Circulating nudes — real or fake — is one of the oldest and potentially most devastating attacks in the misogynist harassment playbook. It felt almost inevitable that someone would try it on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the newly sworn-in congresswoman who has replaced Hillary Clinton as the favorite target of far-right Internet abuse.
The photo, taken in a bath and showing a woman’s painted toenails and — in a reflection in the bathtub’s faucet — what appeared to be bare breasts was not of Ocasio-Cortez. The photo, falsely captioned as an image of the congresswoman’s Instagram feed, had been around the fringes of the pro-Trump Internet for at least a month before, as Motherboard documented, it was posted to Reddit and quickly debunked by an enterprising foot fetishist who confirmed that the toes in question bore no resemblance to the congresswoman’s, based on photo evidence.
But days after its debunking, the hoax became clickbait for an audience who wanted it to be true.
“Here’s the photo some people described as a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” is a headline that the Daily Caller published and tweeted about a sitting congresswoman. The Caller article itself was a pretty routine rehashing of the fake photo and how it was debunked and who it really showed. But the headline unambiguously broadcast the opposite: Click here to see a possible nude of Ocasio-Cortez.
"I had the headline corrected and updated early in the day, as soon as I noticed it. Obviously an eager editor made a misjudgment as to the framing,” Geoffrey Ingersoll, the editor in chief of the Caller, said in an email. “I had no idea screen caps were circulating until Ocasio-Cortez tweeted one.” The article now carries a different headline and a correction, and the original tweet was deleted.
Often, stolen or fabricated nudes are meant to silence the target, or others like them. When actress Leslie Jones was harassed, doxxed and hacked by attackers who didn’t like how she responded to haters of the female “Ghostbusters” reboot, the implication to other women of color was that if they sought positions of power or defended themselves against racist harassment as she did, the same could happen to them.
Ocasio-Cortez has responded to the attacks against her by turning up the volume.
The pro-Trump Internet has become good at overwhelming its enemies with an unfiltered feed of accusations, memes and virality. That strategy has worked against, say, older politicians and many mainstream media institutions, who have struggled to catch up in a game in which winners play extremely fast and the rules are constantly changing. But Ocasio-Cortez is just as good at the game as her opponents, as BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel pointed out. “She’s born of the Internet,” he wrote this week, “and instinctively excels at modern political information warfare.”
Rather than ignoring the Daily Caller’s headline, the 29-year-old lawmaker chose to amplify it to her many devoted followers as an example of “Republicans” and “the GOP” attacking her. It’s a parallel to one of the pro-Trump Internet’s favorite tactics: asking the entire political party of her opponents to take ownership for and condemn a smear campaign that has circulated among a portion of its base.
It wasn’t the first time Ocasio-Cortez has turned a shaming attempt into an opportunity to rally support. Earlier this month, when an anonymous Twitter user tried to mock the congresswoman by posting an old video of her wholesomely dancing in college, the backlash went way more viral than the original smear. (It did, inevitably, become a Gateway Pundit article, one that promised “exclusive” details about her childhood ... that were also available on her campaign website). Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters turned the dancing video into a meme that made her Internet antagonists look silly and desperate for attention, rather than the other way around.
It turns out that the photo that “some people described as a nude selfie” of Ocasio-Cortez (according to the original Daily Caller headline) was in fact a photo of Sydney Leathers, the former mistress of disgraced Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, according to Vice. The Daily Caller changed the headline of its story to “Anthony Weiner Mistress Stands Up For AOC After Evil Internet Trolls Spread Fake Nude Photo.”
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, moved on to tweeting about policy, announcing that she’d hired the former director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
“#LegalizeIt,” she tweeted, “and demand justice for communities ravaged by the War on Drugs.”