Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Doxing the Internet's Biggest Troll, "Violentacrez"...

If you have ten minutes to spare on your lunch break, I promise you won't be disappointed by reading Gawker's unmasking last week of "Violentacrez".

This notorious Reddit user has come under scrutiny in the past for creating a forum named "Jailbait" where people shared photos of underage tween and teenage girls, often in bikinis and skirts, with many of the snapshots being lifted from the girls' Facebook accounts.

Violentacrez and his fellow moderators worked hard to make sure every girl on jailbait was underage, diligently deleting any photos whose subjects seemed older than 16 or 17. Violentacrez himself posted hundreds of photos....   Eventually, Jailbait landed on CNN, where Anderson Cooper called out Reddit for hosting it, and Violentacrez for creating it. The ensuing outcry led Reddit administrators to reluctantly ban Jailbait, and all sexually suggestive content featuring minors.

More recently, he's been at the center of a firestorm regarding the forum named "Creepshots".  In this subreddit, users post covert photos they've taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their breasts or rear-ends.  Although Violentacrez didn't create this subreddit, he was brought in as a moderator earlier this year.  Creepshots was banned by Reddit's administrators last week, although the circumstances aren't clear.

But really, this only scratches the surface.  Violentacrez has created some truly horrific subreddit forums in the past including (just to name a few):
  • Chokeabitch
  • Niggerjailbait
  • Rapebait
  • Hitler
  • Jewmerica
  • Misogyny
  • Incest 
Last week, Violentacrez apparently closed his account once Gawker revealed his real-life identity to be Michael Brutsch - a military father, husband, and employee at a publicly traded corporation.  Since then, there has been something of a cyber-uproar over his "doxing" (slang for outing someone's identity).   The Gawker website has been blocked in dozens of Reddit forums.  The site's volunteer moderators have also apparently been banning users simply for submitting links that mention the controversy.  Meanwhile, Brutsch has been fired from his job and is now accepting PayPal donations from supporters. 

As of today, the BanGawker subreddit is filled with cries of "Free Speech!" and yet is simultaneously calling for banning, censoring, "lynch-mobbing", and intimidating users as forms of retaliation.

Violentacrez' actions speak for themselves; think of them what you will.  However, I want to bring attention to the response of his supporters.  What's really worthy of an uproar here?  This isn't a free speech issue.  The government isn't prohibiting certain content.  This is a case of a private commercial website deciding to shut down one of its own forums, which it has every right to do, and a notorious user of the site voluntarily closing his account.  He wasn't even asked to do so, but took the initiative of his own free will in order to protect his own personal private interests. 

No one can claim this is slander, either.  A journalist, (yes, an actual journalist), Adrian Chen, confirmed the facts with the subject himself before publication.  The uproar is clearly not over the content of what Chen wrote, it is over the doxing of Violentacrez' real identity.  Well, nowhere in the Reddit Terms of Service Agreement is anonymity guaranteed, and Violentacrez himself made no secret of his real identity - voluntarily revealing his personal information to Reddit's administrators years ago.  So how exactly did Chen cross the line?  What is to one person outing someone's identity and violating their privacy is, to another, responsibly holding them accountable for their actions.

There is clear hypocrisy in Violentacrez supporters' tactics of censorship and intimidation as a means of fighting (what they perceive to be) censorship and intimidation.  Also, why do they seemingly have no problem with Reddit itself?  After all, it's Reddit that ultimately made the authoritative decision to ban "Jailbait" and "Creepshots".  The buck stops with them.

If there is a constructive lesson that can be wrought out of all this muck it is that, whether we're talking about controversial discussion forums or controversial individual users, the bottom line remains that, on private commercial websites, the traditional news media drawing the attention of tens of millions of viewers to certain online behaviors, like CNN did with "Jailbait", can still exert very meaningful pressure and guide the decisionmaking of those websites to take action; however reluctant they may be.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hacktivists Launch New Presidential Googlebomb Against Mitt Romney...

Up to some of their old tricks, hacktivists have just launched a Googlebomb against presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  For anyone uninitiated, a Googlebomb refers to a computer hack that manipulates Google's search algorithm to display results that express a political statement.  The current Googlebomb makes it so that whenever someone types the phrase "completely wrong" into Google Images, dozens of pictures of Mitt Romney are displayed.

Hacktivist behavior like this is not uncommon, especially in presidential politics.  It's also typically harmless, treading the line between humor, irony, and political satire.

Some previous examples of hacktivism in the political arena...
With only three weeks before the election, and with digital retaliation being the norm, we can expect another incident along these lines any minute now...


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Demographics of Popular Social Media Sites...

Depending on the social circles one travels in, people can formulate very different perceptions about the extent to which online social media has infiltrated the cultural mainstream.  A report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project offers some insight on the demographical usage behind some of the more popular sites.

For starters:
  • 66% of all online adults use Facebook
  • 20% use LinkedIn
  • 16% use Twitter
Breaking down some of the demographic data:
  • 12% of online adults say they use Pinterest, which is dominated by women. Nearly a fifth of online women (19%) use Pinterest.
  • 12% of online adults say they use Instagram, which is dominated by young adults. Some 27% of the internet users between ages 18-29 use Instagram.
  • 5% of online adults say they use Tumblr. Some 11% of young adults use Tumblr.
What's perhaps the most interesting thing the report offers, though, is its approach of considering Internet users either "Creators" or "Curators", and that photos and videos have become key social currencies online.

Apparently, 46% of adult Internet users are creators because they post original photos or videos online that they themselves have created.  41% of adult Internet users are curators because they take photos or videos that they have found online and repost them on sites designed for sharing images with many people.  Overall, 56% of Internet users do at least one of these creating or curating activities and 32% of Internet users do both creating and curating activities.

What's striking and memorable in this report is the data on second-tier sites like Tumblr and Pinterest.  Too much research, at least in the social sciences, focuses on the behemoths that are Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  Seeing information being generated on some second-tier sites is refreshing, to say the least.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Politics Behind the Declaration of Internet Freedom...

The casual observer might make certain assumptions about a document titled, The Declaration of Internet Freedom.  One assumption they probably won't make, however, is that the document is almost completely meaningless in terms of content and that it's little more than a political tactic in the fight over cybersecurity politics.

First, here is the actual text of the Declaration of Internet Freedom, co-authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA):

We stand for a free and open Internet.  We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

  1. Expression: Don't censor the Internet.

  2. Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.

  3. Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.

  4. Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies and don’t punish innovators for their users' actions.

  5. Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

These are all, what we call, "Apple Pie Expressions".  Nobody is ever going to say that they support censorship, are for making the Internet a closed network, or are against innovation.  Everybody agrees with these principles.  It's like when politicians say that they are for education.  Of course they are.  Everybody is.  But the devil is in the details.

For instance, every American will say that the Internet shouldn't be censored.  But to what extent will we have disagreements over the the availability of pornographic material online, of cyberbullying, or of inciteful hate speech?

Or, while we'll all agree that people should have the freedom to innovate, to what extent will some adopt a stricter interpretation of copyright law in contrast to others when it comes to "creating without permission"?

And "protecting privacy"?  Let's not even get into that can of worms.

This Declaration of applie pie statements is so vague that it takes a principled stance on nothing at all.  I'm sorry to have wasted your time even suggesting you read it.

So what's really going on here? 

Despite the document's bipartisan authorship, it's really just a tool being deployed in the battle over cybersecurity policy.  Over the past few months, the Republicans have been pushing a cybersecurity bill through the House of Representatives while the Democrats have been pushing another one in the Senate.  There's been a failure to come to an agreement because of differences over the extent to which cybersecurity measures should be made mandatory for private businesses versus having those measures remain voluntary.  Despite Senators Lieberman and Collins dropping their mandatory requirements, there aren't enough votes in either chamber to pass the others' version of the bill.

Fast forward to last week where, as a result of this gridlock over an issue of vital national security, the Obama Administration made it known that it was poised to step in and issue an Executive Order in the absence of Congressional action.  Even this would really be just a vague set of apple-pie principles.

Rep. Issa is one of the major backers of the cybersecurity bill in the House and this meaningless Declaration of Internet Freedom has garnered over 51,000 signatures and the support of over 2,000 organizations and businesses.  Half of those might actually support the Senate version of the bill - which, by the way, has far more privacy protections - if asked.  But, nevertheless, those numbers clearly give Issa some semblance of political backing to wave around in this battle.