Everyone is pretty pumped up, if we’re just going by the expressions on the faces of the Seattle Seahawks players and coaches arrayed about their locker room. Richard Sherman is cheesing like a five-year-old on photo day. If Pete Carroll was grinning any harder, his smile would somehow be larger than his face. In the middle of it all, stomping and shirtless and exultant, is Michael Bennett. If he is at all bothered by the fact that the burning American flag he holds in his hands appears to be sending flames up his left pant-leg, he’s not showing it.
By this point in this photo’s lifecycle, you do not need me to tell you that there was no burning flag in Bennett’s hands. The image, which exists in the queasy liminal shitlands between Fake News and Meme, is a haphazardly altered version of a photo that the Seahawks shared on Twitter back in 2016. Someone added the burning flag to Michael Bennett’s victory dance—not very carefully at that—and then just spiked it right into the internet’s bloodstream. It was shared by a Facebook group called Vets For Trump on September 28, with the caption “#Seattleseahawks - no more NFL.” It was posted and re-posted widely after that, with one post being shared more than 200,000 times; Facebook wound up banning two prominent fake news sites that helped the story pop.
Vets For Trump is indistinguishable from innumerable others on Facebook in the sense that it exists to provide its audience with regular servings of piping hot shit to eat—memes in which a photo of George Carlin is covered by 150 words of seething text, videos in which bearded men glowering in basement rec rooms or sitting in parked cars direct vague but blistering harangues into their iPhone cameras. There is nothing on it that seems to have much to do with veterans or the military, really.
Because this is a political Facebook group and this is 2017, it goes without saying that there is nothing on that page that aims to do anything but make the people visiting it more unhappy than they were before they came across it. The posts are generally utility-grade umbrage fodder, but Vets For Trump is followed by more than 121,000 Facebook users, and the image of Bennett with his burning flag was shared more than 10,000 times before VetsForTrump finally took it down. The site later linked to a story headlined “The Image Is Photo-Shopped, But Veterans Agree, It Is An Accurate Metaphor For What The NFL Is Doing To America.”
It’s not the catchiest term, but So Fake That Even A Spammy Wingnut Facebook Group Had To Retract It does offer a good sense of the levels of both artistry and idiocy at work where this image was concerned. If not for the ugliness inherent in its very existence, there would almost be something pure about the delirious and artless stupidity of it—a photograph of a bunch of men giddily cheering a heavily symbolic and oddly smoke-free act of arson, in a confined space, in unison. It is both too obviously false to debunk and somehow just convincing enough to upset thousands of honestly-already-pretty-upset Facebook people.
So of course the photo, like every single other thing that has ever existed on the internet, is very much Still Out There. The truthfulness of it was never the point; it did what it was supposed to do, and in fact did so well enough that it is still spinning off sequels. Here, for instance, is a story that was broken by a website called Sportfella—“Your felllas [sic] for sports news”—and which the rest of the mainstream sports media has cravenly refused to cover:
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says that the team went too far in this latest stunt. Via Fox News:
Goodell says that there is “no place in the league for this kind of behavior,” noting that a vote will be held to remove the Seahawks from the league entirely.
“This senseless attack on our country, her flag, and everything they stand for has gone way too far,” he told Fox Sports. “Donald Trump is right. We will not tolerate it.”
Goodell can not simply remove the Seahawks from the NFL roster. It requires a majority vote from team owners and shareholders. The vote is scheduled for next Wednesday.
That post went up on October 3. As with so much of what’s on Sportfella, it’s unclear whether we are dealing with one of those sites trafficking in oafish but ostensibly satirical prank-news—like this one, which had the NFL suspending three teams—or whether it’s just Macedonian. This, for instance, is a tough call:
There’s reason to think it’s the former—the box on the site headlined “Editor Pick’s” certainly reads like a flawless little bit of online japery, and that James Woods headline is honestly way too close to something I would tweet as a joke and then get depressed about—but the latter, as it happens, appears to be the case. The site is registered to and run by a Macedonian business school graduate named David Damcevski. (He didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Sportfella’s approach to this noble calling is mostly about slapping slaveringly MAD ONLINE headlines onto actual-existing stories. Here, for instance, is the Sportfella headline on a post about the memo that Malcolm Jenkins, Torrey Smith, and other NFL players sent to the commissioner requesting league support for an activism-awareness month:
Pretty fucking gross! But while the story under that headline isn’t much better, it at least relates to a thing that really happened in the world. If you are looking for a slightly heavier psychedelic experience in your Fake Sports News, or just would like to read the exact same story with slightly different ads jammed between every paragraph, you could do so at AllNews4Us.com, This is a website that offers all news, for us, and which is registered to someone named Bojan Stojanovski, with an address in Veles, Macedonia, a city that is currently something like the global capital of slipshod fake news bullshit. AllNews4Us, in its dedication to get All News 2 Us, is not afraid to just straight make some shit up.
The most notable of these is the AllNews4Us World Exclusive that, following their Week 4 loss to the Rams at home, some prominent Cowboys took out their frustrations by just stomping away on Old Glory in the locker room. The evidence of this is a dark YouTube video that’s 14 seconds long, and which was uploaded on the same day the story ran.
It is unclear when the footage was taken (it appears to be before or after a game) , but several players are shown stomping on the American flag. Faces are not shown in the video, but according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the players have been identified. Fox News reports:
“The players seen in the video are Running Back Ezekiel Elliott, Quarterback Rayne Dakota Prescott, and Wide Receiver Dez Bryant,” Goodell said in a press conference Tuesday. “Other staffers have been identified and the appropriate actions have been taken.”
The video began making rounds on social media after the game, leading to a swift investigation.
“Players who took part in this attack on our flag have been fined $5.3 million each,” Goodell says.
As a general rule, when establishment media types talk about Fake News—in the actual sense of disinformation intended to be distributed online, not in the president’s goonish metonym for all stories in which he comes off like an asshole—it is as a weapon of war. This is a top-down and I think willfully naive understanding of what this stuff is, and why and how it works. It’s just easier to see this problem—the disorienting and unrelenting recession of objective reality as a concept that exists and can be agreed upon—as the result of a hostile outside force working consciously towards a particular end. It’s convenient because that understanding of the problem works about the same when used from any spot on the partisan spectrum: someone, somewhere, is lying to you, working tirelessly in secret to deceive you, harm you, and take something from you that you care about, and you can plug in their identities to suit your taste. It’s also convenient because it shoves all the accountability onto one side of the equation. There is a villain and there is a victim, both clearly marked.
Right now, it seems like the broader culture is not really up for telling anything but war stories. The definition of war at work here is different and much less serious than the bloodier literal one that gnaws at the edges of everyday life, but it’s related: It’s hard to say just what kind of effect a decade and a half of endless stalemated brutality at home and abroad has done to this country and the people in it, but the constancy and corrosiveness of it is plain to see all around us. The search for various hidden hands and unseen forces, for enemies within and without, the endless empty feuds and betrayals and cynical salesmanship and raw idiot cruelty that currently comprise our politics and our culture—all of this resolves back to the question of why. Why is this the way things are? Following hopefully on behind are the associated questions Who did this to us? and Who made us like this?
Of course it can be true that all of this is so and yet that bizarre fake NFL news is simply the free market’s rote autonomic response to an identifiable consumer desire. Once you understand the formula for generating content that meets the strange and bottomless desire for resentment, it’s just a question of the right inputs. It makes sense that Donald Trump, whose entire life has been spent in this rotten pursuit, would understand that there was something latent in the NFL’s fetish for discipline and authority and barely subtextual race issues that he could leverage. It makes sense, too, that those less fluent in these particular grievances would fail in attempting the same trick. They can read the score—Certain Americans Are Mad At Black NFL Players Now, basically—but the rhythm is not native to them.
None of the Macedonian Fake Sports News stories were as widely read as Michael Bennett Flag-Burning Dance Dot JPG. The Sportfella story on the NFL removing the Seahawks was shared on Facebook 256 times and the identical version at AllNews4Us was shared 263, and most stories on both sites are shared only a few dozen times. The short video of the “Cowboys” kicking around Old Glory has been viewed 2,450 times, but the story in which it was embedded was barely shared at all.
On their negligible merits, these stories are trash; take the reason for their existence into account and they’re even worse, not because the reason in question is a conscious attempt to divide or enflame people but because it speaks to the undeniable demand for content that does just that. There’s something insulting about all of this shit, both in terms of form and function, and something shameful. Because the authors of these particular chunks of Fake Sports News are not artful or sophisticated enough to conceal the ugliness of what they’re targeting and the way they’re targeting it, and because they don’t quite speak in the code of the ravenous audience they’re trying to reach, the stories give themselves away.
They’re laughable, but these are some rough chuckles. It might be that they failed to find a large audience because they were too fake, or because they didn’t know where that audience’s rancid imagination was at that moment. But what’s insulting about them isn’t a matter of misunderstanding their audience’s appetites. The insult is that, in their dimwitted and morally null pandering, they reveal that desperate appetite so plainly—not just a willingness but a hunger for something, anything, whatever that tells us that this long and stupid and obliterating everyday war is just, and that we are right to keep fighting it despite all it has already cost us.