That Flag-Burning Seattle Seahawks Photo Isn’t Fake News. It’s a Meme

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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.

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The ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ Meme Photographer Explains All

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You’ve seen it by now, maybe enough times to be sick of it: A man walks down a city street with his girlfriend, head turned backward, face curved into a Tex Avery ogle directed at a woman walking the other direction. This is the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, a photograph that launched a thousand jokes. And no one’s more surprised at its popularity than the man who took it.

Antonio Guillem is a 45-year-old photographer from Barcelona, Spain, who spends his days on shoots specifically destined for stock image companies. For most of that time, he’s worked with the same three models, though he says he parted ways with one of them a year or so ago. (Guillem declined to name his collaborators out of concern for their privacy.) His portfolio largely consists of people—some combination of two women and one man—in the sort of reactive poses that makes stock photography such an uncanny delight.

But in mid-2015, spurred by successful sales, Guillem wanted to diversify his look. “We decided to take a few risks, planning a session representing the infidelity concept in relationships in a playful and fun way,” he says. He and his models took to Gerona, an idyllic city in Catalonia, Spain, chose a spot on the street, and starting shooting “It was quite challenging to achieve face expressions that were believable,” says Guillem. “Mainly because we always have a really great work atmosphere, and almost all the time one of the models was laughing while we were trying to take the picture.”

While multiple shots came out of that shoot—and countless have featured the same trio over the years—it was “Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl” that would go on to set the internet ablaze with infinite spins on the same formulaic joke.

The Meme Documentation Tumblr—yes, there is one, and you should follow it—traces ‘distracted boyfriend’ back to the above late-January post in a Turkish Facebook group devoted to prog rock (the group’s name translates to “Great Answers to Prog Enemies”). After that, it laid dormant until this month, when Twitter ran amok with it. Here are just a few examples, provided in the spirit of instruction and joy.

For Guillem, the explosive popularity of a photo snapped two years ago presents more of a curiosity than any kind of milestone. “I never thought that one of my images will be that popular,” he says. “I didn’t even know what a meme is until recently, when the models started to tell me about the memes that people were doing with our work.”

As any number of verified accounts can tell you, popularity on Twitter does not directly translate into real-life gains. “Our top-selling images get more than 5,000 to 6,0000 sales a year, while the meme photo is sold around 700 times a year,” says Guillem. His best-selling photo, a solo shot of one of the ‘distracted boyfriend’ women smiling, has sold over 13,000 times. Besides, it’s not like Tumblr and Twitter users are forking over fees to Shutterstock before they fire up Photoshop. “Memes haven’t given us any kind of economic profit, because most of the images haven’t been sold on the microstock agencies,” says Guillem. “They are being used without the proper license on those agencies.”

Not that he minds, particularly. Guillem says he’s “not worried about the meme situation,” and understands that social media remixers are acting “in good faith.” He does plan to pursue legal action in cases where the images could reflect poorly on himself or the models.

Mostly, Guillem says, he’s too busy with his stock photography pursuits to keep close tabs on this particularly cultural moment. It’s a job he fell into; in his previous life, before Spain’s economy suffered a crippling crash he had made a living creating 3-D designs for construction companies. After an unemployed stint, he decided to pick up a camera.

“We started without having any kind of idea of this business and I didn’t even know a thing about photography,” says Guillem. After three and a half years, he says, he was selling 1600 photos every day. In Guillem’s view, a few weeks of virality doesn’t connote any sort of success that he hasn’t already achieved. Besides, he rightly acknowledges that he can’t take credit for the meme-ification of his work.

“Regarding what I think about the photo has gone viral, I think the image was a good foundation to whoever had the great idea to turn it into a metaphor that works for almost everything,” he says.

Even, it turns out, for itself.

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LOOK: Trump Retweets Meme of Himself ‘Eclipsing’ Obama

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President Trump was active on Twitter this morning, sharing a meme of himself “eclipsing” former President Barack Obama and once again going after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) 

The meme said “The Best Eclipse Ever!” and showed Trump face gradually facing passing in front of Obama’s in four photos. 

The last image simply shows a smiling Trump without his predecessor present.


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Immediately, Twitter users flocked to the page of New Jerseyan Jerry Travone, who originally tweeted the meme as a reply to an earlier tweet from Trump. 

Travone describes himself as a “political junkie and YouTube actor.” He told Buzzfeed that he found the meme and shared it, but isn’t the creator. 

The president drew criticism last week for re-tweeting, then deleting a cartoon image of a Trump train hitting a CNN journalist.  

Meanwhile, the president sent a series of other tweets criticizing the media, McConnell and former DNI James Clapper, who a day earlier questioned Trump’s fitness for office.

Watch a clip on Trump’s relationship with McConnell below.


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Trump Retweets Eclipse Meme, Brags About Ability to ‘Change Tones’

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President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, suggested that his ability to shift tones between speeches was an asset, noting that the “fake news” was complaining of the changing types of rhetoric over the past few days.

“The Fake News is now complaining about my different types of back to back speeches,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Well, their (sic) was Afghanistan (somber), the big Rally (enthusiastic, dynamic and fun) and the American Legion – V.A. (respectful and strong). To (sic) bad the Dems have no one who can change tones!…”

Trump later corrected the spelling errors.

Plenty of media attention was devoted to how Trump’s rhetoric differed when he was reading from a Teleprompter (as he was for the Afghanistan and American Legion speeches) and when he was speaking off the cuff (as he did at the Phoenix rally).

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, has questioned Trump’s fitness for office, and said on CNN that the president’s “Jekyll-Hyde business” was “disturbing.”

Trump slammed Clapper, writing in a tweet that he “famously got caught lying to Congress,” and “is now an authority on Donald Trump. Will he show you his beautiful letter to me?” Trump was referring to testimony that Clapper made to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012 over the collection of personal data. He later said that he misspoke when he claimed that the federal government was not collecting such records, something that was later contradicted by Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks.

At the latter, Trump called for unity in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, but he also devoted a big portion of the speech to bashing the media, saying at one point that he believes that they “don’t like our country.” He also criticized Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, albeit not by name, and hinted that he may be ready to pardon controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In his Thursday tweets, Trump also chided House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), claiming that he requested that they include debt ceiling legislation in a Veterans Administration bill.

“They didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy-now a mess!” Trump tweeted.

There had been reports in July that Congress was looking at tying the debt ceiling legislation to the popular VA bill, as a tactic of avoiding a showdown in September. The debt ceiling must be raised by the end of September or the federal government risks a default. Some Republican lawmakers want spending cuts attached to the debt ceiling increase as a condition of their backing.

Congress also needs to pass legislation to fund the government past Sept. 30.

At his Tuesday rally in Phoenix, Trump said that he would be willing to shut down the government if a new spending bill does not includes funds for constructing a border wall.

Trump again faulted McConnell for being unable to pass legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, writing that “he failed’ after promising such a move for seven years.

Trump also retweeted YouTube actor Joey Travone, who had posted an eclipse-inspired meme of Trump overshadowing his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

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Best Of The ‘Man Looking At Other Woman’ Meme

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Shutterstock

Stock photos are often fodder for memes and running jokes, whether they’re being used as visual shorthand to try to explain hacking to old people watching cheesy local news stories or they’re being repurposed with emails from aspiring porn stars. And now, the expository picture above has lent itself to a meme.

The picture first appeared on Shutterstock before it was used in a joke on Instagram:

The meme didn’t really pick up until this month, after this tweet made the rounds:

This tweet was later reposted without credit by another account and received over 50,000 retweets. From there, the meme started showing up throughout social media:

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