The Internet is a weird place. And getting weirder.

Case in point: “Fake Melania,” a gratuitously absurd conspiracy theory that sprang up on social media this week, eventually trending on Twitter nationwide. Google searches for “Melania fake” and “Melania decoy” spiked, earning coverage from CNN, Fox News, the BBC and even the Indian Express. Vogue magazine brought in a body-language expert to investigate.

Fake Melania … Trump? The first lady? Yes. Just stay with me here.

It all started this past Friday, with footage of President Trump speaking to reporters about hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. In the course of his characteristically rambling remarks, Trump gestured to the silent woman standing by his side — “My wife, Melania, who happens to be right here.” Eager conspiracists took this to be a Freudian slip, an indication that the (alleged) first lady, suspiciously dressed in a Carmen Sandiego-style get-up of high-collared trench coat and dark glasses, was a body double. Where was the real Melania? Anyone’s guess.

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An actress named Andrea Wagner Barton posted the clip on Facebook, with closeups of the footage contrasted with older photos of the FLOTUS. “Is it me or during his speech today a decoy ‘stood in’ for Melania?? And…. Why would the moron say ‘my wife, Melania, who happens to be right here…’ Seriously, watch very closely!”

Will the real Melania please stand up? Is it me or during his speech today a decoy “stood in” for Melania??…

Posted by Andrea Wagner Barton on Friday, October 13, 2017

The post has since gotten more than 150,000 shares and reactions. (For reference, the top-performing New York Times story in the run-up to the election received only 373,000).

That speculation was followed Wednesday by a tweet by one @JoeVargas containing a similarly suspect video of the purported first lady taken from another angle.

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“This is not Melania. To think they would go this far & try & make us think its her on TV is mind blowing. Makes me wonder what else is a lie.” His open question has been retweeted nearly 70,000 times.

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And indeed, what else is a lie?  Please take a look at the pictures. I have questions.

To be clear, said questions aren’t about whether the White House is using a decoy FLOTUS in lieu of the real Melania. (Snopes has assured me that isn’t the case, though it didn’t explain proto-Melania’s mechanical affect.)  But it is worth exploring how closely the Internet’s bizarre obsessions map to our country’s current mood and illustrate our weaknesses.

To start with, what’s the appeal of such patently ridiculous speculation? What could possibly springboard #FakeMelania to an audience of millions?

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The obvious interpretation is that it’s just, well, funny. The sheer insanity of a secret Melania Trump surrogate is a longed-for excuse for laughter in an otherwise grim year. A social media sensation that isn’t a mass shooting, a threat of nuclear war or a raging opioid epidemic? I don’t care if it’s fake news, get me a magnifying glass and I’ll start it investigating myself.

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But on a less cheerful note, it also shows just how farcical this presidency has become — irrational to the level of surreality. As a country, we’ve become inured to flagrant lies and absurd propositions issuing daily from the Trump White House, from fictitiously historic inauguration crowds to 5 million invisible illegal voters. So a first lady body double? Maybe a stretch, but what isn’t these days? We’re living in the world of Pizzagate, after all.

Then there’s the strangeness of the story’s viral spread. Jose Vargas, the Twitter user whose Melania speculation took off so quickly, immediately began to use the tweets to drive traffic to his Web store and Instagram account. Joke it may have been, but the swift uptake and cash interest called to mind nothing so much as the Macedonian teens of the 2016 election cycle, successfully planting fake Trump news on Facebook for profit. While Twitter is a far smaller network — and this conspiracy is much more obviously false — it gives one pause to see how quickly misinformation moves in an Internet age. And with Russian agents seemingly lurking on every site, it’s less of a laugh.

It’s probably also a sign that it’s time to log off. But even leaving Fake Melania to her mysterious fate, there’s still a nagging worry. If we do make it through this surrealist presidency and the Internet absurdity that goes along with it, will we ever make it back to solid ground?

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