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Cruel Internet Photo Memes Can Devastate Families

Categories: Parenting Issues

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Adam Holland’s image has become Internet famous. The widely-shared photo was taken in 2004, when Holland was 17 years old. It shows him holding up a piece of artwork he’d created while attending a class for disabled students at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Holland’s smiling broadly for the camera, and it’s an infectiously happy moment that should have been treasured by his family.

Instead, the photo went viral when Tampa radio station WHPT-FM used it to call out the “Retarded News” page on its website.

Holland, who has Down syndrome, now knows that the nearly ten-year-old photo is making the rounds online thanks to folks who think it’s hilarious to add their own defamatory and obscene messages to his picture. A website called Sign Generator made it easy for people to modify the photo in its “Retarded Handicap Generator” section. A Flickr user in Minnesota repurposed Holland’s photo to include a sexual reference, and the image racked up over 31,000 views.

The extra-awful part about this whole story is that Holland was initially excited to see his image in his local newspaper. His parents had to explain to the best of their ability that the reason the photo was in the news was because people were making fun of him.

Holland’s parents have filed a defamation suit seeking $18 million in damages from three separate parties. It’s something of a legal long shot, since cases of images being turned into memes are notoriously challenging, but I can understand their desire to do something.

What happened to Holland isn’t exactly unprecedented: lots of people have become unwilling viral memes in recent years. Last year, the parents of another girl with Down syndrome endured a lengthy fight with Facebook to get the social media giant to remove cruel images of their daughter. And do you remember the infamous “Star Wars  Kid” whose 2002 video became an Internet sensation? That boy reportedly finished school in a mental health facility, thanks to the harassment he received as a result.

It certainly makes you think about the repercussions of sharing photos online, and how an innocent image can become a humiliating Internet fad. As Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, puts it:

It’s difficult to square the interest that we have in not becoming an overnight celebrity with the rights of everyone in America being able to express themselves freely. The downside of being able to harness the power of crowds is that individuals that did nothing to seek any kind of publicity can become the subject of all of the cruelness that exists on the Internet. We don’t really have a good [legal] mechanism for combating that cruelness. (…)

Many would argue that [the lack of legal mechanisms] is a good thing, because it allows us to continue the unrestrained expression on the Internet that we’ve enjoyed thus far. But others have serious concerns about our reputation and ability to control our name, likeness and interest. It’s difficult to grab ahold of that on the Internet.

Do you ever worry about what might happen to the personal family photos you share online?

Image via eriwst/Flickr

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