Thoughts on Free Speech Logic and Violentacrez

[This originated as a series of Tweets that are basically cut and pasted with a bit of connective tissue.]

Two things strike me about the Violentacrez business. The first is how the free speech defense—as applied to posting photos of underage girls and dead underage girls in an explicitly erotic context meant to humiliate and degrade—rests on the logic that “she posted these photos, so they’re fair game.” Posing for photos constitutes an act for which any and all retaliation and “use” is fair, no matter how private their original contexts—including ex-partners circulating erotic photos, including photos taken of women unawares, including men commenting on and masturbating to them. The implication is that posing=guilt, that owning a body and being photographed in it is an action for which reprisals are fair and should have been anticipated before the subject of the photographs did what she did. In contrast, Violentacrez’s activities are framed as passive. All he’s done is circulate existing photos, and “frame” them differently. He has “done” nothing and deserves nothing, whereas women have owned bodies and posed in them. Circulating is passive, existing is active. Chen’s piece highlights how extremely *active* Violentacrez’ practices are, & how specific the intentions. It underlines the malignant intent and removes the passive framing. This stuff takes massive effort.

The second point is the curious stance that circulating photographs of women doesn’t constitute a violation of their privacy because they’re not named. Their anonymity is preserved.

Let me repeat: 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. And yet many people in this community bizarrely insist that they are somehow irrelevant, and that posting them is not a violation of a person’s privacy.

Whereas connecting a username to someone’s actual name—not to their body, just to another label, another way they exist in the world—is a MASSIVE PRIVACY VIOLATION.

The implication is that privacy resides in your name, not in your body. If you’re a man with the luxury to think this way, your body is understood as a sort of irrelevant accessory to your name, the thing that really matters. An invasion of privacy isn’t interpreted as a literal invasion. Although they plainly are, men’s bodies aren’t understood as being capable of being penetrated. People with this mentality don’t see a photograph as an invasion of privacy because they don’t experience the image of their bodies as being connected to the privacy that is capable of being violated. Of the genders, one is overwhelmingly more likely to think this way and to conclude—astonishingly—that having a username connected to an actual name is an invasion of privacy whereas a photograph of someone is not.

[Follow-up post here.]


29 thoughts on “Thoughts on Free Speech Logic and Violentacrez

  1. Privacy vis à vis names is a bigger deal than photographs to many folks, especially those who move in tech-savvy circles, for one very simple reason — you can Google a name easily, quickly, and reliably. Googling a likeness is nearly impossible. So, questions of gender, self-perception, penetration or anything else aside, from a purely pragmatic perspective, the presence of one’s name online is a significantly greater risk to anonymity than the presence of one’s image.

    It’s not my intent to derail your argument, and I agree that one’s notion of privacy online (or anywhere, really) is influenced by gender. But when it comes to the ease of finding information about a person online based on their name, as opposed to their likeness, both genders are equally at risk. I suspect that this particular troll would have *much* rather have had only his likeness posted along with the Gawker piece, rather than his likeness and his full name, because it’s the association of his full name with his online activity that’s going to cause trouble for him. And I’m willing to bet that, while any of the women whose photographs were posted online without their permission had good cause to be unhappy about it, they would be significantly *less* happy about having their names posted along with those images. The images alone are troubling, sure, but friends, family, coworkers and employers are much less likely to stumble on an image alone than to find that image (or any other information about a person) by way of a search for their name.

    That’s all to your second point, of course, and your first point is well-taken. The guy was and is a creep, without a doubt, and the fact that reposting private photos of other people may have been within his free speech rights doesn’t make doing so any less reprehensible. Whatever your thoughts on the nature and expectation of privacy online, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that having this guy no longer doing what he was doing is a net win for everybody.

    1. Googling a likeness is not impossible. It’s not even necessarily hard anymore. Google image search actually supports the ability to upload a photo or paste a link to a photo and find similar photos and supplementary information regarding the photograph. For instance, searching for photos similar for the first image that comes up when looking for Michael Brutsch will point back to Michael. On a lark, I took an image from my website, added a meme caption and used that image and guess what? It traced back to not only my website, but my Twitter and Linked In profiles (the later of which isn’t even linked from my website.) Those in “tech-savvy circles” should know how easy this is becoming and it’s only going to get easier as facial recognition improves.

    2. As a real world example, I just hit /r/ShitRedditSays and found a link to an image of a woman that people insulting. It was a photo of her at her own wedding taken by someone and (possibly) posted without her permission. When I search for that image? First result that comes back is the Reddit thread that’s insulting her.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Re: your first point, of course! One point many of Violentacrez’ defenders emphasize is that his life will be ruined by Chen’s decision to expose him. By this they mean chiefly that he will likely be fired and become unemployable thanks to Google searches like the ones you describe. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that these are the terms in which they understand a life to be ruined? People whose photographs are posted online–particularly in the contexts Violentacrez encouraged–stand to have their lives ruined too. Many girls and women have undergone extraordinary suffering (with some, like Amanda Todd, committing suicide) because of these “free speech acts.” But this particular kind of ruination doesn’t count; according to the terms these defenders use, only employability is relevant.

    I’d suggest that while of course men and women both value their employability (and the ways in which their names appear in Internet searches), only women stand to have their lives ruined in this other manner, which goes unnamed and unrecognized because a) it happens offline and involves “social” as opposed to economic ruin to which men are less vulnerable (unless they’re sex offenders) and b) it only involves female “victims” who are quite easy to blame. If your uncle stumbles on a nude photo you sent an ex-lover on one of the sites he visits and forwards it to family and friends, oh well–you were the agent of your own ruination.

    This kind of humiliation doesn’t count according to defenders of internet anonymity; an event only counts as damage if you get fired. By discounting that this sort of exposure constitutes damage can Violentacrez’s defenders claim that he is a victim and people photographed against their will aren’t. What they don’t know can’t hurt them, and if they find out, BFD.

    But this logic is worth chasing too: the reason your life is ruined if your boss fired you over something you did online is that you can’t make money. Your ability to pay for room and board might be compromised, and so you won’t eat, you might not have a place to sleep, etc. Your quality of life goes down in measurable, material terms. Someone psychologically devastated by having their body displayed to thousands of perverts is also quite likely (should they become depressed) to be unable to work, to eat, to sleep. If the criteria for “life ruination” is the inability to support oneself, the endpoints for both hypothetical situations are quite similar.

    I got interested in your point re: likenesses being searchable. You’re right, although facial recognition software is already a reality, and will become more mainstream soon. But Google isn’t as necessary as one might think for this sort of thing. As someone whose image was circulated in the pre-Facebook days (and in print, no less!) and who was subsequently located and written to by three strange men, I can attest to the fact that this happens, and it’s scary. The distance between a photo and a name was never as great as it seemed, and it’s diminishing daily.

    One other minor point occurred to me re: how the genders relate to identity and privacy and why women might invest more weight in the image relative to name compared to men, and it’s this: men (quite understandably) see a name as unchangeable. Women don’t–it’s still widely expected that they will change their names when they marry. It’s still much more difficult for men to legally change their names than it is for women to do so.

      1. Oh! That’s funny, Juliet–I just reposted it, since the comment was longer than the original post. Thanks, and thanks for letting me know.

  3. This post comes across as defending something you’re not really comfortable with. I’m not comfortable with it either. I think creepshots was vile. Some other stuff VA was involved in was even worse. But Chen is a weasel. Gawker has obviously been encouraging drama with reddit as a convenient way to get hits in keeping with their yellow journalism link-bait model. Doxxing VA was simply a way to further exploit an internet fight that Chen was a participent in.

  4. Hi Matt,

    The fact that everyone concerned has many motives, some of which you or I might not agree with, doesn’t strike me as having much to do with the arguments VA defenders are using–in particular, the ways in which they’re theorizing privacy and what it means to have privacy violated. The latter (and not Adrian Chen or VA or the ongoing Reddit vs. Gawker wars) is the subject of this post.

  5. the idea that a photograph is anonymous, is naive–apart from the exif data contained within an image, GPS location specifics, and much more–the data that drives google image search is increasing exponentially. Let’s not forget the face-tagging power of facebook. A photo can now most certainly be used to find the person’s name, and it will only get easier.

  6. Chen’s story only becomes unacceptable if you are one of those who considers Creepshots and like forums harmless or acceptable.
    A man is considered apart from his body in a way a woman is not in our society. When your worth is linked to your body and the use you make of it – even just someone’s perception of the use you make of it – someone stealing your image and having the power to repurpose it without consent or consequence is tantamount to that person gaining a huge amount of control over your future. I’d say putting private images in a public setting is absolutely an equal offense to publishing the name of the person who posted it.
    When a woman faces consequences because an employer saw a Creepshot, she is being held accountable for Violentacrez’s actions. When an employer sees Violentacrez’s name and image appear in connection with Creepshots, he is being held accountable for his own actions. As the only one with a choice as to whether those the images he posted appeared on Reddit, I would say blame rests in the proper place when it rests with him.
    I would also point out, that in the world of traditional media, using a potentially damaging image without someone’s consent – especially if neither the person or the image has news value – is one of the most sure ways to be legally culpable. Why do you think the National Enquirer sticks to celebrities and public figures? In part, because it’s legally safer. In this context, the issue comes down to this – the fact of being female isn’t newsworthy. The fact of being someone who systematically exploits women as part of a prominent site’s online culture is.

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