It’s Not Anonymity; It’s Misogyny

Jaron Lanier, who helped to shaped the web as we know it, does not like where internet culture has gone; he has not liked it since at least the year 2000, but The Smithsonian Magazine has recently published an article about the reasons why. While he has some valid points, he exaggerates the dangers of anonymity, and the specific example he gives is a near-perfect example of the reasons he makes this error:

So it turns out Violentacrez is this guy with a disabled wife who’s middle-aged and he’s kind of a Walter Mitty—someone who wants to be significant, wants some bit of Nietzschean spark to his life . . . And he’s not that different from any of us. The difference is that he’s scared and possibly hurt a lot of people.

Violantacrez is the pseudonym of Michael Brutsch. Under this pseudonym, Brutsch helped to develop a some of the most despicable parts of Reddit, including so-called subreddits dedicated to posting sexualized images of women and underage girls without consent. The difference between him and us is that he is a violent misogynist who believes that it is acceptable to use women (specifically their pictures) without any consideration for what these women want. Lanier mentions his being married to a disabled woman as if this is somehow a sign that Brutsch was somehow not that bad, as if misogynist men never had relationships with women and is if being involved with someone with a disability were a particular sign of being, at least, a decent person.

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But Violentacrez is not an Everyman corrupted by anonymity. In an anonymous forum, men who do not believe that women exist primarily for their gratification will not act like Violentacrez or the people who participated in the parts of Reddit he helped build. Anonymity enabled Brutsch because it allowed him to act without penalty until his identity was revealed, but it did not cause the problem. Without online anonymity, he might very well have been passing similar pictures around among trusted friends.

Misogynists act like misogynists online and offline. If online anonymity allows misogynists and others with reprehensible standpoints to speak to a broader audience without penalty, it also allows their actions to be seen and named as what they are—at least if we refuse to pretend that anonymity by itself corrupts.

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