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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

***

“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.