On Wednesday morning, Amy Poehler’s name started trending on Twitter, because of an old satirical news article that shows a mugshot of a woman who looks a lot like the actress.
The headline, “MIAMI STRIPPER ARRESTED FOR SQUIRTING VAGINAL FLUIDS AT POLICE OFFICERS IN SELF-DEFENSE,” seemed to have a few thousand people on Twitter fooled. It has everything: embarrassing cop slapstick comedy, feats of sexual power. But if the unhinged headline didn’t tip you off, the rest of the article is obviously fake, from the “Camel Toe” strip club, to the notion that she could cum into the cops’ eyes from 15 feet away, causing injuries and blindness, to her facing “up to 1,036 years in jail” for assault with a deadly weapon (her vagina).
The website, World News Daily Report, has the tagline “where facts don’t matter.” Snopes debunked it pretty quickly, nothing that WNDR also wrote about a teenager having sex with a beehive, and a drunk crop duster pilot dropping manure onto people below. Twitter’s Trending tab description of the viral topic, which is written by humans, apparently hasn’t caught up, and is repeating the fake news.
But one aspect of this bad satire is real: This Poehler lookalike was, actually, arrested at a strip club.
She was one of 18 women who was arrested during a strip club raid in Houston in 2008. Police raided the St. James Cabaret where they worked after “numerous recent complaints from citizens concerned about possible prostitution, narcotics violations and violations of sexually oriented business regulations,” according to an ABC report at the time.
Most of the women were charged with Sexually Oriented Business (SOB) violations, while others were arrested because of outstanding traffic violation warrants. According to court documents, some of the women pled guilty and got three days in jail and a $300 fine. Others had their charges dropped entirely.
The WNDR post turns sex workers into the butt of a disrespectful and demeaning joke: that sex workers are dirty, or spread sexually transmitted illnesses. It’s also not the first time this exact woman has gone viral or been used for viral news on the internet. A reverse image search of the mugshot shows that this, uhh, exact same joke has repeatedly gone viral for at least a decade.
The joke’s punchline also relies on real issues that strippers face at the workplace: police raids, sometimes by undercover cops, that would have them arrested and thrown into jail for breaking the many arbitrary laws against strip clubs in the U.S., including how and if club patrons can touch dancers, strict nudity guidelines, all the way down to the lighting. Strip clubs in Houston in particular, where this real-life raid took place, have been battling with law enforcement and legislators for years over these rules.
Thanks to laws that make it legal to publish people’s booking photos, even before they’re convicted of anything, this woman’s image will live on the internet forever. A recent study showed that 101 million arrest records and 45.7 million mugshots over the last decade would be posted online by police departments and jails, and 147 million criminal court records will be posted to the internet by state and local court systems.
“These records often include a variety of personal information, including full names, birthdates, home addresses, and physical characteristics, like height, weight, skin tone, and even tattoos,” the authors wrote. “Once released, this data is mined, scraped, and shared with employers, landlords, and neighbors, leaving a digital footprint nearly impossible to wipe clean.” Including absurd, stigmatizing satire blogs.
“Mugshots on the internet pose enormous problems for people. They are used for extortion, public shaming, and as clickbait designed to drive site traffic to for-profit websites. Mugshots don’t tell us the truth about a person’s behavior or their worth—instead, they tell us who police have decided to arrest,” Sarah Lageson, one of the study’s co-authors and the author of Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma, and the Harms of Data Driven Criminal Justice, told me.
“And as research shows, police discretion often means the people most likely to be arrested are Black, Brown, poor, or suffering from addiction or in a mental health crisis,” she said. “Mugshots posted to the internet also defy the presumption of innocence. Taken after an arrest but before a criminal conviction, their public release means the public assigns guilt and shame long before a judge or jury. This is especially problematic for people whose charges are dismissed or their records later sealed or expunged.”
In this case, we have a woman who was arrested on a nonsense charge more than a decade ago who has had a cruel joke about a low moment of her life follow her around.
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