An image that’s being passed off as a nude of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was debunked as being fake by a foot fetishist on Reddit—because that’s the future we’re living in now.
On Sunday, someone posted a photo of a woman’s legs and feet in a bathtub on one of Reddit’s most popular forums, r/Drama. The post is titled “MOMMY'S TITTIES ON THE FAUCET,” with a photo of feet in a tub from the photographer’s point of view, holding a vape pen. Overlaid on the photo is the text “alexandria ocasio-cortez.instagram.post.9-3-2016.”
The image and text aren’t new—they’ve been around in this combination since at least last month, posted to Twitter and 4chan’s /pol/ political forums, as well as a handful of other subreddits and forums, including some dedicated to revenge porn and creepshots. The conceit here is that if you zoom in to the faucet reflection, you can see the photographer’s breasts, and if you’re to believe the text on the image, that’s Ocasio-Cortez.
But the person in the photo isn’t her.
We don’t know how many people actually believed it was her in the first place, and in some of the forums where the image was posted, people were already comparing feet and questioning whether it’s really her. But we know for sure thanks to a user on a site called Wikifeet, a site devoted to foot fetish photos of celebrities and public figures. There’s a small collection of Ocasio-Cortez’s feet on the site, from photos of public appearances where she’s wearing sandals or open-toed shoes. That user cross-referenced the r/drama photo with known images of Ocasio-Cortez’s feet posted on Wikifeet and determined that they are from a different person.
"I’ve sucked enough toes in my life to recognize when something doesn’t look right"
“I'm a contributor to wikifeet and even I have never seen a second toe like that!” Reddit user jokes_on_you commented on the post. They then linked to a known photo of Ocasio-Cortez’s feet and implied that the feet in the r/drama post couldn’t possibly belong to her.
I asked jokes_on_you how they spotted the difference. "I’ve sucked enough toes in my life to recognize when something doesn’t look right," they told me in a Reddit direct message. "Because we can’t dorsi- or plantarflex our 2nd-5th toes independently I knew it wasn’t a matter of the toe being bent. I thought that maybe she has some form of brachydactyly but her Wikifeet page has clear evidence to the contrary. So it was clear to me that it wasn’t her feet."
The photo, as well as the feet, actually belong to Sydney Leathers, a political activist and cam model who you might recall from Anthony Weiner’s sexting investigation in 2016. Leathers confirmed in a Twitter direct message that the original photograph does, in fact, belong to her and features her feet. “That pic is a few years old and now reaffirms my current stance of no longer posting feet pics unless dudes pay me for it,” Leathers told me.
In Leathers' original photo, the second toe of her left foot is longer than in the Reddit repost and the Ocasio-Cortez-text images elsewhere.
"As the internet has grown, it’s become increasingly segregated and debunking false information is more difficult," jokes_on_you told me. "For all I know, there are Facebook groups and forums where the veracity of this image isn’t doubted and there are definitely countless other fake images floating around. It’s relatively easier to ban the big names (e.g. Alex Jones) from media sites but it’s impractical to police everything that goes on. Now we also have governments and well-funded organizations with sophisticated online strategies to promote unrest or certain political positions. This issue will get worse before it gets better."
Last week, a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college gained viral attention after a right-wing account tried to pass off a dubbed-over clip from the incredibly wholesome video as something scandalous. They superimposed it with drums and made it a supercut of Ocasio-Cortez’s appearances in the video—making it seem like she’d been dancing alone, somewhat provocatively. It illustrated how easy it is to make a sloppy cut of something real, and place it in a new context to try to smear someone’s image.
You don’t need advanced machine learning techniques or high-tech psyop campaigns to make people believe a lie—we’re primed to fall for memes like this. At least this time, a trained eye of a foot fetishist revealed the truth.
Update, 3 p.m. January 7, 2019: This article has been updated to include comment from Reddit user jokes_on_you.