‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’: From fringe conspiracy theory to mainstream memetic phrase

Team Members

Daniël de Zeeuw, Emilija Jokubauskaité, Lukas Beckenbauer, Filippo Fagnoni, Marie-Liesse Hocquet, Eleni Maragkou, James Morales


Summary of key findings

The research found how, when, and where the fringe right-wing conspiracy theory surrounding Epstein's death transformed into a humorous memetic phrase in the mainstream. Collecting and analyzing relevant data from both 4chan and Reddit, a timeline of events around the Epstein suicide case was established, as well as various data visualizations mapping its diffusion and transformation. Our findings confirm that the conspiracy theory was conceived on 4chan, due to the initial post breaking the news before any mainstream outlet did. Its memetic transformation, however, occurred elsewhere before migrating back to 4chan. The first instances of the meme in both its non sequitur and bait-and-switch forms first appear on Reddit, which is where the bulk of memetic engagement is subequently observed. Mainstream coverage of the case and later the meme in turn seeped into and influenced conspiratorial discourse, showing resonance across different online spheres.

1. Introduction

On August 10 2019, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, while serving a prison sentence on charges of sex trafficking. The conditions of his death are shrouded in mystery, as Epstein had previously attempted to commit suicide but had not been placed on suicide watch at the time of his death. His associations with other powerful figures were heavily scrutinised, including friendships with the Clintons, Donald Trump, and accused pedophile Prince Andrew. One hour before ABC News reported the news of his death, a user, presumed to be a first responder at the scene, created a new thread on the anonymous image board 4chan, writing: ‘dont ask me how I know, but Epstein died an hour ago from hanging, cardiac arrest. Screencap this’. A few minutes later, someone claiming to be the original poster wrote: ‘You guys I am shaking right now but i think they switched him out’.

Fig. 1. Initial 4chan thread reporting on Epstein’s death (screenshots taken from https://archive.4plebs.org).

Users began to speculate that Epstein had not in fact committed suicide, implicating various nefarious actors in the process—the Clintons, the Mossad, Donald Trump. They were not alone; conservative media pundit Ann Coulter tweeted on the day of Epstein’s death: ‘Man of honor, Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself to protect Ghislaine. In fact, he probably didn’t kill himself at all’ (Coulter, 2019). On 4chan, the conspiracy theory was initially articulated in heavily anti-Semitic tropes, connecting Epstein, who was Jewish, to a network of all-powerful ‘pedophile elites’. However, it was soon untethered from its unsavoury origins and within the following months achieved memetic status beyond what has been called the ‘deep vernacular web’ and ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ (EDKH) became a vague, bipartisan humourous slogan.

The anonymous imageboard 4chan is part of this deep vernacular web, which Tuters (2017) conceptualises as a loosely-knit network encompassing the anonymous and pseudonymous subcultures in the fringes of the web. 4chan and its unique ‘mask culture’ (de Zeeuw 2019; de Zeeuw & Tuters, forthcoming) represent an outlier in an era marked by what Helmond (2015) calls ‘platformization’, characterised by the advent and domination of social media platforms, which has effectively eclipsed the anarchic, separationist cybercultures of the early 1990s. While mainstream social media platforms are part of a ‘face culture’, wherein the enactment of a stable online identity tethered to the offline world is structurally encouraged, 4chan’s unique affordances of anonymity and ephemerality allow for more uninhibited interaction and the enactment of a collective political identity, which is confirmed and reconfigured through memetic literacy, abstraction, and antagonism (Tuters & Hagen, 2019). 4chan is often described in ambivalent terms, for example as a prolific ‘meme factory’ (Bernstein et al., 2011, p. 50) thanks to the vernacular and memetic innovations it has spawned (Tuters, 2018), but also as the ‘underbelly’ or the ‘asshole’ of the Internet (cited in de Zeeuw, 2019), due to its practices of antagonistic othering of marginalised communities (Milner, 2016) and role as recruitment centre for the alt-right (Tuters, 2017). In the past, it has provided fertile ground for the spread of conspiracies, like Pizzagate (Tuters, Jokubauskaitė & Bach, 2018) and Qanon (Bank, Stack & Victor, 2018).

One way that fringe, subcultural content travels from the deep vernacular web to the surface is through ‘bridge’ platforms, such as YouTube and Reddit (Hagen et al., 2019). The latter is of particular interest, as it blends features of the deep vernacular and the surface web. Users retain some form of anonymity through the use of pseudonyms, however they are able to accumulate social capital on the platform via a feature aptly called ‘karma’. While Reddit has been described as fertile ground for the emergence of ‘toxic technocultures’ (Massanari, 2017) and YouTube is often discussed in terms of its radicalisation potential (Lewis, 2018; Tufekci, 2018), they are generally dismissed by 4chan users as part of the so-called ‘normiesphere’.‘Normie’ is a vernacular concept essentially describing ‘regular’ people who are unfamiliar with online subcultural trends. Much of contemporary meme culture was born on 4chan, before migrating to ‘intermediary’ platforms, and eventually reaching the ‘surface’ web of mainstream social media platforms (Hagen et al., 2019). While on one hand, normies are generally disdained by 4chan users, the strategic importance of ‘redpilling’ them, and the usefulness of memes and memetic irony in the process of increasing the visibility of fringe ideas, are recognised (Zannettou et al., 2018; Lewis, 2018; Heikkilä, 2017). Borrowing from subcultural actor language, the diffusion of fringe or subcultural ideas and vernacular styles into the mainstream has been called ‘normiefication’ (Hagen et al., 2019).

2. Research questions

Using ‘normiefication’ as a heuristic and building upon previous scholarship on fringe conspiracy theories and the deep vernacular web, this research attempts to answer the question of how, when, and where the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ transformed from fringe conspiracy theory to popular memetic phrase circulated outside the confines of 4chan.

3. Methodology & data sets

This research project studies the migration of the conspiracy theories related to the death of Jeffrey Epstein from the deep vernacular web into the mainstream through a cross-platform approach (4chan and Reddit) and a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis. Two platforms in particular are studied: 4chan and Reddit. 4chan is where the news of Epstein’s death was first leaked and where the first reactions to the death subsequently emanated, as well as a prominent board to discuss many of the conspiracy theories involving Epstein in the years before, including Pizzagate. Reddit is where much of its subsequent memeification transpired. Data were collected with 4CAT, a toolkit for capture and analysis of thread-based platforms developed by the Amsterdam-based Open Intelligence Lab (Peeters & Hagen, 2018). Initially, a request was run on 4CAT to obtain a bird eye’s view of mentions of ‘Epstein’ in the month of his death on 4chan’s /pol/ board. It was then decided to focus on the specific phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’, which is the most prominent form of the meme. Other iterations likely exist but are not represented in this research.

4CAT was queried from the beginning of August 2019 until January 14 (excluding)—that is, one week post-Golden Globes, where the meme was referenced by the comedian Ricky Gervais. The 4chan dataset was then filtered into a subset, beginning on August 1 and ending on October 2, the date of the first known appearance of the EDKH meme (Fig. 8). Topic modelling was performed to determine and analyse the dominant discursive themes during the early days of the conspiracy. Using the ‘MALLET’ topic modelling suite with a graining of n=12, and with the additional help of 4CAT, a TopVector model was created, in order to visualise the frequency of each topic and its evolution over time. Five categories were manually established: 1) death circumstances, 2) elite, 3) intelligence, 4) island, and 5) Jewish associations (Fig. 5).

The proportion of the mentions compared to the size of each forum board cannot be evaluated, but the relatively small size of 4chan is helpful for a more qualitative analysis. Qualitative research allows for the design of a timeline of notable events, including the most notorious uses of the EDKH phrase. A third-party archive, 4plebs (https://4plebs.org) was used for the qualitative analysis of notable threads and posts on /pol/. Indeed, the ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ query on 4chan returns 768 individual posts. These were tagged into four different categories, in order to visualise the evolution of the kind of discourse surrounding the phrase over time:

  • When the phrase appears in the context of serious theories, comments are tagged as theory. However, when used for a comedic purpose, they belong to the meme category. In its memetic phase, the phrase often appears as a non sequitur, at the end of a post whose content is seemingly unrelated, or sometimes closing up a litany of conspiracy taglines, which would be a coherent line of thought for their posters, but still appears loosely connected to the original poster (OP).

  • Comments tagged as infowar point to those believing this popularity is helping the spread of their theories and is ultimately a good thing, an effort that must be furthered.

  • The normiefication comments diverge from this point of view as they generally tend to express disdain towards ‘normies’ and postulate that the meme’s popularity is counterproductive or even a concerted tactical move by the principal actors involved in the conspiracy. In this case, the meme is interpreted as a smokeshow or qualified as a red herring.

A similar evolution can be observed on Reddit. Reddit is a peculiar platform, not quite part of the deep vernacular web, but also not entirely mainstream; it is viewed by some as a ‘bridge’ between the two. A list of top subreddits featuring the keyword ‘Epstein’ was produced, of which two, r/conspiracy and r/dankmemes were selected, due to the frequency of posts mentioning Epstein and their respective size (1.1 million and 3.3 million members), as well as their relevance to the research question as conspiracy theorising and meme-focused, respectively. After harvesting the data, they were visualised into streamgraphs, which not only allows to see the different peaks of the use of the phrase, but also the evolution of the context over time.

4. Findings

Timeline of events

In order to better contextualise the data and help trace the diffusion of the EDKH meme into the ‘normiesphere’ and mainstream media, a narrative timeline of events was constructed.

Early in the morning of August 10, Jeffrey Epstein is found unresponsive in his cell. At 14:16, his death is first reported on /pol/; forty-two minutes later, ABC News officially breaks the story (Katersky, Barr & Torres, 2019).Immediately after, the first instances of the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ on 4chan and Reddit are posted, as are the first organised discussions developing the nascent conspiracy. During this time, Epstein-related content remains within the realm of conspiracy theorising.

The first known instance of the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ in the context of a bait-and-switch image macro appears on ifunny.co (Fig. 8), a website and mobile application featuring humorous images, videos, and animated GIFs submitted by users, on October 2 and is then reproduced on 4chan and Reddit. Since iFunny is known for popularising memes without proper attribution, it remains unclear if the image did in fact first appear there or was lifted from another platform. (A Google Reverse Image Search did not return any earlier results from the web.) Joe Rogan’s Instagram post on October 25 (Fig. 11), which has since then garnered about 354,689 likes, acted as a catalyst in the meme’s popularity, as did Mike Ritland, a former U.S. Navy Seal, who ended his appearance on conservative news network Fox News with a reference to the conspiracy (Duncan, 2019).

In early November, Google searches for ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ also increase exponentially (Fig. 12), as memetic iterations of the phrase begin to proliferate. Around this time, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, also known as PewDiePie, references the meme to his 103 million YouTube subscribers (Kjellberg, 2019). By the end of the year, the phrase appears on various consumer products—beer cans and Christmas sweaters (Mak, 2019; Castrodale, 2019). On January 6, the arcane theory whose life cycle might have, under different circumstances, begun and ended in the subcultural fringes of the internet, seemingly achieves maximum normie reach, after being referenced by comedian Ricky Gervais during his opening monologue at the annual Golden Globe awards (Horton, 2019).

Data analysis

Fig. 2. Frequencies of ‘Epstein’ and ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ mentions on 4chan /pol/ and Reddit between August 1 2019 and January 14 2020. The initial peaks occur on the day Epstein was found dead. Visualisations made with RAWGraphs.

The data that was gathered suggests that the mutation of EDKH from conspiracy theory to memetic phrase can be partially understood through the heuristic of normiefication. The idea that Epstein did not kill himself first appears on 4chan’s /pol/ board, where, before his alleged suicide is reported on by the media, an anonymous user, presumed to be a first responder at the scene, postulates that the financier has been murdered. This thread eventually becomes the second largest thread on /pol/ about Epstein, eventually garnering 512 comments. Within the following days, several threads emerge and develop the nascent theory. Usage of the keyword ‘Epstein’ catapults, as users pore over documents, formulate elaborate scenarios, and rehash older conspiracies, connecting them to Epstein. The second surge occurs in November 2019, which coincides with the memeification of the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’. EDKH appears with increasing frequency around this time on both /pol/ and Reddit and its peak corresponds to the search peak for the phrase on Google (Fig. 12). It should be noted, however, that, in the case of Reddit especially, use of the EDKH phrase in images is not accounted for and therefore not represented in this graph.

Fig. 3. Frequency of posts mentioning ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ on 4chan /pol/ between August 1 2019 and January 14 2020. Visualisation made with RAWGraphs.

The categories that emerged during the analysis of the 4chan content correspond to the notion of normiefication. Early iterations of the ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ phrase on /pol/ occur in the context of conspiracy theorising (theory). Memetic usages (meme) of the phrase emerge in late October and come to a head in November, after several instances of the bait-and-switch meme have already been popularised elsewhere. This leads 4chan users to discuss the normiefication of the theory, bringing up the recent popularisation of the meme after the appearance of a former Navy Seal on Fox News and Joe Rogan’s Instagram posts showing different iterations of the bait-and-switch meme. Some speculate on the strategic importance of spreading their theory through memes as well as the role other ‘normie’ platforms (e.g. Imgur) might play in this (infowar); they become preoccupied with the idea of ‘redpilling’ the normies. Engagement wanes gradually until it swells again on January 2020, following Ricky Gervais’ Epstein reference at the Golden Globes.

Fig. 4. Examples of 4chan posts featuring EDKH belonging to ‘theory’, ‘meme’, ‘normiefication’, and ‘infowars’ respectively (screenshots taken from https://archive.4plebs.org).

Fig. 5. Frequency of keywords and topic modelling board associated with the ‘Epstein’ query on 4chan /pol/ between August 1 and September 30 2019. Visualisation made with RAWGraphs.

After the topic modelling, 4chan discourse is categorised under five themes in total, the aforementioned Jewish associations, as well as elites and intelligence associations, and the circumstances related to the death and investigations around his private island. Several discursive trends emerge, generally reflecting subcultural preoccupations with supposedly all-powerful Jewish elites, among other common tropes within this milieu, cementing the highly anti-Semitic origins of the theory. A dominant narrative is constructed around the role of nebulous elites in the financier’s murder; ‘elite’ is an often coded way to refer to powerful Jewish people, although in this case several prominent figures, especially the Clintons, are implicated. On August 10, the day of his death, an abrupt dip is observed, as the general discussion on Epstein is reconfigured around the new facts and the burgeoning conspiracy.

Fig. 6. Frequency of mentions on r/conspiracy and r/dankmemes between August 1 2019 and January 14 2020. Visualisations made with RAWGraphs.

During this time, Epstein-related content also emerges on Reddit. Mentions of Epstein’s name spike around the time of his death before dropping in the subsequent months. The frequency of Epstein-related posts increases once more in early November. Conspiracy theory-related content thrived in the r/conspiracy subreddit immediately after Epstein’s death. Eventually, other subreddits jumped on the bandwagon: frequency of mentions for ‘Epstein’ briefly increased in mid August on r/dankmemes, but truly peaked in November, around the time when EDKH had entered the mainstream as a memetic phrase. A small increase around that time is also observed on r/conspiracy.

5. Discussion

Writing on the Pizzagate conspiracy, Tuters et al. (2018) discuss the ways that 4chan’s affordances enable or ‘grammatise’ collective action. Its ephemerality, for example, lends itself to what the authors call ‘bullshit accumulation’, a process through which biases are confirmed via an appeal to emotion, satiating the ‘demand for emotionally satisfying post-truth’. Essential in this process of bullshit accumulation is the function of general threads, which help frame and consolidate an existing discussion. However, in the case of the Epstein conspiracy, general threads were largely irrelevant. One such thread, the Epstein Ghislaine General thread (EGG) did not gain nearly as much traction as other regular threads discussing aspects of the conspiracy.

Although our findings suggest that the conspiracy theory was indeed conceived on 4chan, this was mostly a logical response to the already suspicious conditions of Epstein’s death and the reason why the seeds of doubt where first planted there was largely due to the initial post breaking the news before any mainstream outlet did. Its memetic transformation, however, occurred elsewhere before migrating back to 4chan. The first instances of the meme in both its non sequitur and bait-and-switch forms first appear on Reddit (Fig. 9, 10), which is where the bulk of memetic engagement is observed. Mainstream coverage of the case and, subsequently, of the EDKH meme seeped into and influenced conspiratorial discourse.

Comparing the two frequency graphs for the ‘Epstein’ query on Reddit, the two moments when engagement around Epstein culminates are easy to pinpoint: one is located around the time of his death, while the other coincides with the popularisation of the EDKH meme. Unsurprisingly, engagement on r/conspiracy is much higher in August, while in the case of r/dankmemes this occurs in November, when EDKH had been established as a meme. However, an increase in Epstein-related activity is observed in both subreddits, implying a link between conspiratorial and memetic engagement.

While the frequency of the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ does increase in November 2019 on /pol/, this increase is not particularly significant when compared to the overall spike in mentions of ‘Epstein’ on the same board or on Reddit. The specificity of ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ as memetic phrase means that this exact wording will not necessarily be prevalent in genuine conspiracy theorising. Much of the conversation on /pol/ is comprised of commentary on the memeification and normiefication of the theory, rather than purely memetic content, which fits better into a meme repository such as r/dankmemes. The complimentary frequencies on the two subreddits are also as expected. There are increases in the mentions of ‘Epstein’ in both cases; for each subreddit the peak corresponds with the story’s cultural status: conspiracy theory in August, established memetic phrase in November.

Concurrently, the theory is amplified by numerous prominent figures and reported on by mainstream outlets, all of which helps to normalise it, while essentially obscuring its subcultural discursive tendencies and sinister origins. Lending credence to suspicions around Epstein’s death is the partial confirmation of previous theories regarding Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean and the serial sexual abuse that occurred there (Watkins, 2020). The belief that Epstein may not have committed suicide transcends not only the boundaries of 4chan, but also political affiliation, as liberals are also likely to believe the conspiracy (“Americans Say Murder More Likely Than Suicide in Epstein Case”, 2019). Similarly, memetic engagement comes from across the political spectrum: r/LateStageCapitalism, where the first known instance of the bait-and-switch meme on Reddit appears, describes its philosophy as having its roots ‘in broad-based anti-capitalist thought, with an emphasis on Marxist concepts and analysis and a commitment to antiracism and inclusive feminism’. Could this point to a potential shift from arcane, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorising to its disavowal through, for example, the humourous indictment of the American prison system, in whose custody Epstein died? In the final analysis, this might be too optimistic a reading; after all, serious interest in the conspiracy was never high outside subcultural confines, and even memetic engagement is bound to dwindle per the demands of the attention economy.

6. Conclusion

This research traces the diffusion and discursive evolution of the ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ conspiracy from fringe, subcultural lore to mainstream memetic phrase. Data from 4chan and Reddit was captured and analysed, using a combination of digital and qualitative coding methods to determine the different forms Epstein-related content took as the conspiracy migrated from the deep vernacular web to the mainstream.

These findings appear to confirm the normiefication thesis. However, the initial expectation that the memeification of the conspiracy could be traced back to 4chan was not confirmed. In this particular case, the phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ was indeed transformed into a meme, unmooring itself from the more sinister origins and anti-Semitic tropes of the theory as it first circulated on 4chan, and derailing the story away from Epstein’s actions and the implications of his death for the U.S. prison system. In this sense, it could also be said that the ‘redpilling’ of the masses that some 4chan denizens might have hoped did not transpire. This memeification mostly occurred elsewhere, such as on Reddit, and later migrated to and was discussed on 4chan, whose role as memetic innovator is challenged here. This process not only brought the conspiracy theory into the mainstream, but also acts as a vector for more conspiracies accumulating on top of each other. Concerns emitting about the focus on the character of Epstein as red herring can also be interpreted as taking prevalence over the testimonies of actual victims of the financier and his acolytes, but ultimately, the semantically satiated phrase does not necessarily indicate heightened interest for the issues that matter the most or practical action.

7. References

Americans Say Murder More Likely Than Suicide in Epstein Case. (2019, Aug. 14). Rasmussen Reports. Retrieved from https://.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/august_2019/americans_say_murder_more_likely_than_suicide_in_epstein_case

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Horton, A. (2019, Jan. 6). Ricky Gervais targets Apple, Epstein and Cats in Golden Globes monologue. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/05/ricky-gervais-targets-apple-epstein-and-cats-in-golden-globes-monologue

Katersky, A., Barr, L., & Torres, E. (2019, Aug. 10). Jeffrey Epstein, accused sex trafficker, dies by suicide: Officials. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/US/jeffrey-epstein-accused-sex-trafficker-dies-suicide-officials/story?id=64881684&cid=social_twitter_abcn

Kjellberg, F. [PewDiePie]. (2019, Nov. 4). “Ok Boomer” - The ultimate Insult [MEME REVIEW] 👏 👏#70. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtube.com/watch?v=AAUiyQyEARs&feature=youtu.be

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Mak, A. (2019, Nov. 15). The Latest Conspiracy Theory Merch Craze Is Jeffrey Epstein Christmas Swag. Slate. Retrieved from https://slate.com/technology/2019/11/epstein-didnt-kill-himself-meme-etsy-amazon-christmas-holidays-whyyyy.html

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Massanari, A. L. (2018). Rethinking Research Ethics, Power, and the Risk of Visibility in the Era of the “Alt-Right” Gaze. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305118768302

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Watkins, A. (2020, Jan. 15). Lawsuit Claims Epstein Trafficked Girls in Caribbean Until 2018. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nytimes.com/2020/01/15/nyregion/jeffrey-epstein-virgin-islands.html

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Topic revision: r3 - 09 Feb 2020, DanielZ
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