Memes, by definition viral little beasties, are everywhere, sometimes building over several years. And they have many heads — shaming wrongdoers, bullying innocents and poking fun at an awkward facial expression, twerk attempt, family portrait or school photo.
"When one of these mobs fixes on you it's like a Lovecraftian horror," said James Grimmelmann, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in Internet law. "Only madness awaits. It can be beyond the power of individuals to do a lot about it."
Kyra Pringle knows that firsthand.
The South Carolina mother of a 2-year-old with a grim life expectancy from a rare genetic disorder happily posted a picture on Facebook from her daughter's recent birthday, only to have the image rudely captioned and spread — sometimes gruesomely Photoshopped — thousands of times and her ill child compared to a monster, alien and leprechaun due to her unique facial features.
"This is bullying. This is not right. She's fought for her life since she got here," Pringle told NBC affiliate WCBD-TV near her Summerville home. "She's not a monster. She's not fake. She's real. She's here."
Pringle's mom, Linda Pringle, had equally strong words for those who memed her little granddaughter and do the same to the images of other unsuspecting strangers without context or backstory and with seemingly little thought beyond their own amusement and that of their friends and followers online. Some sites have since taken down memed images of the impaired toddler after word of her real-life story spread.
"If you're out there and you're doing these things, and you think that it's funny, it's not funny. This is actually a human being, this is a child, this is a baby," Linda Pringle told the TV station.
Private companies that own social media streams and channels juggle a broad range of take-down demands and other content issues such as copyright infringement, high-stakes privacy invasion and online harassment. But it can be difficult to eradicate viral content like photo memes altogether.
"We don't tolerate bullying or harassment on Facebook and Instagram, and remove content that appears to purposefully target people with the intention of degrading or shaming them," the company said in an email when asked about memes.
While community standards and guidelines do exist on many sites, including newly spelled-out rules on Facebook, routine photo meming may not include outright threats, hate speech or behaviour that draws the attention of those in charge, such as a pattern of stalking or harassment targeting individuals identified by name, location or through other revealing details or leaks of Social Security numbers, phone numbers and street addresses, some Internet watchers said.
"It's not that there isn't an ethical problem, and a real problem as a society we should wrestle with, but law just wouldn't intervene and the First Amendment would say we don't stop it," said Danielle Keats Citron, a research professor of law at the University of Maryland and author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," out Sept. 22 from Harvard University Press.
But a movement in Europe has taken hold in defence of the so-called "right to be forgotten" that has free speech and privacy activists alike paying attention. The European Court of Justice appeared to support the legal concept for people who want to force the removal of old, irrelevant or false material determined to infringe on their right to privacy.
The court, the highest in the European Union, sided last year with a man in Spain who had asked Google to eliminate from its search index information about some long-paid debts. It ruled that Google can be compelled to take that step, but the company so far has limited removal in the specific case to its Spain service, leaving the material readily searchable worldwide.
The ruling has broad implications in the tightrope walk between online privacy and free speech across the EU and around the globe, particularly in the United States, where free speech protection is deeply ingrained.
"It's very hard. We've had unauthorized use of photographs since we've had photographs. It's much easier to go after somebody who uses pictures for clearly commercial purposes, but once you get outside of the commercial realm, when you're talking about political or artistic expression, in this country we get a lot more reluctant to intervene," Grimmelmann said.
Not all photo meming is tragic and not all sharers are evil-doers. Some subjects or initiators take it as good fun, embracing — or trying to, at least — their accidental Internet celebrity.
Nearly three years ago, Kasey Woods in Waldorf, Maryland, put up a photo of her smiley baby daughter in a pink top and huge afro wig that was left over from Halloween. Woods posted it first to Facebook, when her page was set to public, then put the same image on her public Instagram feed a year later.
Friends started alerting her last year that the photo was catching on. It continues to pop up at least two or three times a week somewhere, including one version with a caption that reads: "Have a Blacknificent Day."
The image has been liked, shared and commented upon several thousand times. Some comments Woods has read have not been kind and she has since locked down her Facebook page.
"Some people are bashing me for being a bad mother because they think that's her hair every day. It's pretty intense with, 'What kind of mother would put a child in a wig?' and this and that," she said. "I'm taking it well because her name wasn't attached to it."
Clarinet Boy, aka PTSD Clarinet Boy, was all grown up when he innocently enough submitted to Awkwardfamilyphotos.com an old school picture. He's in a marching band uniform and there's a double exposure, a full-body image of himself, projected onto the side of his head in the same uniform as he holds a clarinet.
That was 2009. It was titled "A Beautiful Mind" and the site encouraged readers to guess what he might have been thinking. So they did. The image of the redheaded boy made its way around the Internet and onto meme generator sites, including one that came up with stories in captions of Vietnam War vets suffering from post-traumatic stress, looking back on childhood.
"I left for Vietnam as a boy. I came back as a monster," reads one.
No one knows exactly how many versions are out there, but it's many thousands, as opposed to millions for other memes. Mike Bender, co-founder of Awkwardfamilyphotos, said he and his partner know the real Clarinet Boy.
"He's a teacher in Texas," Bender said. "His students think he's a hero."Suggest a correction