Digital Privacy and the celebrity #Nudiegate2014

Hollywood Sign

Multiple private pictures and videos of notable A- and B-list actresses (and a couple of actors) leaked to the general public two Sundays ago. Most notably, Ariana Grande and Jennifer Lawrence‘s nude pictures flooded the internet, with multiple copies being hosted everywhere in it’s vast landscape.

That was the incident. Here is the fallout:

People are going out of their way to slut-shame others for taking private, intimate photos of themselves that were hacked and leaked out. These are private videos and images that were taken through illegal means and used for some profit. This “profit” I speak of is not the traditional monetary gain that some people get for selling the pictures.

(This is where I get into urban myth and hearsay that makes sense to me…)

So one of my friends and I were discussing this issue of the pictures that were being released. The frequency at which they were released was not uniform; we had pictures dropping in various quantities and from various years throughout the first two days. This trend could
mean that there is not necessarily one person who has a whole bunch of celebrity nudes. Our theory is that there is some sort of underground celebrity nude club of sorts, where membership into the club consists of “buying in” through supplying your own celebrity nudes.

In addition (to support this claim), there have been rumors of multiple rings that have a buy-in option. So, for example, if I had pictures of… say the girl from Divergent and Fault In Our Stars. I could then gain membership to the trading circles (it’s an unfortunate and perpetuated system). The good thing (if you can really say that) is that it seemed most nudes stayed within the circles, with collectors keeping their pictures close at hand instead of sharing with the general public. I mean, there were always those random leaks, but those usually were by other celebrities, as was the case (allegedly) with Drake Bell, who leaked Vanessa Hudgens‘ picture and Paris Hilton with her own sex tape.

But then that all changed when some of the collectors went AWOL and just started releasing some pics. Maybe they wanted notoriety? Maybe it was to piss off the other collectors? Maybe it was to show the world private pictures they were never supposed to see? Maybe it was a journalist who infiltrated the circle and collected a few hundred pictures to just leak them all. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a concerted effort by celebrities to remain relevant and slowly create the waves of CHANGE regarding their own images or how privacy among celebrities and people of public interest are handled. And JLaw and the rest are just collateral damage…

Whatever the reasoning, it has sparked some debate on how privacy in the US regarding public officials and famous people are treated regarding their own privacy. Will the US resort to policies similar to Europe? Policies where journalists and media outlets cannot ask about personal information in interviews? Or do you think that “transparency” and lack of protection will continue to reign for those well-known people in the land of the free?

In a country where the defamation laws give much freedom to the media in light of the First Amendment, famous people can and continue to be the target of much speculation, most of which they have to live with for the rest of their lives. For example, when I pass the magazines on sale at the checkout counter, I see headlines delving into the gruesome cheating lives of Hollywood couples and other terrible terrible speculations about people’s lives. These are largely allowed because of the difficulty in mounting a defamation claim. These claims can be made as long as the ones being talked about cannot prove they have been damaged by the words said or printed. The person bringing a defamation suit, a celebrity in this case, would have to prove the statement was false. Truth is an affirmative defense to a defamation claim. Second, the celebrity would have to prove the statement was a fact. If the statement is not a provable fact but merely an opinion, a defamation claim will fail. The celebrity would also have to prove damage or harm to reputation. And emotional harm does not usually fly in these courts.

For example, it would be difficult for a celebrity that has a history of a certain behavior to argue that publishing information regarding that same behavior harms his or her reputation. Finally, the celebrity would have to prove the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning the speaker made the statement knowing the statement was truth or made it with reckless disregard to its truth. See New York Times v. Sullivan for more on this. All of these factors make winning a defamation suit in the United States an uphill battle for public officials and public figures. Especially celebrities – look at Tom Cruise, who sued publications for calling him gay because, according to his defense, would mean the general public would question his masculinity and he would not be able to convince them that he could indeed kick ass as an action star. I’m talking late-’90s, “I’m an action star and won’t be taken seriously if people think I’m gay” arguments. The argument Cruise was able to make included monetary damages from the “slanderous” comments made by news outlets regarding his sexuality. That is why he was so successful in his law suit. (Thanks to my friend Michael Lambert, who helped clear up the law jargon on this. You can read about media law on his blog here.)

But in an era where sexually-explicit pictures of politicians and celebrities run rampant, it would be hard for any star to claim a leaked nude photo really derided their career. And so far, I don’t think there has been any fallout regarding the affected celebrities.

So now back to the matter at hand: slut-shaming. Why is it that people are going straight to blaming JLaw and the rest for taking those explicit pictures? What they do in the confines of their own homes and share with the ones they want to share is none of our business unless they share it with us. That was certainly not the case with these pictures. I am quite sure that JLaw didn’t want to share those pics with us. Instead of condemning the hackers who had repeatedly violated multiple people’s privacy, people have been blaming those women who took pictures of themselves. I mean, these people got their freedoms violated. That in itself is a very un-American thing to occur. It is something we fight for every day. We protect it. Here, overseas, everywhere. Yet, people think to blame the victim first instead of the perpetrator who went out of his or her way to make someone feel unsafe in his or her own house. This is definitely a form of cyberterrorism. And yet the majority of Americans are up in arms about people celebrating their body and expressing their own sexuality. It just shows us how sexually repressed our puritanical society truly is. It’s really messed up.

To sum up, this nude photo leak has brought a lot of unnecessary slut-shaming to the forefront. If anything, though, this will hopefully guide congress to take cyberterrorism and online privacy more seriously than they have in the past.