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The Unwilling Model Faces of White Supremacy

Twitter accounts use pictures of white women to push their racist narrative, and those white women don’t even know it’s happening.

Photo: Jennifer Polixenni Brankin/Getty Images

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White supremacy never truly left. But in 2016, thanks in large part to Brexit and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, it’s back in a big way. And much of that vocal resurgence is happening on social media, where Twitter and Facebook have become a clearinghouse for white supremacist memes.

There’s a great diversity of racist content out there, but the other day I noticed a certain strain of white supremacist Twitter accounts focused on raising up the beauty of white women as “proof” that whites are superior to other races. And they do so using photographs of white women, with captions like “Telling Whites to have small families because of overpopulation is like telling elves to have small families because there are too many orcs” and “Nothing says perfection quite like white.”

The women used in these photos all have a similar set of features: pale skin, blonde or red hair, and bright blue eyes. But who are they? And do they know that their faces are being used by white supremacists? To find out, I ran a handful of the photographs through a reverse image search tool, and got ahold of the photographers and models in question. How did they feel about their photos and faces being used by white supremacist Twitter and Facebook accounts? Not good, it turns out.

Joana Gröblinghoff, a Swedish blogger, is a favorite of these accounts. Her soft, girlish self-portraits are featured in tons of tweets by white supremacist accounts I found, accompanied by text like “White women must be protected from the hordes of imported savages that are swarming into Northern countries. #WhiteGenocide.” In another Tweet, Gröblinghoff’s face is juxtaposed with photos of black women with the caption “inhuman vs perfection.”

When I contacted Gröblinghoff about her photos, she said she was shocked that her image was being used this way. “This is disgusting!” she wrote to me in an email. “I was never asked for permission and this is not the way I want to see my face on the internet!” She said she wasn’t active on Twitter, and had no idea to even be looking for something like this.

Fiona Quinn, the photographer who took this photo that was then captioned “whites are the perfect race. Nothing says perfection quite like white,” had a similar reaction. “I am horrified,” she wrote me in an email. “This goes against my belief systems and makes me feel sick. I live in New Zealand — we are multicultural and so many of my close friends are not white!” The model in the photo, Caitlin Lomax, had a very similar reaction. “That makes me feel sick,” she told me.

Some of the photographs here are of famous models, too. Nadine Leopold and Gemma Ward are both favorites of these accounts. No one from IMG, the company that manages both Leopold and Ward, responded to my interview request. Alexis Ren, another professional model, is featured in a more recent photo captioned “When Heaven and Hell collide, everyone must choose a side. Protect White women from the onslaught of attacks by hordes of imported savages.”

Like most of the people I spoke with, Quinn’s first question was “how I can get him to take the image down there must be a way?” And there is a way. Twitter often takes claims of copyright more seriously than threats and abuse. Unlike Quinn or Lomax, Gröblinghoff has a lawyer, and she said she would consult him on her options. Last we spoke, she said she had screenshotted and reported 21 of her photos being used by these accounts.

I reached out to a few of the accounts who post images like this to ask where they found the photos, and whether they ever asked for permission to use them. No one responded, and one account blocked me.

As far as what they can do about this in the future, it’s hard to say. Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in online harassment, says that while there are some privacy precautions you can take, nothing can really protect you from this. “I have clients whose baby’s pictures were mined from somebody’s Instagram page and used as evidence to prove the existence of a bogus child sex trafficking ring,” she told me in an email. “Many clients’ images have been used for catfishing schemes — where somebody has appropriated their image and created bogus social media pages to lure other people into scams.”

You can’t tell these women, many of whom blog or model as a living, to stop doing that because their faces might be used by white supremacists against their will. And Goldberg says that until Twitter or Facebook feels like this is an issue that could threaten their business, they likely won’t do much to stop it either. “If more people sued or threatened to sue for copyright infringement when their image is being reappropriated by neo-Nazis, it could have a deterrent effect,” she says. But suing isn’t easy — lawsuits are expensive, public, and time-consuming.

Goldberg hopes that social media platforms will step up to stop this kind of thing. “For a long time, we’ve been asking social media companies to use their photo DNA abilities to proactively recognize specific images that are being nonconsensually distributed,” she told me. “We know this is possible because it is used in the context of child pornography.” She’d also like for them to make reporting these kinds of things easier. But it seems as though there’s just not enough business pressure on these companies to do much about this. Plus, both of those methods still requires an individual woman to know to look for and use these tools. All the models I spoke with had no idea to even be worrying about neo-Nazis using their faces to push white supremacy.

As someone who just spent hours looking at the images that white supremacist Twitter accounts post, I can’t say I recommend it. But if you’re a conventionally attractive white woman who posts photos of herself on the internet, it might be worth a quick check to see if your face has been used in support of white supremacy.