By Adran Chen
Last Wednesday afternoon I called Michael Brutsch. He was at the office of the Texas financial services company where he works as a programmer and he was having a bad day. I had just told him, on Gchat, that I had uncovered his identity as the notorious internet troll Violentacrez (pronounced Violent-Acres).
“It’s amazing how much you can sweat in a 60 degree office,” he said with a nervous laugh.
Judging from his internet footprint, Brutsch, 49, has a lot to sweat over. If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as ‘Violentacrez’ he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit. At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called “Creepshots.” Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn’t suit him very well.
But Michael Brutsch is more than a monster. Online, Violentacrez has been one of Reddit’s most reviled characters but also one of its most beloved users. The self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit” has played a little-known but crucial role in Reddit’s development into the online juggernaut it is today. In real life, Brutsch is a military father and cat-lover. He lives with his wife in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas. There are many sides to Violentacrez, and now that I had Michael Brutsch on the phone I hoped to find out where the troll ended and the real person began.
I first became aware of Violentacrez last year, when controversy erupted over a section, called “Jailbait,” that Violentacrez had created on Reddit dedicated to sexualized images of underaged girls. (Brutsch adapted the name from “Violent Acres,” a popular anonymous blogger he was fond of in the mid-2000s.) Reddit, for the uninitiated, is essentially a social news site; with a free username, anyone can submit and vote on content and can do so anonymously. And anyone can start a forum on Reddit dedicated to their interests, known as a subreddit. Today, there are about 10,000 active subreddits out of nearly 100,000 total, spanning a dizzying array of topics from funny pictures, to Power Rangers, to pooping. If a post gets enough “upvotes,” as they’re called, it can be propelled to the front page of Reddit and a massive audience.
The breadth of topics and dedication of users has made Reddit, which calls itself the “front page of the internet,” the single dominant force in internet culture today, boasting over 3.4 billion pageviews this August. It reached a new level of legitimacy last month, when President Obama held a Q & A on Reddit. These days, Reddit is mentioned in the same breath as Twitter and Facebook by pundits expounding on the power of social media.
But Reddit’s laissez-faire attitude towards offensive speech has led to a vast underbelly that rivals anything on the notorious cesspool 4chan. And with Jailbait, Violentacrez decided to create a safe space for people sexually attracted to underage girls to share their photo stashes. I would call these people pedophiles; the Jailbait subreddit called them “ephebophiles.” Jailbait was the online equivalent of systematized street harassment. Users posted snapshots of tween and teenage girls, often in bikinis and skirts. Many of these were lifted from their Facebook accounts and thrown in front of Jailbait’s 20,000 horny subscribers.
Violentacrez and his fellow moderators worked hard to make sure every girl on jailbait was underage, diligently deleting any photos whose subjects seemed older than 16 or 17. Violentacrez himself posted hundreds of photos. Jailbait became one of Reddit’s most popular subreddits, generating millions of pageviews a month. “Jailbait” was for a time the second biggest search term bringing traffic to Reddit, after “Reddit.” Eventually, Jailbait landed on CNN, where Anderson Cooper called out Reddit for hosting it, and Violentacrez for creating it. The ensuing outcry led Reddit administrators to reluctantly ban Jailbait, and all sexually suggestive content featuring minors.
On the phone, Michael Brutsch insisted he is not a pedophile but was unapologetic about Jailbait. He compared the photos of underage girls he posted to Britney Spears’ sultry “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video. She was 16 at the time, he said—how was that different than what he was doing? Brutsch said he only reposted photos that he’d found elsewhere, mostly on 4chan, and that he promptly removed any outright child porn that was posted.