The Right to Be Forgotten

By Alexia Nader

Jennifer Lawrence / Flickr Creative Commons @Marco Manna

Definition 1a of the verb “to post” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to publish, announce, or advertise by or as if by use of a placard.” Definition 1b: “to denounce by public notice.” In what could be called social media’s naive period, we posted whole albums of our vacations and parties, tweeted about both our breakfasts and political views, and commented on friends’ photos. We published, we announced, we advertised about ourselves, our friends, our acquaintances and complete strangers. And we thought that if we wanted to, we could take down anything we regretted—that it would forever disappear. It seemed that we had all the agency. Encouraged by this freedom, some of us, especially eager and industrious early adopters, became as well-documented online (if not as intensely watched) as public figures like politicians or celebrities. Most of us barely stopped, then, to think about the oddness of this period in the history of publishing and documentation.1a: that innocent, pre-Snowden moment; 1b: the other side of the coin, the Internet scandals that engulf entire social media networks and then spit the people at the center back out, shamed and traumatized. The perilous freefalls when our online self-narratives spin out of control. For a former counselor for disabled people named Lindsey Stone — and a woman on the other end of the fame and power spectrums, the actress Jennifer Lawrence — 1a turned into 1b with dizzying speed. Their stories — how their photos became part of the public domain and subject to intense scrutiny, how they and social media users reacted to the incidents — bring up questions of individual responsibility, over what we allow to be online and our expectations of what happens to the documents once there, and of our collective responsibility to each other.

Before Lindsey Stone became the object of an Internet shaming campaign, she was a regular person with a regular job, who enjoyed an active online life. In particular, she and a friend liked to take goofy photos in front of statues and monuments. One day she posed in front of a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that read “Silence and Respect.” In the photo, her mouth is wide open in a scream and she’s flipping off the camera. Her friend posted it on Facebook. That was the beginning of its viral life. A few weeks later, thousands of people had found and were commenting on it. A page calling for her to be fired from her job received 12,000 likes.

The journalist Jon Ronson interviewed Stone for his book So Youve Been Publicly Shamed. He discovered that she still doesn’t know how people found the photo or why exactly it elicited such a strong response. What she does know is that after the sound and fury dissolved, her life was in shambles. She’d, in fact, lost her job and, as Ronson reports, barely left her home for a year. However, when you search for “fire Lindsey Stone” on Facebook today, two-plus years after the incident, only one page pops up — “Lindsey Stone needs to be fired. She isn’t American.” It has just 128 likes; an opposing “Hire Lindsey Stone” page has 152 likes.

The shaming mob moves onward, quickly, capriciously, blindly. Last August, anonymous hackers broke into Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud account, stole nude photos that she had uploaded and posted them to 4chan and Reddit. Millions of users accessed the photos in their first week online. Shortly after the incident, Reddit caved to legal and media pressure and deleted the subreddit thread, “TheFappening.” But it was too late: even as the pictures were being removed from Reddit, they were being reposted elsewhere and indexed by Google.

Illustration / Flickr @Brent Humanartistvendingmachine

Illustration / Flickr @Brent Humanartistvendingmachine

Jennifer Lawrence made her feelings on the incident public. She told Vanity Fair, “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.” She continued, “It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.” Very soon after, a Reddit thread appeared, peppered with snarky comments about the sexy photoshoot that had accompanied Lawrence’s interview. “She is just mad she wont be able to get a lot of money from her first topless scene,” wrote myrptaway. Many commenters cried hypocrisy, claiming that Lawrence profits from images of her body that she allows to enter the public forum. For them, the right to privacy over her body was the price of celebrity.

Alongside Kate Upton and Rihanna, whose photos had also been stolen, Lawrence hired one of the fiercest lawyers in the entertainment industry, Marty Singer, to threaten to sue Google for more than $100,000,000 in damages. Singer’s letter, which was published in The Hollywood Reporter, accuses Google of “making millions profiting from the victimization of women.” Lawrence framed the issue in a similar way when she told Vanity Fair the incident was not an ordinary celebrity scandal but a “sex crime.” She was rightly lauded by feminist cultural critics like Jessica Valenti, who wrote in The Guardian, “By speaking out with absolutely justified anger, Lawrence is reminding a public that too often blames women for these violations of the real issue.”

Lawrence spun shame into opportunity: to become a public voice, not just a public figure, and to address the pervasive, sexist attitude that women do not and should not have control over their own images. Thousands of Reddit and 4chan users saw the photos as free porn, and were untroubled by the fact that they were posted without Lawrence’s consent. But sexist overtones characterized the response to Stone’s entirely unsexual picture too. She was a woman making a violent hand gesture in a place of honor for an institution that has been historically male. Several commenters called her a “bitch” or a “feminist.” Or they patronized her: “She need to walk around carrying a sign at the Arlington National Cemetery that reads, ‘I have no respect for service men. Because, I have no respect for the signs asking for my respect.’ A little bit more public embarrassment/humiliation would teacher he a good lesson.”

What do the Lawrence and Stone incidents reveal about consent? Stone’s photos were posted by a friend (lack of consent), but Stone became passively responsible (consented) when she failed to ask her friend to take the photo’s down. Lawrence’s photos were posted entirely without her consent, however. And while Stone was punished not just for posing for the photo, but for posting it; the posting itself was Lawrence’s punishment — for her sexuality, for being a woman. As Roxane Gay noted in The Guardian, Lawrence’s case reminds us that “Women cannot pose nude or provocatively, whether for a lover or themselves, without consequence. We are never allowed to forget how the rules are different for girls.” Being a woman makes you vulnerable online for a lot of the same reasons you are vulnerable offline.

Stone’s case suggests that privacy violations aren’t always an issue of consent, though, because — at least to my eyes — a transgression indeed took place. To understand why, it helps to look at the Latin word “privus,” the root of the word “private.” The adjective “privus” can be translated as “single” or “individual” — meanings that remind us that privacy is in large part about wholeness of our individuality. Our integral self contains many facets that are nuanced, and unique. What happens when one part of the self is made to stand in for the whole, and magnified for millions of people around the world? Lindsey Stone became “the girl who hates soldiers,” “the feminist who should be fired,” that girl in sunglasses flipping off the camera. Maybe she stayed at home in the year that followed not just from fear or anxiety but because — in her house, to herself, in her mind, that most private space — she was still just herself, whole.

Because Lawrence is a celebrity, her situation is almost an obverse of Stone’s. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s privacy violation also comes down to the issue of the integrity of selfhood. Lawrence undoubtedly had more experience with shaping a public self with only a few facets of her complete, individual self. Part of what it must take to survive as a female celebrity is the ability to use certain strands of your sexuality in ways that work for and feel acceptable to you. But Lawrence’s public sexuality clearly does not constitute her entire sexuality. The meme of the teasing, sexy female celebrity functions through the implication that there is more that you are not seeing and never will see; it works because we all know the celebrity’s withholding is true. Lawrence’s privacy was violated when the hackers filled in Lawrence’s celebrity persona with information gleaned from Lawrence’s private sexual interactions, ones performed by her individual self and thus not for public consumption.

Who, exactly, is responsible for these violations — or who, at least, is complicit? If you clicked on the Lindsey Stone Facebook page, does that count? Or did you have to “like” it, or comment? If you skimmed the Reddit thread with Lawrence’s photos, if you looked at them, according to Lawrence, you were part of her violation. Commenting and sharing both amplify the reach of a scandal, though commenting may sometimes offer a veneer of support. Despite their detrimental effect, however, commenting and sharing represent a taking on of responsibility: the participant asserts agency. His username is tied to the action. In order to violate someone else’s privacy, the commenter or sharer must give up some of her own.

Selfie / Flickr @Paško Tomić

Selfie / Flickr @Paško Tomić

Looking, for me, is ethically knottier. The power dynamic is certainly the most unequal here: the looker has complete privacy, while the subject of the photos has been robbed of hers. In “Uses of Photography,” art critic John Berger writes this about public and private photographs: “In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity…The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context, and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to arbitrary use.” But a looker, knowing that Lawrence’s now-public photographs were violently torn from this private realm, understands the violation lies outside Berger’s amoral, “arbitrary use.” By looking, you either approve the transport of a photograph from its private realm without the consent of its subject, or assert that it doesn’t matter. Extend either of these options as a principle to all photographs, including your own private ones, and the online world would be pretty bleak.

We live by our own individual rules as social media users, but fail to define our collective ones. Lawrence’s legal battles with Google and Reddit mirror bigger ones in Europe with the “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling: they essentially ask social media providers to open and close channels between the private realm and the public one. But why would we want an elite group of executives to set these boundaries? Better, more democratic, to do it ourselves. It would require drawing fine lines about consent and who is a private citizen. But more importantly it would require an ethical evolution: a sense of compassion tailored to online life. It would mean recognizing that Stone didn’t deserve the outsized punishment she received. Freedom of speech is a right in this country; the “right to be forgotten” is really a privilege, which we need to cultivate ourselves. But we should recognize that it’s one we deeply want in this brave new Internet.

ANheadshot_webAlexia Nader is a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly and a freelance writer. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, and Oxford American, among other publications. She lives in San Francisco.


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