Last Thursday, a member of the Facebook page “Vets for Trump” posted a photo of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. In it, Bennett—one of several professional football players who has remained seated during the national anthem at games—dances in a locker room, gleefully holding a tattered American flag. The caption read, “#Seattleseahawks – no more NFL.” The photo was fake, but that didn’t seem to matter; within a day, it had racked up more than 10,000 shares, likes, and comments from furious people all over the country. “Maybe he’ll burn his damn leg off,” one woman wrote, “for sure he’ll burn in hell.”
There are plenty of signs the image is Photoshopped. For one, the pixelated flames look like Bennett actually is burning his left leg off. His right hand appears weirdly small and misshapen. There’s no smoke; the fire sprinklers aren’t going off. Sure, people quickly scrolling through Facebook might not notice this stuff and think it’s real—but even when other commenters pointed out the obvious fallacies, others insisted the photo was still fundamentally true. “Fake or not, when they take the knee it’s the same difference,” one man said.
So, what makes this clearly ‘shopped photo so powerful? Simple. It’s a meme in disguise.
Memes cannibalize existing source material everyone knows in order to tap into ideas or sentiments people connect with. Someone takes a photo, GIF, or drawing and alters it with words, Photoshop, or other images to send a message. That message resonates with other people, who spread it around and adapt it. Often it’s a joke; the Leonardo DiCaprio cheerily strolling through bizarre situations, say, or Kermit the frog giving into his darkest desires via a hooded version of himself. Other times, it’s more political, like the photo of New Jersey governor Chris Christie man-spreading on a beach he closed to the public over 4th of July weekend. Instantly, people began Photoshopping Christie into all sorts of off-limits scenarios, from the Abraham Lincoln’s lap to the Enterprise’s control room.
“They tap into high-arousal emotions, like disgust or anger. That helps them spread,” says Benjamin Lyons, communications expert and postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter. “And because by nature they’re so reductionist and binary, they tend to draw in those types of reactions.”
It’s impossible to know the intentions behind the Bennett photo, but it’s built exactly like a meme. The creator appropriated an obscure photo of a post-game victory dance—taken by Seahawks photographer Rod Mar nearly two years ago—and altered it. But the manipulation didn’t suss out a meaning that was already there; it created it. Michael Bennett sitting during the national anthem, the photo is saying, is equivalent to Michael Bennett burning the American flag. The event never happened, but that doesn’t matter. The inside implication is still true.
“That resonance ended up being truer to them than the actual facts of the case,” says Ryan Milner, a meme expert at the College of Charleston. “They shared it because it was a representation of what they think about NFL players. So when the facts go against that, they can just go back to what originally resonated.”
This hybrid of fake news meme isn’t necessarily new—a digitally altered photo of a shark swimming down a flooded city street gets passed around every hurricane season. But its power is only becoming more sinister as it gets harder to know what’s real. At best, people may get tired puzzling out the truth. At worse, they might stop worrying about it altogether. “In that way, it’s an exemplar of a new normal,” Milner says.
The problem is no longer just fake photos. It’s the fact people don’t care they’re not real.