Zoomers on TikTok, plant hobbyist meme accounts, and Fox News guests have little in common. But they all declare the same rallying cry: Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.
Whether a macro image or a short video, the meme more or less follows the same format. It starts out by either listing mundane facts about a natural phenomenon, or with a short skit that hooks the audience with catchy audio. When it has your attention, it hits you with the phrases “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” or “Jeffrey Epstein was murdered.”
“It’s blunt. Subtlety is not a part of this meme,” Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme said in a phone interview with Mashable. “It’s about slapping you in the face with this theory.”
The fact that this meme is so popular sheds a light on how many people may believe that the elite billionaire class is controlling current events behind the scenes, protecting themselves at the expense of the greater public. And how do we deal with believing that these insidious puppeteers keep ordinary people out of the know? We make memes.
Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in August, where he was awaiting trial after being charged with federal sex trafficking charges. Dr. Barbara Sampson, the chief medical examiner in New York City, determined Epstein died by suicide and described his death as a “hanging” in a statement released six days after his death.
However, some are still reluctant to believe the official coroner’s report. After a private pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother claimed his autopsy “points to homicide,” Sampson doubled down on her original assessment. Some of the footage from his cell is unusable, but the extent of usable footage is unknown. The guards who were tasked with watching him were allegedly asleep when he died.
The memes began trending in full force last week after a video of ABC news anchor Amy Robach ranting about the network killing an interview with an Epstein accuser leaked. Caught on a hot mic, Robach said she spent three years trying to get an interview with Virginia Giuffre, who alleges she was trafficked into having sex with Prince Andrew. Robach also said that ABC shelved the story when the royal family threatened them “a million different ways.”
Prosecutors accused Epstein, who was a wealthy hedge fund manager, of trafficking dozens of underage girls between 2002 and 2005. Some were as young as 14 years old. Epstein’s social circle in the past included former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew, and in 2002, Donald Trump described him as a “terrific guy” to New York Magazine. Epstein was a convicted sex offender, and had a long history of allegations.
Epstein’s abrupt death and connections to the wealthy and influential immediately sparked conspiracy theories that the elite had orchestrated his death to prevent him from implicating more powerful figures. The theories cross party lines and have been pushed by conservatives who want to see the Clintons taken down, and liberals who want Trump’s administration held accountable. Alex Acosta, Trump’s former labor secretary, oversaw a 2008 deal that protected Epstein from federal prosecution. Instead of serving a harsher sentence, the lenient deal cut under Acosta’s watch allowed Epstein to serve 13 months of prison time while still being able to leave the facility and work in his office during the day.
These theories are far from fringe — even New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio is skeptical of the coroner’s report. He told reporters “something doesn’t fit” during an unrelated press conference in October. A Fox News guest who was talking about the viral classified dog blurted “Epstein didn’t kill himself” at the end of his live segment. Paul Gosar, a Republican Congressman representing Arizona, used the meme to promote pro-Trump messages during the impeachment hearings on Wednesday.
Conspiracy theories are built into the framework of American politics; people have always been suspicious of those in power. Add sex, money, and a mysterious death into the mix, and you have all the right ingredients to fuel uncertainty.
“With Epstein it’s rationalizing broad populism with the concern that billionaires have so much money, [and] the feeling that rich people control all the levers of political power,” University of Chicago political science professor Eric Oliver said in a phone interview.
Oliver studies conspiracy theories, and in a nationally representative survey he conducted last week, he found that 50 percent of respondents said they thought Epstein “killed himself while left alone in his jail cell,” 43 percent indicated they thought he was “murdered by powerful people afraid that he would expose their own crimes,” and 7 percent endorsed neither explanation.
Another survey conducted in August by the Emerson College Polling Society concluded that 34 percent of Americans believed Epstein was murdered and 32 percent were still “unsure.” Neither survey took memes into account, but both conclude that a sizable, and growing percent of Americans believe Epstein didn’t kill himself.
“He sort of symbolizes the degradation and the depravity of the billionaire class,” Oliver theorized. “His ‘murder’ also shows what this class is willing to do to protect itself.”
Oliver notes that conspiracy theories aren’t new — they even fueled the founding of the in the 1800s, a third political party that opposed the Freemasons and whose supporters believed the secret society was murdering those who spoke out against them. The way social media allows these theories to spread, though, is relatively new.
When Oliver first began studying conspiracy theories in the 1990s, he said they were spread by guys wearing tin foil hats and passing out pamphlets on the street. With the internet, speculation can be spread with just a click. Memes are ripe for disseminating wild rumors, because they play on being included in shared thinking, whether you’re in on the joke or in on believing in a shadow ruling class puppeteering democracy.
“A large number of people feel like their interests aren’t being accounted for, and conspiracy narratives rationalize and validate that sense of disempowerment,” Oliver said. “Donald Trump is our president… what else do you need to say at this point?”
Although these memes may appear lighthearted, they’re indicative of a widespread sense of helplessness. No matter how politically active you may be, how much of a sway can your vote really have if an elite billionaire class has the power? Joking about it is a small comfort in an otherwise bleak political landscape.
“I think it says a lot about how deep corruption in politics is and just how much control these evil groups of people have on the operations of just about everything,” college student Alexander Ruiztagle said in an Instagram DM. “We as a society have no other way of dealing with just how horrific this situation is other than to make it a meme.”
Ruiztagle noticed the Epstein meme taking off on Instagram and Reddit, and translated it to TikTok in a video that made it onto the app’s elusive For You Page last week. He pantomimes singing the opening bars to Neon Trees’ 2012 song “Everybody Talks,” and when the song builds up to the lead singer clearing his throat, Ruiztagle tossed in his own voiceover: “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
“Our generation has become so accustomed to memes that it transcends jokes and it’s become a form of expressing our emotions in a way that’s more effective than plain text,” he continued, adding that it’s easier to accept living in such a dark reality by dealing with it through a more digestible format like memes.
While this particular meme may help some people cope with their feelings of powerlessness, its viral spread has also had an unintended consequence: forcing an unknown number of survivors grapple with the trauma of seeing their abuser become a joke.
Whether or not this particular conspiracy theory has actually swayed anyone’s opinion isn’t clear. Both Oliver and Caldwell question whether the general public really believes Epstein’s death was part of some nefarious cover up. Surveys about this topic may always be flawed because of the meme’s popularity.
Caldwell pointed out that while some conspiracy theories, like QAnon and Pizzagate had genuine supporters and ended in real world consequences, many are satire. Memes like “Birds aren’t real” claim the government eradicated all birds during the Cold War, and replaced them with surveillance drones. The phrase “the bird work for the bourgeoisie” is a popular audio clip on TikTok.
In 2016, a 22-year-old Redditor’s comment about his parents telling him Finland doesn’t exist inspired a meme that became a parody of all conspiracy theories. The phrases “Bush did 9/11” and “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” date back to when memes were just Impact font superimposed on images.
Conspiracies have also dominated internet culture this year, from Shane Dawson’s YouTube docu-series about conspiracy theories — and subsequent themed “Conspiracy Collection” makeup line — to the “Raid Area 51: They Can’t Stop All Of Us” Facebook event that became an actual music festival based off the belief that the government is hiding proof of alien life.
Internet culture laid the perfect foundation for Epstein’s death to take off as a meme. It just needed a phrase that could be repeated so easily and frequently that it lost any significant meaning.
A phrase like “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
“When you’re memeing it, you can also have plausible deniability about whether you actually believe it,” Caldwell said. “This is definitely a genre of memes that isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Regardless of whether or not anyone actually believes that Epstein’s death was organized by shadowy elites, it isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last conspiracy theory to go viral. A blend of distrust in the system, a universal sense of helplessness, and plenty of absurdist humor makes sure of that.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.