IMAGE: STUDIO TDES
BY SASHA LEKACH 12/9/2016
You've got the "Success Kid," Gavin, "First Day on the Internet Kid" and many more awkward teens rounding out the ever-growing collection of memes featuring kids. They go insanely viral due to funny faces, gestures and expressions that describe a universal sense of frustration, achievement or utter despair.
But sometimes, these viral photos are snatched from unknowing users' social media pages and used for nasty and offensive messages. When this happens, life can turn ugly real fast.
A photo of Hillary Clinton with a 4-year-old lookalike at an October 2015 campaign event in South Carolina started circulating around the web after the photo made it onto the "Hillary for America" Flickr page. The image spread as a meme, but not as a funny or relatable one. Instead, it was twisted from a joyous moment meeting a political hero to a disturbingly dark and vicious sentiment.
Anti-Clinton groups took the photo and plastered a message in a "meme font" above the girl's smiling face and over her body, according to the Washington Post. The message read, "I am for women's rights!", before, in the same font, accusing Clinton of taking money from countries "that would mutilate this girl’s genitals, marry her to a Muslim pedophile, and stone her to death if she doesn’t wear a bedsheet."
Sullivan's mom, Jennifer Jones, told Mashable, she had tried in vain to remove the meme. Stressed and upset, she went directly to some of the social media pages spreading the image, on sites such as Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but struggled to get the meme taken down. "I’m just one little person," she said. "It's time consuming to go one by one."
After the election, Jones decided she couldn't do it alone and reached out to the secret Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation, to ask for help to remove it from sites. "I didn’t think I had a chance in hell in winning this," she said, but through group connections she got in touch with the Clinton campaign and the Anti-Defamation League.
She quickly found out that when scrubbing something from the internet, "successes are few and far between," but she persevered and the upsetting meme of her daughter is mostly gone. "It’s incredible," she said.
That photo is one of many memes featuring young people, usually taken from parents or kids themselves posting images on social media or photo sharing sites. In the latest #Pizzagate conspiracy theory fiasco, fake news stories about a completely fabricated child sex trafficking ring claiming to involve Hillary Clinton and campaign staff based out of a Washington, D.C., restaurant featured photos of real children in the made-up news.
This practice of grabbing photos of kids and repurposing them is more common than you'd think, according to Jonathan Vick, the Anti-Defamation League's assistant director of the cyberhate response team. The group helped Jones take down the offending memes from as many corners of the internet as possible.
But fighting cyberhate involving children can feel like a Herculean task. "Nothing is ever completely scrubbed from the internet," Vick said in a call to Mashable, noting that petitioning a website to take something down is not always effective.
Jones' case with her young daughter is one of many the organization works to remove. "Parents are terrified when pictures start showing up in different places," Vick said.
Just this week a Rhode Island dad was horrified when his son's image was used as a joke meme on a Twitter account and other places. Although the photo of his son eating a donut did not include anything particularly offensive, he told his local paper that he didn't want his son's image circulating without his permission. He has posted removal requests on Facebook accounts and asked family friends to also petition sites to take down the image.
Vick is trying to spread a message that "children are not fair game" in the meme world, especially children with special needs. He said offensive use of these children's photos is prevalent and made to be funny because they look different.
Jenny Smith from a small Alabama town knows too well how unforgiving a place the internet can be toward a child with special needs.
After posting a photo of her son Grayson, now 3 and a half, on a Facebook page detailing his serious medical problems including occipital encephalocele, craniosynostosis, micrognathia, thumb hypoplasia, a cleft palate, hypospadias, congenital anomalies of the lower limbs, an atrial septal defect of the heart and other anomalies, his photo was used in a cruel meme mocking his looks. Smith discovered the meme in November, but it had already been online for months.
"I was just heartbroken," she told Mashable in a phone call. "Why in the world would somebody do that? I never really thought people would be so cruel."
Grayson has continued to defy his terminal diagnosis, so Smith is confident she can beat this. She has slowly been contacting sites to have the image removed, but she's faced a lot of resistance with claims of first amendment rights. Jones, the mom from the Clinton meme, has been in touch to connect Smith with more resources.
But Smith says since the photo is from her own social media post she knowingly took this risk. She is determined to keep Grayson's story up online — that's how her family receives support. "I don't want to be self-consumed with this meme," she said, adding her family isn't going to back down and neither is her son, who is tech-savvy and knows how to navigate internet-enabled devices.
"I want him to know what people say can be cruel," she said. "I want him to have self-confidence. If I hide that from him, it’s not going to benefit him."
Vick said memes like Grayson's are the worst offenders, but harder to pull down.
The "Success Kid" meme in various forms.
The ADL isn't after Gene Wilder-type memes or even messages made by parents and families themselves, which the group leaves alone. Take the "Success Kid," now 10-year-old Sam Griner. His mother said in a message to Mashable that over the years the image of Sam as a baby with a clenched fist is mostly used in fun, light-hearted ways, but her family has had to deal with their fair share of meaner comments and abuse.
Gavin, an expressive 6-year-old from Minnesota, also has a huge online following thanks to photos and captions his uncle and other family members put on the internet.
In a phone call with Mashable, his uncle, who goes by his online name Nick Mastodon, said most of the memes are "in good nature," like the Time "Person of the Year" parody, which Mastodon said is "celebrating him." He added, "You put these things out in the world and you hope people use them for good."
"In the current climate, you’re seeing behavior on the internet less tolerant and more exclusionary."
But like anything, things can turn dark quickly. After the election, someone Photoshopped an image of Gavin drinking out of a cup to drinking out of a bottle of Clorox, alluding to him killing himself. "Depicting him in such a horrible way was pretty unsettling to me," Mastodon said.
He called out the person posting the photo and flagged the image as harmful on Twitter. These are usually the tactics he uses to attempt to control any abuse, and usually it works.
"In the current climate, you’re seeing behavior on the internet less tolerant and more exclusionary," Vick from the ADL said, such as more memes about politics and ethnicity.
Getting the offending images off the internet entirely and keeping them off is not easy and usually involves bringing in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for using content without permission.
"It's a lot easier to create these things than to get rid of them," Vick said.