Misleading homophobic memes target former Estonian president

Memes on Russian fringe sites and a pro-Kremlin outlet disparaged Estonia and the West

Misleading homophobic memes target former Estonian president

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Memes on Russian fringe sites and a pro-Kremlin outlet disparaged Estonia and the West

(Source: Ridus.ru/archive, left; Facebook/archive, right)

For years, memes claiming to depict former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves dressed in a bumblebee costume during an LGBT pride festival have circulated on the Russian web.

The image, which depicts a different man who resembles Ilves, has often been accompanied by anti-Western rhetoric and undertones in an effort to further the message that Estonia belongs the “demoralized West.”

The meme has mostly appeared on blogs, forums, social media, and fringe sites, as well as on the major pro-Kremlin TV channel NTV during a satirical news program. The DFRLab did not discover a coordinated attempt to spread the meme; rather, the false narrative appeared to have spread organically, aided by the unidentified man’s visual resemblance to the Estonia’s former president.

Two different men

The DFRLab analyzed multiple memes that identified the man in the image as the former Estonian president. The first variation of the meme surfaced on Twitter in 2015.

Examples of memes alleging that the former Estonian president was photographed wearing a bumblebee costume at a LGBT pride event, some of which also disparaged the Swedish king (in the antlers hat). (Source: touch.otvet.mail.ru/archive, top left; avdysh-oleg.livejournal.com/archive, top right; arsik63.livejournal.com/archive, bottom)

The image allegedly of Ilves was taken at the 2011 Buenos Aires Gay Pride Parade on November 5, 2011. Russian news aggregator Ridus posted many high-resolution photos from the event, including the photo of the man in the bumblebee costume.

Another Russian news aggregator, 1tvnet.ru, posted an image with the same man standing between two individuals. The Kazakh TV channel KTK published a video story featuring the same man. The footage came from video posted by U.S. TV network CBS on YouTube.

Screenshots of the man, who internet memes claimed was former Estonian President Ilves. (Source: Ridus.ru/archive, top left; 1tvnet.ru/archive, top right; KTK/archive, bottom left; YouTube/archive, bottom right)

Though the man in the videos bears some resemblance to Ilves, a side-by-side comparison revealed that he is a different person.

Comparison of the man in the bumblebee costume and Ilves. Note the facial features when the mouth is open (on the left), and height comparison when standing with other people (on the right). (Source: Ridus.ru/archive, top left; 1tvnet.ru/archive, top right; Facebook/archive, bottom left; Facebook/archive, bottom right)

While it is a somewhat unorthodox verification, a comparison of the two men’s ear shape, a unique facial “fingerprint” that is difficult to alter, clearly shows that the two men are not the same.

Comparison of the men’s ears. Notice the difference in their earlobe shape. (Source: Ridus.ru/archive, left; Facebook/archive, right)

In particular, the unidentified man’s ear is rounder in shape at the top than Ilves’s and his earlobe is detached, while Ilves’s is attached.

Furthering an anti-West narrative

The photo was not only used to discredit Ilves, as it also functioned as a hyper-stereotypical representation of a gay man in coverage of LGBT events or issues. The image mostly appeared in smaller media outlets in stories that were mostly presented as “entertainment” and with a neutral or negative outlook on the LGBT community. There were also cases when the image was marshalled to juxtapose the notion of a weak and effeminate United States with that of a strong and masculine Russia. In other instances, it was used to disparage the supposedly immoral version of Europe Ukraine aspired to join, as well as the liberal values of Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Although the man was first identified as Ilves online in 2015 and again several times in 2016, the falsehood did not enter the mainstream until June 2018, when the host of satirical TV show “Mezhdunarodnaya Polorama” (Международная пилорама or “International sawmill”) on the pro-Kremlin TV channel NTV mocked Ilves’s statement that “Russia may lose Omsk, Tomsk, and Saint Petersburg if it attacks Estonia.”

A frame from the video of the TV show “Mezhdurarodnaya Pilorama,” during which the host suggested that the man in the image was Ilves. (Source: VKontakte/archive)

At the end of the episode, the host said, “No need to be offended by him,” as he gestured toward the man in the image. “We need to be sorry for him and cure him.”

This case demonstrates how the false image portraying Ilves as feminine and gay used “Straw man” logical fallacy by first mischaracterizing the former Estonian president and then using that characterization to portray Ilves as unserious or unreliable. This type of misleading argument was used to refute Ilves’s statement that “Russia may lose Omsk, Tomsk, and Saint Petersburg, if it attacks Estonia.”

Russian media and other actors in Russian information spaces often use LGBT-related issues to portray the Western society as demoralized. The DFRLab has previously analyzed how Russian media reacted to same-sex couple kisses during live-stream of Eurovision 2019 song festival semi-finals, finding that some Kremlin media outlets claimed that the public reaction to the kisses was disproportionately negative when the reality was more mixed.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.