Yesterday, by way of Twitter, I came across this Facebook post. It still hasn’t been removed, and I doubt it will be, but here’s a screenshot for posterity:
In this picture, you can see Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett burning an American flag in an NFL locker room while his teammates and coach look on in excitement. It’s an outrageous image, playing into the right-wing fantasy that professional football players who kneel to protest racial violence are America-hating, troop-despising, flag-defiling domestic terrorists.
To anyone with a handful of functioning brain cells, it’s also a clear fake.
Now, full disclosure: I’m not an expert in Photoshop or any other photo editing software. I cannot simply look at this photo and tell that it’s a phony. Someone with a better eye and more experience could probably analyze the shadows and declare it illegitimate on the spot. Or maybe they immediately noticed the lack of smoke, or the fact that there are no sprinklers going off, or whatever. Not me. To my untrained eye, it looks like Michael Bennett is holding a burning American flag.
Instead of deduction bolstered by forensic digital analysis, I rejected the picture as fake using an old-fashioned technique I like to call “not being a complete and utter dupe.” The idea of an NFL player actually committing this act, while his teammates and coach go apeshit in the background, is just too stupid for me to entertain. And I’m no brain genius—I’m just an ordinary human being with a functioning BS detector. Thus armed, I can conclude without hesitation that this incident, plainly, would never happen. Even if a player had the idea to burn a flag, and even if he then executed this idea—both extremely unlikely—there’s no way in hell he’d ever have the support of the entire locker room. He’d probably be tackled and detained before he could even kindle a flame.
To believe this photo, in my opinion, you would have to be extremely gullible, and your brain would have to be warped by years of conservative propaganda that created a picture in your mind of the “liberal” or “black” enemy as an unrecognizable and exaggerated figure—a symbol of evil, divorced from the human experience, capable of any outrage. You would have to lead an extremely sheltered existence, ignorant of other perspectives, and wake up each morning with an abject terror of people different from you. It reminds me of how the Soviets convinced their citizens during the Cold War that America was a hellscape littered with gangsters where everybody was afraid to walk the streets—a person who believes in this photo has been totally deluded by a persistent and persuasive culture war. At least they had an excuse—they were under the thumb of tyrants, deprived of the truth about western culture. What’s ours?
Before we go on, let’s tidy up loose ends—the original photo is from 2015, and shows Bennett dancing with his teammates after a Seahawks win:
My friend who showed me the tweet above had an interesting take—he thinks that until Facebook has enough employees to police this kind of content, the whole company should shut down. When you consider that the entire platform was flooded with Russia-backed propaganda in the lead-up to the election, it's hard to argue with him. Some of the ad buys were particularly nefarious, like the one invoking Black Lives Matter to scare the hell out of white people in targeted geographic areas. There seems to be no limit to the manipulation actors both foreign and domestic are capable of pulling off in the service of a political agenda.
I have a slightly different take. I recently spent months reporting a story showing how the agents of big oil companies use fake Facebook videos and ads to turn local residents against pipeline protesters. If there was one mistake I made in writing that story, it was downplaying the impact this had in those communities. To me, the videos looked amateurish and obviously fake, and I wrote that their influence would be limited. Afterward, I was contacted by a resident from a small town involved in the pipeline wars who told me I was wrong. In fact, he said, the videos had been incredibly divisive at the local level—particularly to those who weren't Internet-savvy, including many seniors.
Now, remember that story, and take a look at the top reply to the flag-burning Facebook post. You can see it in the first image above, but I'll reproduce it here:
You may be a bad man on the football field…but burning the Flag that I shed my blood to honor would be just cause to whack you upside your ignorant disrespectful head….that isn't a threat…burn it in my presence and it is a promise. 70 year old 100% Disabled Veteran…US ARMY RETIRED…..service to My Country…something you jackleg wouldn't know anything about….
Now, that person could be an actor posing as a 70-year-old veteran, but I have no particular reason to doubt him, and a cursory glance at his profile seems to back him up. His comment has received 653 reactions as of this writing, almost all of them positive, along with several replies thanking him for his service and expressing anger at the flag-burning football players.
The next most-liked comment is this:
This is what happens when people idolize a bunch of supposed hero's instead of giving back to the true Americans that are willing to die to defend our country. Boycott now.
Finally, by the third top comment, we find an Internet sleuth debunking the whole thing:
If you zoom in you can tell it's photoshopped. No smoke is also a tale tale sign it's fake! Vets for Trump, I'd expect higher standards than this BS!
Number four, though, is another doozy, coded in loosely veiled racism and utterly shocked that the responsible white man in the photo didn't put a stop to this:
That doesn't surprise me that Sherman is sitting on the side laughing but really surprises me that Pete Carroll is sitting there and enjoying this s* that's going on what a f** traitor to our country I never like the piece of s* when he was in the NFL the first time he failed and went back to the college stayed in there for a couple years and then they let him back in the NFL just goes to show you what kind of Standards the NFL really has what a POS
I could go on—the vast majority of the responders are deeply upset at the photo, and the general reaction to those who show that the picture is a fake tend toward the “ignore and stay angry” side of the spectrum.
Which leads me to my conclusion—yes, conservative media is manipulative to a disgraceful degree, going past the centrist, pro-corporate bias of the liberal media into outright, intentional deception. Yes, Russian propaganda is incredibly dark in the way it targets our basest impulses, and the domestic, Breitbart-y stuff is no different. All of it should be illegal, and perhaps Facebook should be shut down until it can manage this stuff.
But—I'm sorry, I can't get past this—this stuff is not very sophisticated. It boggles my mind that there are so many people on the American right who get fooled. I understand that many of them are older, and not as familiar with the byzantine pathways of the Internet, and hence more prone to gullibility. Even so, it feels like a baseline amount of common sense would be a good defense against this kind of thing. I keep going back to this tweet:
Now, I don’t mean to claim that conservatives are the only gullible ones on the digital landscape. It happens to the left, too—I had the benefit of reading the infamous Rolling Stone UVa rape story a few days after it was exposed as a lie, and as I read, I was shocked that anybody had ever believed it. The narrative reminded me of the Satanic panic videos I’d watched in college psychology classes, where the details are so outlandishly grotesque, and so widespread, and so divorced from the ugly reality of child abuse or sexual assault on college campuses that they can’t be anything but an invention. I don’t mean to pat myself on the back—maybe if I’d read it beforehand, I would have believed it too, since it conforms more to my ideology. But before it was exposed, when anyone had the audacity to question the story, there were liberal writers like Jezebel’s Anna Merlan on hand to batter them with invective.
Point being, the left has its blind spots as well. But examples like that one don’t come close to the widespread delusion and gullibility of the right. Where fiascoes like the Rolling Stone story produce temporary and embarrassing lapses (with real accountability and consequences), what’s happening on the right appears more and more like a widespread, bone-deep disease. And while someone like Merlan, I believe, had good intentions—justice for rape victims drove her to ignore the questionable fabric of a single story, for which she later apologized with total sincerity—the motivations of the conservative mob align more with agendas limited to hatred, anger, and fear.
I’ve asked myself the same question for months now: “How is it possible for this many people to be this stupid?” And then I wonder—do they even want to know the truth? Look at these four responses from that same Facebook post, each coming after another user points out that it’s a fake:
1. “You act as if they WOULDN’T do this.”
2. “Fake or not. When they take a knee it’s same difference. Its an insult to American veteran’s and the man and women who pledged allegiance to the flag. Want to protest then take it to the streets.”
3. “Exactly that’s what I’m saying it may be fake but if it wasn’t they would still would do it”
4. “Doesn’t matter if this is a fake photo, this is what they are doing without actually burning the flag.”
While the entire thread made me angry, these posts were the most frustrating by far. This mindset gets into something deeper, and scarier, than mere gullibility—perhaps what they want, after all, is a mere outlet for their anger, which obeys no rational process. If that’s the case, truth has ceased to matter to them, and the brainwashing they’ve experienced at the hands of conservative media is complete. If we have so many people who are so thoroughly bamboozled, and who, even when confronted with reality, revert to a defensive “I’m right even when I’m wrong” stance, then what chance does truth have?
There’s an army of right-wingers in this country who essentially become unthinking ideological drones—easily fooled, easily used. They employ embarrassing logic, they’re gullible, and they frankly don’t care when they’re wrong. It’s a cancer in our political psyche, and it’s exacerbated by the flattening, relativistic presence of the Internet. We are in deep, deep trouble.