Online Privacy is a Lie, Fascism is Bad, All Travel is Political, and Other Lessons from the Internet

Via Ed Needs a Bicycle on Flickr (Creative Commons)

More than one person sent me the photo of Steve Bannon (the hate mongering propagandist and the architect behind much of the current administration’s racist and destructive policies), and a well-known travel blogger in an airport lounge. You can see the windows out onto the runway in the background. Bannon has his arm around the blogger — who’s wearing a vague smile.

Normalizing white nationalists is dangerous and wrong. That’s why I reposted the photo to my own Facebook feed with this text: Steve Bannon is not an ironic photo opp. Make a note of it, bloggers. Scratch that, make a note of it, ALL HUMANS. I set the privacy on the post to “Friends” and I waited. I knew I’d hear about it. It took about four hours before the first person gently slapped my hand.

“Did you know that picture was private?”

NOPE:  James Corden kisses Sean Spicer at the Emmy Awards. Photo by Invision/AP/REX/@Shutterstocknow

A handful of well-meaning folk contacted me, on the Facebook thread and off, to suggest I was out of line for sharing a private photo. Sure, that’s the problem here. Other folks suggested I should have taken my objections to the source via the back channels, as though that would make any difference at all.

It’s noteworthy that the few people who messaged me were primarily white men who are not American or don’t live in the US. I wonder if they did not understand the sheer monstrosity of Bannon, a critical strategist behind the Muslim travel ban and the executive chairman of the anti-Semitic, misogynist, white supremacist website, Breitbart News. I had one conversation with a friend who suggested that Bannon might be analogous with Nigel Farage, the British politician behind the xenophobia fueled Brexit policy. I’m not sure Farage is quite as a bad as Bannon, though I wouldn’t rush to get an airport snap with Farage, either.

But hey, If a person doesn’t want a photo shared, even if they don’t ask me themselves, I’ll respect that and take it down. We’re left with my description of the photo, yielding the same results. I assumed these take-down requests were coming indirectly from the blogger anyway because, as one person told me, he was “upset he was being dragged so badly in your thread.” My private thread, though I will be the first to admit that I knew he would see the contents, someone would send him screenshots. Social media is a sieve, not a safe.

(A few people contacted me to voice their support, too. Thank you, I really needed to hear that.)

NOPE: Jimmy Fallon ruffles Donald Trump’s hair. Photo by Andrew Lipovsky/NBC

I swapped the photo out with one of Jabba the Hut, and that’s the photo that remains. I also checked back with the person who sent me the picture first. “I don’t follow him,” he told me. “Maybe it was set to friends of friends.  I don’t know — all I know is that I could see it. Plus, he’d been posting about seeing Bannon in the airport on Twitter, so…”

There’s a tangle of issues that came up as a result of my sharing that photo. I’ve spent about 48 hours trying to unpack them.

Online privacy is a lie. I spent several hours reading law blogs about violation of privacy — it appears this particular complaint doesn’t hold water. The photo was taken in a public space where there’s no baseline expectation of privacy. One of the blogs I read said that Facebook is similar to a public space and even if your settings are tightened to limited distribution, you’re making a mistake to think that your so-called friends will observe that. You’ve placed something — a photo, a statement — in a place where it’s easily accessible to the public. There are some exceptions to this — nude photos are the big one, or the distribution of deeply personal and/or private materials — but a candid airport photo with a public figure doesn’t check the boxes on this. Much of what I read said that if you have very deep privacy concerns, you shouldn’t use your phone as a photo device, ever. It’s also really hard to erase your tracks once you’ve posted something — you have no idea where that stuff ends up. For example, there’s a screenshot of the blogger’s public Twitter feed in my Facebook thread, so it doesn’t help him that he deleted the tweets.

You might not own the image. Even if you’re in the photo, the rights to the photo belong to the person that clicked the shutter. I talked to a photographer with a large international publication and he told me that their contracts are very explicit about rights. If he hands his camera to a stranger so he can be in the picture, he doesn’t own that photo. He was just going through this very topic with his agency as they are looking to licence much of his work for stock photography and it’s clear:  if he did not shoot the photo, he cannot claim the rights. The most ridiculous case about this topic recently settled out of court  — a monkey (an actual monkey) hit the shutter on a photographer’s camera and animal rights group PETA argued that the photographer did not have rights to that photo as he did not shoot it himself. You can’t claim a rights violation if you didn’t shoot the photo.

All travel is political. It pained me to stand on a stage at a Missouri travel conference and say, “Hey, so, when I read about Missouri prior to my trip, I found a whole lot of stuff about the NAACP travel advisory.” Speaking up, even in tiny ways, is hard, it’s awkward, it’s scary. And, even the kindest, most well-meaning of people will miss the point. “Why you gotta bring that up? Why you gotta talk about that? Why you gotta make people uncomfortable?”

(I figure I can just sit back and wait for the hate mail on this, too. I’m sure lots of people would like me to shut up. Noted. Maybe ask yourself why you want me to shut up?)

I’m not always a nice person, and bringing that stuff up isn’t, you know, nice. But you take your politics with you into the world, whether you want to or not. Most Americans and Brits are especially aware of this right now, between Brexit and the atrocious embarrassment in the White House. Whether we like it or not, it’s our job to serve as ambassadors for a better idea of America (or Britain or Australia, or hell, while we’re at it Myanmar, if that’s where you’re from) every time we travel. And if we have a platform through which to spread our ideals, the burden of that responsibility increases.

We must not normalize hate. I’ve pulled back from participating in the travel space online; it was making me angry and that anger was doing no good. Regular readers may not remember the last time they saw a rant from me — I had to go look. I posted about Twitter’s issues twice, here and here. This post, written right after the 2016 election is political (and surprisingly related to the photo that sparked this line of thought). But I have steered clear of anything involving personalities in the travel space for a while now.

I broke my fast to share a photo of a well-known travel blogger with Steve Bannon. If you’re not sure who Bannon is or why acting like he’s some kind of celebrity is an unforgivable act, hey, let me Google that for you. Look at his media machine, though use an incognito browser window, because ugly things are going to follow you around if you don’t. (See also, there’s no privacy, not with your web history, either.)

We can not pretend that the nihilistic, regressive, openly destructive forces behind the dismantling of the American experience are on par with Hollywood personalities or aging rock stars or ironic public figures, or anything but the monsters they are. Steve Bannon and his cohort actively seek the repression of minorities, women, journalists, immigrants, Jews, the poor, you name it. If you’re not a rich white guy, you’re in danger, don’t get me started on “passing” Jews, they’re coming for us, too. If you’re a traveler, you might also note that this administration continues to make the world a smaller, more dangerous place by promoting restrictive policies, fear, hostility, and straight up racism.

I’m probably not made of strong enough stuff to kick Bannon right in the junk and call it self-defense — his policies are actively harming me. I’d like to think I’d go ask him a pointed question. “It seems like the policies you support are regressive and racist. I’m a Jewish woman, middle class, self-employed, married to an immigrant. What future do you perceive for me given that much of what you promote degrades my status in American society?” I might not have the nerve. I can tell you I would not ask for a buddy picture. If you stand shoulder to should with the fascists, I’m going to say something, loudly, so lots of people can hear.

People are angry when we break with the rules of polite society to call bullshit. Go ahead, punch a Nazi.

Sometimes, we see ugly things when we turn on the lights; take a deep breath and do it anyway. It beats sitting in the dark.

And let’s be clear:  normalizing white supremacists is dangerous and wrong. 

Say it louder for the people in the back — and for those who have unfollowed us for making this stand.

Comments are open, but personal attacks will be deleted. Try to use good logic

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17 thoughts on “Online Privacy is a Lie, Fascism is Bad, All Travel is Political, and Other Lessons from the Internet

    • Close but not quite. The case was appealed and settled out of court. Your link is to a 2016 story, but if you read the update in 2017, there’s more. It’s a super weird case, that’s for sure. At any rate, for humans, you gotta click the shutter yourself.

  1. Nobody gets to normalize fascism and racism with a grinning bro-hug photo, then pretend they were just being subversive and humorous. This photo and Twitter thread from the blOffer was so tone-deaf and gross, I would expect it to create a kerfuffle for any so-called Liberal or moderate who posted it. I don’t think the blogger is really a public figure, but in this climate it doesn’t matter. If a civilian can lose her job for giving Trump the middle finger, I hope this zero-integrity white bruh loses at least one sponsor.

    • There’s a weird rabbit hole on “public figure” — I think in this case the blogger in question would be referred to as a “limited-purpose public figure.” I’m not too spun about it, though, because it really only matters in case of libel, and I didn’t libel anyone — unless “Don’t be this guy” is libel. I’m pretty sure it’s not.

  2. This discussion troubles me greatly as it abandons some important principles and justifies them based on political beliefs (and, for the record, political beliefs that I agree with). The problem is, that is exactly the kind of stuff going on with the GOP – ignoring the law, or re-phrasing it in a way so as to avoid its intent and to subvert it for political reasons (that I don’t agree with). Whether the content of the photo is public or private, whether it’s puppies and unicorns or Steve Bann0n, whether it was taken by someone you like or you don’t know who it was taken by, whether it goes against everything you believe in or supports the basics of your political cause – if you don’t own or have rights to the photo, you shouldn’t publish it. There are plenty of ways to engage in important social and political commentary – and it’s important that those conversations occur – but the way this was done troubles me greatly (as a creator, publisher, and lawyer).

    • I *did* consult a digital rights lawyer — I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll be interested to know what they have to say. A description of the image would have sufficed, it would have netted the same results. “Here’s [blogger name] in an airport posing with [name your poison].” I totally could have done that. Would that have been within the bounds of the law?

      • Do you own the photo or have permission to publish it? It really is that simple. The monkey stuff is a red herring, a lower court case later settled, and has no precedential value. But it is fun to talk about, I get that. If this was a story of yours, the test is still the same – did you give someone permission to publish it. (I try to keep up with digital rights and all sorts of I.P. stuff via my CLE credits.)

        • That’s good to know — but let’s not kid ourselves. We all know that if I’d said “Here’s what I saw in the photo, [blogger name] side by side with Steve Bannon, Bannon’s arm around his shoulder,” I’d be getting shit for naming names instead.

  3. I feel compelled to reply, seeing as I was one of the ones mentioning that I didn’t think the photo was a great move. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m in Mary Jo’s camp here. I think you and I fully align politically – judging by what I’ve seen come by on Facebook. It just so happens I’ve met both the blogger and yourself once or twice, so I saw the initial thread, and your response (in fact, Facebook seems to think this is the most important thing to have happened in the past few days, even though I have a few friends actively involved in Zimbabwe who also have had some interesting things to share). I responded saying it was a dumb move. I’d be in the spitting group myself.

    When I originally saw you posting the pic I considered adding a response, but decided against it. The next morning, I decided it did not align with my own values to not say anything, especially when I had been vocal in voicing my opinion on the original thread. We have a case currently going on in Norway where people are being prosecuted merely for linking to a page containing photos of a celebrity, and while these things are totally not comparable, it has heightened my awareness of how complicated this topic is. I probably should not have compared it to sharing pics of celebrities, and I regret doing that as it got the discussion off target, but my main point was that the photo was unnecessary – the topic itself was totally warranted and I appreciated the discussion that followed, where I picked up a thing or two myself.

    If you consider my comment a ‘chiding’, I do want to point out that I am half American, and even if just by birth, I do have half a family tree there and follow along quite a bit. The fact that most of them are based in Texas makes for interesting reading when compared to all my other American friends 🙂

    • Thanks for this, Sam. Like I responded to MJ, I think it’s more important to stop normalization of white supremacists than it is to worry about digital rights issues. I did, indeed, break with best practices to post the photo. (You were not the only one who suggested I’d done so.) I willingly admit that sharing the photo wasn’t nice. Also, niceness isn’t my go-to when it comes to people in my circle, virtual or otherwise, normalizing white supremacists.

      I think the “celebrity” analogy is apt. I spent some time reading up on what’s called “limited purpose public figures” and in this case, I think that term applies. I also read up on leaked photo use, and some papparazi stuff, and there are cases where the distribution has been deemed damaging and illegal. Everything I found was invasion of privacy stuff — telephoto gear invading private spaces, not candid snaps taken in public venues where there’s no expectation of privacy.

      Facebook’s algorithm is another super interesting sidebar — I imagine it bumped the post because there was so much action on it. I suspect the same thing happened on the original thread where the photo came from. That was news to me, rarely does anything I post end up at the top of anyone’s feed anymore, it’s usually pictures of my dog or my shoes and a cocktail on a night when my band is out playing a show. It’s also possible Facebook liked that I used the words “Steve Bannon.” That thread becoming “important” was as much a surprise to me as to anyone. I’m not a web tactician, though the person who posted the photo originally is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew it would be popular and that’s why he chose to post it in the first place. But that’s speculation, I can only know what my intent was, and that’s to call out someone for normalizing white supremacists.

      When I decided to post, I spent some time considering if I should just name names and skip the photo entirely. I did not know the rights on it and I did not ask the person who sent me about the settings on it until you — and others — said I should take it down. I opted to use the photo without names. Only people who know the guy would recognize him, and my following is small. I would have been inline with you and MJ suggest if I’d described the photo, and fully in my rights to tag the participant. And the shit I’d have had to go through for doing that? I can’t even imagine. I think that names and tagging would have drawn even more attention and more ire, though hey, it would have been aligned with copyright best practices.

      I can’t see into what’s happening with the person in the photo, but on my side, I see a handful who are very concerned that I didn’t use best practices when sharing a photo on a private FB thread. Okay, but there is much more at stake here. Dude’s an American and Jewish, even, and sees the architect of the most hateful media war in our lifetime, the designer of the most racist policies we’ve seen since the shameful era of internment camps as a photo opp. I’m okay with being less than nice to call that out.

      If our heads are going to be chopped off anyway, there’s no harm in sticking one’s neck out. Better chance of a clean cut that way.

  4. Well said Pam. I listened to a podcast (a point of view radio 4) today where Andrew Sullivan says Donald Trump is teaching a generation that the key to advancement in society is to bully, lie, slander and cheat. Nigel Farrage is just as bad (especially in the lying department). It’s becoming normal. We mustn’t get sucked into behaving like this. Here’s to telling the truth of every situation however uncomfortable or unpopular that makes us.

  5. Good intentions but plenty of problematic notes. Just a few areas to focus on:

    “It’s noteworthy that the few people who messaged me were primarily white men who are not American or don’t live in the US.”

    Avoid identity politics. Judging commentary based on skin color and gender identity is disingenuous and regressive.

    “I’m sure lots of people would like me to shut up. Noted. Maybe ask yourself why you want me to shut up?”

    Don’t want to shut you up, just clarify misinformation.

    “Steve Bannon and his cohort actively seek the repression of minorities, women, journalists, immigrants, Jews, the poor, you name it.”

    You do realize Steve Bannon’s most vocal and successful journalists at Brietbart (no longer there) are 1) A gay Jew who married a black immigrant and dated black Muslim men (Milo); 2) Jewish lawyer Ben Shapiro (who receives the most racist tweets of anyone on Twitter) don’t you?

    “People are angry when we break with the rules of polite society to call bullshit. Go ahead, punch a Nazi.”

    Go ahead a punch Nazis. They desperately want this so they can punch you back.

    “Try to use good logic.”

    Follow your own advice.

    • Good manners, but nope:
      Shutting down identity politics: Is that some “All Lives Matter” BS? It sound like “All Lives Matter” BS. Nope.
      Naming Bannon’s “diversity” staffers: So what? Their politics are *still* terrible.
      Punching Nazis: So, don’t fight them then? Yeah, no. I’m gonna take a hard pass on the silence.

      • Pam,

        Identity politics allows white people to tell black people to sit in the back of the bus. If you can abide identity politics to promote your opinions, your opponents will use it against you, and they are much better at it.

        You missed the point on Bannon: if he is trying to destroy gays and Jews, why does he make them so rich and powerful?

        No one said don’t fight Nazis. Don’t PUNCH them. Fight them ideologically. Defeat them with ideas.

        You will lose a physical fight with a Nazi. Research what these people look like. The are well trained and incredibly dangerous. They would love to fight you.

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