FARGO — A Fargo mother and father are beginning a battle for more stringent social media privacy laws after a photo of their daughter was circulated on Twitter in a false attack on presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Included in those doing the circulating was actor James Woods, a strident supporter of President Donald Trump who uses Twitter to share conservative memes, rip Democratic politicians and sometimes spread conspiracy theories. Woods has 2.6 million Twitter followers.
The tweet led to a horrifying experience for Jared and Beth Maher and their family, including their teenage daughter who was in the photo. The daughter, who the Mahers asked not be named, was 11 years old when the picture was taken in 2018.
The family also asked that the Twitter posts or photos used by Woods and others not be used with this story.
"We are processing it as a family, attorneys are involved and the fact that the picture involved our then-11-year-old daughter has us very upset," Jared Maher said in a written message, the only statement he said the family would provide.
The photo Woods and other apparent Trump supporters shared depicts Biden standing close to a young girl, looking her in the face with his hands on her arms. It was taken at the 2018 North Dakota Democratic-NPL convention in Grand Forks, where Biden was the keynote speaker.
In the background of the photo is Maher and then-U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Biden's opponents often accuse him of acting inappropriately around women by standing too close or touching them. One woman accused the former vice president of sexually assaulting her in 1993, an allegation Biden unequivocally denies.
Woods shared the photo with the caption, "The guy with Joe? Was he running away in a video recently?"
Woods was making reference to Maher being in the photograph, but was accusing him of being a former state legislative candidate in Massachusetts who was recently captured on video by a website that runs "stings" for sexual predators. The video was shared in conservative circles.
Another Twitter user with nearly 163,000 followers shared the same photo of Biden and the Mahers' daughter with the caption, "This is so creepy ... Also, the guy behind Joe, Matt Trowbridge, was just caught on video trying to have sex with a minor."
Woods has since deleted his tweet. The other remains on the site.
The accusations and implications made in the Twitter posts are obviously false and damaging. The Mahers are reeling and believe their privacy has been violated by the unauthorized sharing of the photograph, which they believe was harvested from Beth's Facebook page.
Jared and Beth's daughter, a talented singer who is now 14, performed a mash-up of "Danny Boy" and "America the Beautiful" at the event in Grand Forks because it occurred on St. Patrick's Day, and the girl and Biden are both of Irish descent.
The photo was taken afterward when Biden met the Mahers' daughter and thanked her for the performance.
Heitkamp, who knows the Mahers, said she's been using her connections to try to get answers from Twitter. The former senator, who lost her reelection bid in 2018, wants to know how posts like Woods' and others could be allowed. And how Woods, who has been banned from Twitter for false posts in the past, is still allowed to use the platform at all.
"He clearly abuses social media in a serial fashion. I don't know how many times he's been pulled off Twitter, but they keep letting him back on," Heitkamp said. "There should be a 'three strikes and you're out' policy."
Another disturbing aspect of the situation is that the Maherses are not public figures. Jared and Beth (maiden name Bue) were North Dakota State athletes two decades ago, but now are simply a family in North Dakota. They have an expectation of privacy that was punctured by the misuse of a family photo on social media.
If something like this happens to an average family, what can be done? That is the question to which they are seeking answers.
"How about if you violate the privacy of a minor, you are off forever? How's that?" Heitkamp said. "You're done. You're out. You can never get back on. How is that hard to figure out? There, I just gave Twitter a policy they should enforce."
Heitkamp believes it will be up to Congress and the courts to force social media platforms like Twitter to deal with "bad actors" such as Woods in a meaningful way. She said the threat of regulation should be used to force tech companies to get tough with violators.
As it stands, tech companies use the Communication Decency Act to shield themselves from defamation lawsuits over what is posted on their websites. Heitkamp says that has to change, and web companies have to be held to the same standards as traditional media, which are held to libel and slander laws.
"Woods is a despicable human being who should never be allowed on social media. He's a cancer. And Twitter needs to up its game," Heitkamp said.
Readers can reach columnist Mike McFeely at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 451-5655