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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Haystack in a haystack: travels around the human genome

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book is a tourist guide to the twenty-first century’s uncharted continent, the human genome.

My favourite quotation from Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” In that brief sentence, the founder of modern biology unknowingly summarised in advance the history of genetics, from the eugenical ideas of his half-cousin Francis Galton to Bill Clinton’s statement that the human ­genome sequence was “the most important, the most wondrous map ever produced by humankind”.

The eugenics movement led to ­disasters known to everyone. It is not yet dead: Francis Crick once claimed that “no newborn should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment”, and our own government’s decision to deny child support to poor people irresponsible enough to have more than two offspring (the agent of the policy has four) is in the same tradition. As a reminder of our ignorance, the DNA chart looks more like a medieval atlas than a modern map – with geneticists, in unconscious parallel to Swift’s words, the geographers who “in Afric maps/With savage pictures fill their gaps,/And o’er inhabitable downs/Place ­elephants for want of towns”.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book is a tourist guide to the new Africa, the human genome. The chart of that continent does indeed have too many metaphorical elephants and a noticeable shortage of productive towns: there are only about 20,000 working genes in the conventional sense, rather than the millions once assumed to exist (and why do tomatoes have more than we do?). They are surrounded by vast numbers of more or less mysterious molecular beasts, some of them parasites that invaded long ago, others the mouldering corpses of once-noble creatures, and yet more – the so-called junk – known more in its anatomy than in what it actually does. Lengthy as this book is (and Mukherjee might have gained from turning to his own account of the genome’s ability to cut out redundant and repetitive sections), it gives a full and lively account of the development of the subject, from its birth in the 19th century to its infancy in the 20th and its uncertain adolescence in the 21st.

Mukherjee begins the book with a melancholy tale of the schizophrenia that attacked two of his uncles and his cousin, and caused his own father to worry that elements of the illness “may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself”. Other family members had blamed the madness of their relatives on the horrors of Partition in India in 1947, which led to millions of deaths. Now, however, it has become clear that a predisposition to the condition, and particularly to the variety known as bipolar disorder (doctors have abandoned the old name “manic ­depression”), has a strong hereditary component, and Mukherjee confesses that part of the impetus for writing The Gene: an Intimate History was a personal concern about his own offspring. In this it resembles his 2011 work on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which he describes as a biography rather than a work of popular science.

The problem with genetics is that it lends itself too readily to anecdote. When teaching, I begin my own first-year course on the subject by telling the students: “I am a geneticist and my job is to make sex boring.” They look somewhat bemused, but after 20 lectures that fight through pedigrees, linkage mapping, population genetics, inbreeding, heritability, mutation and the like, I can tell that they agree heartily – and I’ve not even started to talk about the mechanics of sequencing or the horrors of bioinformatics, which have turned much of biology into computer science. Instead, to leaven the mix, and much as I secretly regret it, I plunge again and again into the Swamp of Storytelling and revel in colourful and often tragic tales of Sex, Age and Death (a phrase I once planned to use as a book title but made the mistake of mentioning to Bob Geldof, who stole it for one of his albums).

Mukherjee does the same, and often succeeds. I did not know that Gregor Mendel twice failed in his attempts to enter teacher training college; that the founder of (and donor to) the notorious “genius” sperm bank of the 1980s, the Nobel prizewinner William Shockley, may well have had autism, another condition with some genetic component; nor that the human genome paper was the longest ever published in Nature. And I learned perhaps more than I needed to know about the sordid disagreements between public and private genome mappers, the latter anxious to make millions, even billions, from the map, and the former who saw it as a public good. The good guys won in the end, though the American molecular diagnostics company Myriad Genetics managed to leap in just in time to patent the two genes that can cause breast cancer when they go wrong.

On his trek across the genetical landscape Mukherjee gives an exhaustive account of the development of the modern science of inheritance. He has talked to many of the main players and gives deep insights into their moments of discovery. He does sometimes fall a little too hard for the latest scientific fashion, the most glittering (or tawdry) of which is epigenetics, the interaction between gene and environment. The term was coined by one of my own teachers at Edinburgh, C H Waddington, a student of fruit fly development. He found that a sudden heat shock to the embryos led to the appearance of a few flies with abnormal wings among the adults. By breeding from these, he could obtain stocks that in time produced such flies with no need for a shock, proof that an environmental stress could uncover hidden genetic variation. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked and turned into a universal bridge between chemistry and biology. It is even used to revive the discred­ited idea that an organism can pass on characteristics acquired in its own lifetime.

That bridge goes far too far. The idea that genes respond to external stresses can be traced to the first days of molecular genetics, when it became clear that some genes regulate the activity of others when a creature is faced with a shift in food, or temperature, or some other external stress. In part it is a statement of the obvious: go out in the summer sunshine and the average Briton will get a tan, because skin cells respond to an alarm call by a protein that senses cellular damage to summon up dark granules of melanin around the DNA in order to protect it. His or her children, though, will be born pink. Quite why there has been such a fuss about a concept invented 70 years ago is not clear and is made no clearer here.

The book ends where it began, with schizophrenia. That illness is a microcosm of Darwin’s aphorism on ignorance. Freud blamed the condition on “unconscious homosexual impulses”, while others were just as confident that it was brought on by hostile mothers. Then the pendulum swung towards treating it as a genetic disease almost as straightforward as haemophilia. Some cases, like those described in Mukherjee’s opening pages, do indeed run in families, but many more are sporadic and appear among kindred that have no history of the problem. For the latter, the new genetics has revealed hundreds of gene mutations in affected children that are not present in their parents. For the former, the story is not so simple. Certainly, genes that predispose to the condition can be passed on, but various families may inherit different genes yet show similar symptoms, and particular combinations of genes rather than single elements may be responsible for the illness.

As this book puts it, the search for the genes behind mental disorder is not like searching for a needle in a haystack, but for a haystack in a haystack. Even for highly heritable attributes such as height, the quest for genes has been baffling, given that more than a hundred are known to be involved in such variation but altogether do not represent even a tenth of the number needed to explain the similarity of parents and children. Unpalatable as this may be for us mere Mendelians, almost every human gene, in effect, may influence almost every one of our attributes, which will be no fun for tomorrow’s molecular cartographers. Even so, and tangled as it already is, Mukherjee does a good job of cutting away the web of ambiguity and complexity that scientists have woven since the happy days when Mendel counted the ratio of round to wrinkled peas in the garden of Brno’s abbey.

Another Darwin quotation, this one from The Voyage of the Beagle:

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage . . . The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply. 

Very true, but for his genetical descendants the expedition has only just begun. 

Steve Jones is Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College London and the author of “No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine” (Little, Brown)

The Gene: an Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee is published by Bodley Head (608pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink