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Epstein's Death Becomes A Meme


Jeffrey Epstein's death has become a meme, now jumping from GIFs and JPEGs to roadside signs and college game day. The convicted sex trafficker was found unresponsive in his jail cell in New York this August. The cause of death was determined to be suicide by hanging. His connections with rich and powerful people have fanned the conspiracy flames on both the left and the right, given birth to scores of sly asides that have no facts to support them - Epstein didn't kill himself, or Epstein was murdered.

We're joined now by Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme. Thanks so much for being with us.

DON CALDWELL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Who's posting these memes, and why?

CALDWELL: There's a lot of people that are participating in this meme. People on the left are thinking that Epstein may have been murdered or assassinated by powerful people, like Trump, while people on the right have kind of promoted it as being orchestrated by the Clintons. So there's a lot of people that have been involved in this one, with a number of groups and different communities of people on the Internet.

SIMON: Let's be utterly clear on something. There has been an investigation. Is there a shred of evidence to support this?

CALDWELL: In terms of, like, hard evidence, no. But it started in October...

SIMON: I mean, you realize in journalism, when you finish the sentence, hard evidence, no, there is no but.

CALDWELL: Right, right. Yeah, for sure. And - but with the meme, a lot of people participating in this meme might not actually even believe it's completely true. It's - part of the meme is to, you know, sneak the phrase, Jeffrey Epstein didn't kill himself, into - as the punchline to a joke, as well. People will begin, like, an image with a caption about instructions for how to perform some kind of task, like, you know, eating candy corn, but will sneak that message, Epstein didn't kill himself, at the very end. And, yeah, the game is to - is how clever can you be with sneaking that message in?

SIMON: I mean, it sounds a little bit like Rickrolling.

CALDWELL: It is a little bit like Rickrolling. Rickrolling is kind of the iconic bait-and-switch meme of the Internet. And, yeah, in a way, this is very, very reminiscent of Rickrolling.

SIMON: I had to be convinced to do this story because I didn't want to spread any misinformation. That's not what we do here. But is it important for people to recognize the difference between memes and truth?

CALDWELL: Yeah. I mean, you know, there are times when, you know, things that - conspiracy theories spread in a memetic fashion that have real-world consequences, like Pizzagate, for example. You know...

SIMON: Yeah.

CALDWELL: ...That conspiracy theory spread online. And, you know, a guy ended up at a pizzeria with a shotgun.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, for years, the National Enquirer was very popular, but people understood it was fiction. But there are people who believe memes, I mean, demonstrably. Wasn't there a member of Congress who...

CALDWELL: Yeah. That's one of the other reasons that this meme has had such lasting power is it keeps popping up. Last week on Wednesday, Republican Congressman Paul Gosar posted, you know, a series of tweets the first day of the - during the impeachment hearings against Trump. And the first letter of each tweet spelled out the phrase, Epstein didn't kill himself. And this technique has been used in memes for many, many years on the Internet. The technique of, you know, hiding a joke message in the first letter of each word has been a staple of Internet memes for a while. And, yeah, this Epstein meme keeps appearing.

It was on Fox News, as well. There was a former Navy SEAL who was discussing military dogs in the context of the al-Baghdadi raid dog. And at the end of his interview, he, you know, abruptly, you know, turned to the camera and, you know, said...


MIKE RITLAND: ...Fully trained and finished dog from a professional, or just don't get one at all. That and Epstein didn't kill himself.

JESSE WATTERS: All right. (Laughter) OK.

CALDWELL: So, yeah, all these, you know, these news items have kept this meme trending and pop up in the zeitgeist.

SIMON: Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, thanks so much for being with us.

CALDWELL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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