning the ability of trolls to act the way they do on that blank face, and lots of people, with lots of the right reasons, are calling for the end of anonymity altogether. This has lead of course to discussions of the potentially serious implications of outlawing anonymity when we begin talking about political dissidence and the dangers of speaking truth to power. But I think the main problem with this line of discussion is that it constitutes an attempt to make one Grand Sweeping Statement about the internet that will then govern all online interactions: either anonymity is bad because it allows people to be trolls so it shouldn’t exist at all, or online anonymity is the only thing between civilized online commentary and innocent people being thrown in jail for making Stephen Harper memes. This is...not productive. Obviously.

Then there’s the broader question of the true extent of online anonymity - after all, it was pretty easy for the admin of Predditors to come up with the names of the posters on r/creepshots from legally and freely accessible public information, cross-referenced with information revealed under pseudonym (the site was shut down, then reinstated when it was discovered her sources were all public access), and it’s how Brutsch was identified. I type my name and email into the internet a hundred times a day, and I bet you do too; our acceptance of other peoples’ online anonymity or pseudonymity is, in most cases, really just a piece of digital social etiquette. We agree to keep each other’s secrets, most of the time. As Lindsay Beyerstein puts it at In These Times:

Online pseudonymity is largely a social courtesy. We all agree not to reveal the pseudonyms of the people we meet online, even though we probably could. A pseud is like showing up at your local with a paper bag over your head and insisting that nobody knows you. In fact, they know perfectly well, or they could easily find out; and either people play along, or they don't.

I am wary of insisting that anything on the internet is fair game for anyone, which is perilously close to insisting that if you're in public you're public property (the argument that many disgruntled Redditors are making); my point is that there must be - and are - social controls that demand we respect the request for anonymity even though it is so flimsy. I don’t think that outlawing anonymity on the internet altogether is a very good idea, as many people benefit from that anonymity even when we’re not talking about being disappeared by a hostile government. Particularly people who identify with a marginalized group, and who then write about their identification with that group, are notoriously subject to harassment and should most certainly have the option of writing anonymously. Sometimes – probably more often than most people realize – words you write on the internet about your experience as a gay man, a black woman, a disabled parent, whatever, have real consequences offline that are often threatening and dangerous. Michael Brutsch is only learning something – sort of – that many, many writers and participants have known for a long time. As Jessica over at scATX put it: “The fear of doxxing is not one that is shared equally and people who are targets of it are much more likely to be people who are part of the groups that are already targeted offline.” 

Outing already happens. Marginalized people speaking out about their marginalization are already subject to the threat of being outed, as a way to keep them from speaking. It is threatening. It is also telling that for all these people have been speaking up about this stuff for a pretty long time – h/t to Deanna Zandt for reminding me of this little kerfuffle – it’s only now that a bunch of cis hetero white guys’ fun is being threatened that the conversation reaches mainstream levels. That is telling. That says something about who we think should be allowed to benefit from anonymity and why, and what happens when those covenants are overturned. It says that we do not actually care about true anonymity, we care about protecting those in power and helping them to stay there. Once again, this is no surprise to anyone with any kind of platform who already writes about these things.

For the record: I absolutely believe that public naming and shaming is a very, very effective way to end the kind of bullying, hatemongering, and rape-culture-perpetuating garbage that exists on the internet and finds footholds in Reddit subgroups that gradually ascend to mainstream appeal. Victims and targets of harassment and/or oppression are often subjected to the added indignity of having their grievances dismissed or disbelieved, especially if they are confronting the person who grieved them in the first place. In the same way that bystander intervention or male advocacy are key strategies to ending violence against women, ending online violence (and yes, violence is exactly what we’re talking about) requires people who are not the direct targets make their disapproval known. Sometimes, perhaps as a last resort, that means the person or people engaged in the violence get their real names attached to the real things that they really said to or about other real people. That doesn’t mean slander, it means holding people accountable for words and sentiments of their own, which they publicly expressed on the internet, where they will live forever in glorious technicolour.

I also think that outing in this way – an adamant and explicit connection between and online and offline person – has the happy by-product of reminding us that the internet is comprised of real people at keyboards. There’s far too much temptation to see what happens online as being somehow less real, hence the distinction between Real Life™ and the Internet. That distinction silences victims, minimalizes abuse and violence, and truncates our ability to talk seriously about the kind of places we’re building in the ether. Any discussion about how to solve the problems that take place on the internet therefore has to ask the same questions we ask when we’re trying to solve a Real Life™ problem – and that means talking about power and privilege, who has it, and how its being wielded. That seems obvious, but it flies in the face of some very powerful internet mythology: the idea that online, all content is created equal, and people cease being human bodies with histories and instead become some kind of postmodern, posthuman construction of ones and zeros that is both equal to and separate from all other constructions on the web and their real-life avatars. This is a long- and highly-cherished idea, and one that banks on an enormous amount of unconscious privilege – it’s the tyranny of structurelessness, a digital construction of the “I only see people” brand of liberal philosophy. Believing that requires you to have never been the subject of oppression because of your race, class, gender, orientation, ability, religion, or anything else. Accepting even the possibility of complete agnostic neutrality rests on your identification with the default construction of personhood, which is the same default on the internet as it is in life.

I find this aspect of the Reddit case particularly compelling – at least one of the responses in defense of Creepshots has been that because the photos of women and girls are unnamed, they are less of an invasion of privacy, anonymity is preserved as you can’t easily Google likenesses. But women’s names have never been ours in the same way that men’s names are theirs – women move from the father’s name to the husband’s name, usually, and that expectation is implicit right from birth – and images of women have always been considered public property in the way that images of men have not (mostly because when we say public, we also mean male). Women are by and large expected to identify wholly with and attach our sense of self-worth to the image we present, and so a photo of a woman, even if the name is not attached to it, perhaps feels more personal to a woman than a similarly unnamed photo of a man (not having lived as a man, I couldn't say for sure. I welcome comments from anyone who may have experienced both sides). Women have always been expected to perform our identities, to make ourselves image, to judge ourselves by the reception our image receives from others, and therefore perhaps we identify more heavily with images of ourselves. In many ways, as this dustup is making so clear, physical women in offline life are treated and responded to as though we were images.

Though even if it weren't the case that women identify more strongly with images of themselves that with their names or than men do with images of themselves (all of which is just speculation on my part), Lilli at Excremental Virtue has this to say: 

these are PHOTOGRAPHS. These are the objects police use to identify criminals. These are things that explicitly and routinely constitute evidence. They are precisely the opposite of anonymous—they are vehicles of anti-anonymity.

*photo attribution:

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