Both claims are wrong. But the fury and zeal with which each side has constructed its own reality feels like an ominous foreshadowing of the next four years, a period in which technology and political polarization could combine to spark an information war waged online and in the media.
Before we proceed, let's just establish once and for all that these images are real photographs of a real sign at a real anti-Trump protest that really did read “Rape Melania.” Since reporting Sunday that the photos caused the phrase “Rape Melania” to trend on Twitter, I have been inundated by tweets and emails from Trump opponents and amateur photo analysts claiming that all of images were clearly doctored.
“THIS ABSOLUTELY NEVER HAPPENED,” wrote one particularly confident reader who was not at the protest.
Another reader sent me a 12-second video clip from the demonstration. Because the sign is not visible in this footage, I was told, it was obviously never there.
Multiple readers noted that the three photos above all show the sign from a straight-on angle. To them, this is proof that the images were Photoshopped. Apparently it is inconceivable that the pictures were simply shot straight on to show the text as clearly as possible.
Melissa Cooper of Sterling, Va. — who actually was at the protest at Trump's Washington hotel — confirmed to The Fix that the sign was indeed there.
“As soon as someone noticed the sign, he was confronted and quickly left the site of the peaceful protest,” Cooper said. “The women I was with all agreed that we would see that photo surface as some sort of commentary on the protests. It is disgusting and not at all representative of what we saw on Saturday night.”
Informed of the Photoshopping conspiracy theory, Cooper replied, “Obviously that's not what happened.”
But Cooper suspects a different kind of chicanery. She thinks the man who hoisted the deplorable sign might have been one of The Deplorables — as in, a Trump supporter who wanted to make the demonstrators look bad. Trump backers on social media have pointed to the sign in an effort to discredit people protesting the election of a candidate who insulted women and minorities during the campaign.
Cooper's wife, Dana Fikes, is also suspicious of the sign holder's motive.
“I noticed this sign to the right of where we were standing,” Fikes said. “He was holding the sign facing away from the crowd and toward his friend, who had a camera. As soon as nearby protesters saw his sign, I saw at least two people go over and talk to him. He rolled up his sign, and he and his friend left.”
A third demonstrator, Amy Whetzel, told The Fix that she, too, thinks the man with the sign was pulling a dirty trick.
“When we asked him to leave, there was a mild confrontation, and he confirmed as much,” Whetzel said.
Alan Beck, a Trump supporter who posted the first photo on Twitter, denied that his picture was part of a stunt.
“It's not staged,” he said. “I saw it and took a picture. That's all.”
Beck posted a 22-minute, selfie-style video on a pro-Trump YouTube channel called the Last Stand in which he goes on at length about how the sign shows “how intolerant the left really is.” Filmed in a parked car near the site of the protest, the video also features Jack Posobiec, special projects director of a group called Citizens for Trump.
In the video, Posobiec sports a dark-gray hooded sweatshirt that appears to resemble the one worn by the sign holder. Then again, dark-gray hooded sweatshirts are rather common.
“Jack's here; he was in the area, and I told him to stop by just to check this out with me,” Beck says in the video. “The guy had left by the time Jack got here.”
Even if we assume that Beck is telling the truth, it is still unfair to say that one sign is representative of the thousands of people who have protested Trump's election over the past week. A single, awful phrase does not invalidate concerns about Trump's view of women and minorities.
And if we assume that Beck is lying, it is still total bunk to say the images of the sign were faked.
To be sure, fake news was a plague on the presidential campaign and remains a scourge in its aftermath. As fellow Fixer Philip Bump wrote Monday, the top Google search result for “final election results” linked to a site with phony numbers showing that Trump won the popular vote. (He didn't.)
When I repeated the search Tuesday, Bump's article was the top result. But the link to the faulty vote count remained on the first page.
Recognizing the problem, Google and Facebook said Monday that they plan to take new steps to wipe fake news off their platforms.
It is reasonable — wise, even — to be skeptical of what you see on social media. But the fake news phenomenon also appears to be encouraging some Trump opponents to believe that any news they don't like must be fabricated. That is a comforting way to look at the world, but it is no more authentic than the view of Trump fans who buy in to news that actually is fake or draw sweeping conclusions based on isolated incidents.