Reddit blocks Gawker in defence of its right to be really, really creepy

Links from Gawker are banned from /r/politics, after journalist threatens to reveal the identity of the man running Reddit's "creepshots", "beatingwomen" and "jailbait" forums.

Links from the Gawker network of sites have been banned from the Reddit US Politics sub-forum, r/politics. The ban was instigated by a moderator after a Gawker.com journalist, Adrian Chen, apparently threatened to expose the real-life identity of redditor violentacrez, the creator of r/jailbait and r/creepshots. These two sub-forums, or "subreddits" were dedicated to, respectively, sexualised pictures of under-18s and sexualised pictures of women – frequently also under-age – taken in public without their knowledge or consent.

Both subreddits have since been deleted. The first went in a cull of similarly paedophilic subreddits in August last year, which also took down r/teen_girls and r/jailbaitgw ("gone wild", as in "girls gone wild"). The second was made private and then deleted due to the fallout from Chen's investigation.

According to leaked chatlogs, Chen was planning to reveal the real name of violentacrez, and approached him – because come on, it's a he – for comment. That sparked panic behind the scenes, and eventually prompted violentacrez to delete his account.

Reddit's attitude to free speech is a complex one. The extreme laissez-fair attitude of reddit's owners and administrators (the site is owned by Condé Nast, which doesn't interfere in the day-to-day management, and similarly the site administrators typically refuse to police any sub-forums) means that replacements for r/creepshots will likely spring up again, albeit more underground. Indeed, r/creepyshots was started then closed within a day. The ability of any redditor to create any subreddit they want, without the site's administration getting involved, is fiercely protected by the community, and that has led to subreddits focused on topics ranging from marijuana use and My-Little-Pony-themed pornography to beating women (also moderated by violentacrez) and, until yesterday, creepshots.

The moderators of the r/politics subreddit apparently consider Chen's attempt to find out more about violentacrez – a practice known as doxxing – to be in violation of this covenant. They write:

As moderators, we feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable. We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you. Reddit prides itself on having a subreddit for everything, and no matter how much anyone may disapprove of what another user subscribes to, that is never a reason to threaten them. [emphasis original]

It is important to note that the action is taken only by the moderators of r/politics, and not reddit as a whole. Nonetheless, r/politics is an extremely busy subreddit, one of the defaults to which all new redditors are subscribed, and has almost two million subscribed readers, and likely an order of magnitude more who read without subscribing. Of the last 23 gawker.com links posted to reddit, five went to r/politics.

The whole affair has an extra level of irony, because in hoping to post online publicly available information against violentacrez wishes, Chen was doing exactly the same thing which violentacrez and other moderators of r/creepshots claimed was legal and ethical. By requiring that all photos be taken in a public area – and, after a public outcry, banning photos taken in schools or featuring under-18-year-olds – they hoped to stay on the right side of the law. Even then, however, the rules were regularly flouted, with a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy about location and age of the subjects of the photos.

Whether or not Chen publishes the violentacrez "outing", a group of anonymous sleuths tried to take the same idea further. A now-deleted tumblr, predditors, linked reddit usernames to real people. One user, for example, had the same username on reddit.com and music site last.fm, and the last.fm profile contained a link to his Facebook page. Cross-referencing comments about his age, university and hometown allowed the connection to be confirmed, and meant that the blog could put a name and a face to comments like "NIGGERS GET THE KNIFE" and submissions like "a gallery of my personal collection of shorts, thongs, and ass".

Jezebel interviewed the woman behind predditors, who argued that:

CreepShots is a gateway drug to more dangerous hobbies. Fetishizing non-consent "indicates [that CreepShots posters] don't view women as people, and most will not be satisfied with just that level of violation," she said. "I want to make sure that the people around these men know what they're doing so they can reap social, professional, or legal consequences, and possibly save women from future sexual assault. These men are dangerous."

Whether or not she's right, the site is certainly incredibly creepy, and it's hard to feel too sorry for men merely getting a taste of their own medicine. But as this debate has spilled over into the more mainstream areas of the site, Reddit risks becoming increasingly associated with defending the rights of its users to post jailbait and creepshots in the minds of the public. 

Update

Tumblr has reinstated the Predditors blog, and tells me that:

This blog was mistakenly suspended under the impression that it was revealing private, rather than publicly-available, information. We are restoring the blog.

The (anonymous) administrator of the blog itself appears to have set a password on it, however, putting a lid on how far it can go.

The front page of r/politics

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why we seek out new planets

If you want to know how likely we are to find a ninth planet lurking at the edge of our solar system, it is worth considering hunches elsewhere in science.

If you want to know how likely we are to find a ninth planet lurking at the edge of our solar system, it is worth considering hunches elsewhere in science. When discovery relies on hope, inference and statistics, we are easily fooled.

We have been here before. In 1983, when Pluto was still the ninth planet and any new discovery could legitimately be given the moniker “Planet X”, researchers operating the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) thought they had seen something big. In 1990, another search began: the suspicion was that a tenth planet might be found in the constellation Centaurus. This was prompted by computer simulations that suggested the existence of a planet that was twice the size of Earth, ten billion kilometres from the sun.

In 2002, researchers used computer modelling to investigate what had made a suspicious area of empty space in the otherwise teeming Kuiper Belt, a region crammed with small rocks, orbiting at the edge of the solar system. According to the computer, the empty region could have been created when some of those rocks agglomerated to form a planet the size of Earth or Mars.

Two years ago, anomalies in the orbits of some objects in the Kuiper Belt led astronomers to claim that two planet-sized objects could be out there: one with a mass ten times that of Earth and another that was even bigger. So far, observations by everything from the IRAS satellite to Nasa’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope have ruled out a Planet X. Yet the computers say that we should look again.

The latest suggestion comes from simulations of the solar system’s birth. This was a time of planetary violence, with collisions between proto-planets creating debris, swept up to form new bodies. The collisions that formed Uranus and Neptune would also have created the cores of planets up to ten times the size of Earth, slung by gravitational effects out of the inner solar system. It is possible that one of these could have moved into an orbit in the outer solar system. Given the anomalies in some of the orbits of the Kuiper Belt objects, it seems worth a look. Hence the new excitement about Planet X – though after Pluto’s demotion, it would be Planet Nine.

None of this speculation is wasted: it has worked before. We found Neptune because of irregularities in Uranus’s orbit around the sun. Pluto was discovered in the search for Planet X. However, although anomalies and computer models occasionally lead us to a discovery, they can also be notoriously misleading.

It is not just a problem in astronomy. Anomalies in the data at Cern give “hints” of new, undiscovered particles far more often than those particles are discovered. In medicine, understanding the “false discovery rate” saves innumerable blushes.

So how long will we keep searching for Planet X? A paper published last year by Thomas Fanshawe of Oxford University gives us a reliable hint. It looked at the way in which our tenacity in looking for something – whether for weapons in airport baggage, cancers in X-rays, or cracks in road bridges – depends on the expectation of finding it.

Of particular relevance is the “law of increasing returns”: those who believe that the object is there assume that the longer the search continues, the more ground has been covered, increasing the chance of imminent discovery. Judging by the story so far, the search for Planet X (or Nine) will go on for a good while yet, with ever higher hopes.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?