Early in the campaign, a 4-year-old girl dressed as Hillary Clinton for Halloween, wearing a blazer and carrying a briefcase, met her idol. The candidate, then vying for the Democratic nomination, posed for a picture with her mini-me after an event in the girl’s home town of Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Clinton told her she looked like a future president.
Jennifer Jones’s daughter, Sullivan, cherished the picture, now framed in her bedroom, showing a smiling Clinton crouching behind her with both hands on her little shoulders.
But more than a year later — the day after Clinton lost the election and as Jones was processing her own grief over the loss — their treasured photo was turned into something sinister. Someone had taken the photo, originally uploaded to the Clinton campaign Flickr page, and turned it into a meme that was then shared thousands of times across social media.
Bold white type across the top of the image read, “I AM FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS!” Then halfway down, text covering the lower half of Sullivan’s body accused Clinton of accepting money and refugees 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.”
Jones hadn’t been on social media. So she didn’t see that a friend had shared the image to her Facebook page asking if she’d seen it. Another friend took a screenshot of it and sent it to her in a text message.
For 46-year-old Jones, who works the overnight shift at a local hotel so she can be at home during the day for her two daughters, it felt like a personal failing. That night, after she gave Sullivan a bath and put her to bed, she searched for the photo online and found thousands of blogs and feeds on Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook that shared the image. She believed what she’d always been told: Once something is on the Internet, it’s there forever.
“I felt like I failed her,” Jones said. “As a mother, your job is to protect and fix things, and I wasn’t able to fix it. I’ve never felt so low in my life with this image being out there that I had no control over.”
She traced one photo to a Facebook page, “Men for Donald Trump,” which has more than 200,000 followers. She implored them to take it down. At first they resisted, but after dozens of her friends bombarded them with messages, they obliged. It was a victory, but a small one. That was only one site. There were countless more. Was it even possible to go to each one and make the same request? She reported hundreds to social media sites and Google, but that wasn’t going to purge the image of her little girl from the Internet.
She makes $10 an hour at her hotel job. She couldn’t afford to hire an attorney.
Several days later, she posted about it on Pantsuit Nation, the Facebook group of more than 3 million that started as a secret pro-Clinton page and has morphed into a massive online community where people share stories and seek support. Jones asked if they could help her report the image one-by-one.
Soon messages poured into her inbox offering help. This person knew someone at Pinterest who could help; another had a contact at the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Then she got a message from Shaun Kozolchyk, the San Francisco director of development for the Anti-Defamation League.
“I am a mother of my own two daughters. I was so horrified and deeply affected by that post and knew the work we do at ADL could be a space that could be helpful,” Kozolchyk said.
She contacted a colleague who works on cyber-hate response issues, who immediately verified that the Clinton campaign held the copyright to that photo. Any unauthorized use of it was against the law. The ADL sent a take-down notice to the originating sites and, soon after, it disappeared from the Internet.
“When I got all this response from all these people from all over the country, it’s going to sound cheesy, but it felt like this giant blue blanket of love wrapped over me, and I didn’t feel alone anymore,” Jones said. “There were so many people, who said, ‘we got you.’”
But what happened next gives Jones reason to believe her fight had a wider cause. When she shared again on Pantsuit Nation what the ADL had been able to do, others started coming forward saying their child’s image had been used in a meme. They just didn’t think there was anything they could do about it.
Kozolchyk said the ADL is now working on about a dozen similar cases to get these memes removed.
“Every day I come into work and we are bombarded with cases of hate and bigotry. You start to feel deflated and hopeless, but you have to keep pushing,” Kozolchyk said. “Then you get this kind of victory, and it carries you through to the next thing.”
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