Anne Sutcliffe loves her kids, and Yorkshire, and her husband Terry, and the queen. She’s pro-Brexit and hates Europeans. She may look sweet, with a wide smile and bright, kind eyes behind her plastic glasses, but she uses words like “spastics”, “benders”, and “foreners”.
This week, she went viral for arguing with her local shopkeeper, who she claimed overcharged her for sweets.
Except, of course, Anne Sutcliffe doesn’t exist. The Twitter account using this name and spouting these words is a parody attempting to mock Brexiteers as backwards, racist, and heartless. Perhaps that would be okay – that’s a bit funny, isn’t it? Bit of a laugh? – if it wasn’t for Anne’s profile picture.
Honestly why is this website still free pic.twitter.com/MsocFTDWOp
— Sam (@SamNichol_98) March 13, 2018
“Anne’s” picture belongs to a real woman whose anonymity I will protect by calling Angela. Far from being a pro-Brexit bigot, she is an American woman from Indiana who once wrote an emotional blogpost outraged that her state was attempting to outlaw gay marriage. She has diabetes. She originally uploaded pictures of herself to her blog because someone called her pretty.
“I was taken aback by this comment,” she writes on her blog. “Nobody has called me pretty for 30 years.”
Thankfully, no Twitter users have yet attacked Anne/Angela’s appearance when arguing with her offensive tweets. The same can’t be said for the man whose pictures have been stolen for the viral and infamous “Barry Stanton” Twitter account.
In November 2017, “Barry” achieved viral fame with a tweet that read: “just picked my lad up from school. he tells me he was forced to read the korma in religion class. bloody outrage”.
Pictures of “Barry” are actually pictures of an elderly British man who I will call Albert, who had his appearance mocked online because his face was associated with the vile tweets. Albert is distressed by the fact his pictures have been stolen, and when I first reached out to him, he didn’t comprehend what was going on.
As I wrote at the time, the Stanton tweet was popular because it confirmed our own prejudices about Brexiteers. Psychological biases are at play when we read and retweet such tweets, which are “too good to be true” in that they confirm everything we want to imagine about people whose politics differ from our own.
Yet these biases are no longer an excuse for sharing and retweeting these accounts. Many people claimed they “knew” Anne was a parody after sharing the viral tweet about her – this only makes it worse.
Since Barry achieved viral fame, an abundance of accounts have sprung up attempting to imitate him. With “GB” or years like “1984” in their Twitter handles, they steal images they think perfectly sum up the “face” of Brexit. Some of these images are memes – such as a grandpa taking an accidental selfie – and some are real (but still stolen) pictures of actual English Defence League (EDL) members. One is a picture of a police officer who saved the life of rapper Lil Wayne. Most are images stolen from the personal social media accounts of ordinary, innocent people.
These pictures – of innocent people’s faces – are then associated with some of the most vile and offensive statements imaginable. An elderly woman with a shock of white hair now has her face permanently associated with the words: “I’ll fuckin force my cat to claw your eyes out”, while a confused grandfather’s face is associated with slurs such as “muzzi”.
Parody accounts may not be real – but the vulnerable and elderly people having their pictures stolen are.
It is objectively wrong to steal the photographs and likeness of a vulnerable, elderly person. This doesn’t change if someone does this for a joke, and it doesn’t make a difference if this joke makes you laugh.