Facebook recently decided that Brock Turner, the now infamous convicted rapist and former Stanford athlete, didn’t need to have a meme made out of him. The site took down a widely shared image of his athlete headshot, with the text “Hi, I’m Brock, And I’m A Rapist” written on it, and claims the image was taken down in error. Some felt it should stay down. But that raises the question of how far a meme should go as it sits uncomfortably at the axis of free speech, commerce, public safety and privacy.
Does Shame Have A Shelf Life?
The meme, it’s worth noting, was a protest. Police authorities had refused to release Turner’s mugshot, despite it being public record, and that forced the media to use his athlete headshot and other photos in stories about him. The meme was designed to protest this, to tag that headshot with Turner’s crimes, and so Facebook taking it down, even accidentally, was received poorly.
Photography is the real language of the internet, thanks to a combination of cameras in almost every pocket in the world and instant connection across borders and cultures. As digital cameras have improved, and social media has become ubiquitous, one of the unexpected consequences has been that total strangers, just living their lives, have been elevated to fame thanks to a moment of personal triumph or, far more likely, a moment of personal embarrassment. Bad Luck Brian, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Scumbag Steve, and more were all just people who had a photograph taken, one of billions likely taken that day, and either hit the lottery or got struck by lightning, depending on your perspective.
In the case of using memes to highlight a person’s deliberate misbehavior, though, things get even murkier. Shame, whether accidental or self-inflicted, has suddenly gotten a much longer shelf-life thanks to the internet both tying public records to your name and making those records instantly accessible. While a case like Turner’s is painfully clear-cut, people who committed minor offenses or were simply arrested and let go can find themselves paying for their crimes years or even decades later. In some cases, they paid in a very literal sense: Until recently, a common scam was for a website to find a person’s mugshot, post it online without any context, and demand you pay them to take it down.
Public authorities were powerless to do anything, as mugshots are public records and websites, including this one, can post them at will. Ultimately, Google stepped in and removed the sites from their search algorithm, effectively rendering most mugshot sites invisible. But that, in of itself, opens up another can of worms.