By now the pattern has become familiar. The trove of images suddenly materialized on 4chan, which is known as both the “darkest” and the “seediest” corner on the Internet. Then the private celebrity photographs beamed to the more mainstream, if equally unseemly, Reddit, which journalists regularly troll for stories. Soon the usual suspects — TMZ, Gawker, Buzzfeed — ran with the news, drawing more attention to the photos.
Right now, we’re halfway through another celebrity leak, and, if the pattern holds, little can stop it. During the weekend, another batch of surreptitiously-obtained photographs dropped, purporting to show Kim Kardashian, Hope Solo, Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence. And though there’s widespread consensus the leaks represent a profound and abhorrent breach of privacy — which has ignited a national debate over password security — the pictures most likely aren’t going anywhere.
In a media environment including Reddit and 4chan, whose users operate under a veil of anonymity and try to one-up each other with more salacious material, it is nearly impossible to capture images once they’re out there. They propagate and re-propagate faster than anyone can delete them — even when those images violate copyright law.
“It quickly devolved into a game of whack-a-mole,” the site said in a statement after the past leak. “We’d execute a take-down, someone would adjust, re-upload, and then repeat.”
This is currently happening all over Reddit. After Reddit shut down a message board called “TheFappening,” which housed the photos last week, this new batch moved to a separate chat room. By early morning Monday, those pictures were gone, but not before viewership on that board surged.
“When the photos went out, they inevitably got linked to on Reddit,” the Web site explained in its statement after the first leak. “As more people became aware of them, we started getting a huge amount of traffic … We hit new traffic milestones, ones which I’d be ashamed to share publicly.”
The images of this batch have again escaped to other parts of the site, where they have quickly gathered more viewers — some totaling in the hundreds of thousands of clicks in a few hours. By the end of the day, affected celebrities such as Kaley Cuoco and Abigail Spencer had deleted their Twitter accounts, which in itself became additional fodder for Reddit.
“We’re all [jerks] for going crazy over these leaks, there’s no denying that,” one user wrote. “These are private moments for these girls, and they’ve been exposed for the world to see. However, most of us at least have the slight shred of decency to only discuss the leaks in a place like this. This is still a public forum.”
Such mentality also illustrates why little can expunge celebrity leaks on sites such as Reddit or 4chan. They’re anarchic, free-flowing, operating in an almost Hobbesian state of nature. There’s little regulation beyond taboos against child pornography and posts that explicitly advocate “physical danger,” according to internal standards.
Though Reddit did ultimately delete TheFappening, it didn’t do out of some moral code, but because there were rumors one of the celebrity photographs was taken while the subject was underage — a crime. The breach of privacy wasn’t a concern.
“Reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media,” it said in a separate statement called “Every man is responsible for his own soul.” “We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site.”
Reddit says it is up to its users to post what they will. “The user has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that is your responsibility to do so,” it said. “…You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose … what kind of rules you will enforce.”
That’s all well and fine. But what happens, in situations such as this, when there are no rules — only victims?