It is an image that could belong to a film that is part horror, part sci-fi: US President Joe Biden standing against a murky background, bright-red laser beams emanating from his eyes, his United States flag brooch shining prominently against his lapel.
Yet, it was no meme page or troll account posting that image: It was posted on Biden’s own X page early on Monday. Coming against the backdrop of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza that has killed more than 28,000 people and that the US has backed, the image prompted particular criticism of Biden by some social media users.
Here is all we know about Biden’s post so far:
What was the post about?
Biden’s post came after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Singer Taylor Swift – arguably the biggest name in the world of entertainment who has previously criticised former US President Donald Trump, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 election – is dating Travis Kelce, who plays for the Chiefs. While Swift’s appearance at National Football League (NFL) games this season has helped the sport’s brand, it has also sparked conspiracy theories from sections of the far-right, which have suggested that the NFL was conspiring to set up a win for the Chiefs to create a backdrop for Swift to endorse Biden’s candidature.
Though the Chiefs won, Swift is yet to declare support for any presidential candidate. That did not stop Biden from mocking the conspiracy theory with his tweet, suggesting that he had plotted the moment.
Just like we drew it up. pic.twitter.com/9NBvc5nVZE
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) February 12, 2024
Biden’s tweet set off a range of reactions on X, from digital eye-rolls to responses expressing disappointment and outrage.
Several users questioned whether Biden’s account was hacked. Others joked about an intern posting the image while others remarked how they thought a parody account posted the picture at first glance.
Many suggested that Biden’s post was distasteful and insensitive as it came amid Israel’s devastating war on Gaza.
The Biden campaign makes a Dark Branden joke on the same night that Israel kills over a hundred Palestinians in a brutal bombing campaign over Rafah. What did they mean by this? pic.twitter.com/QXvenBlFi0
— The Barracks (@thebarrackslive) February 12, 2024
While calling for an end to civilian deaths in Gaza, the Biden administration continues to sell and supply weapons to Israel.
this is what the president of the united states is tweeting while over 1 million men, women and children are being slaughtered with weapons he has provided and paid for.
— jay (@kendallhosseini) February 12, 2024
Given the war in Gaza, the post was not “appropriate”, said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an associate professor of news, social media and public communication at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
“But I don’t think Biden is thinking of the global audience here,” he said. “He is mostly thinking about his US audience.”
What is the Dark Brandon meme?
The alt text, or image description on Biden’s post, simply says, “dark brandon”. This is a reference to a meme that dates back to October 2021.
A crowd was chanting obscenities about Joe Biden during a race at the Talladega Superspeedway race track in Alabama. While interviewing race winner Brandon Brown, NBC’s sport reporter Kelli Stavast interpreted the chants to be, “Let’s Go Brandon”, and reported them as such on live television.
Since then, the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon” became code for verbal abuse at Biden, lending Republican politicians new language to use against Biden online, circumventing censorship and avoiding criticism. The phrase also started showing up as song lyrics.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) October 17, 2021
The Brandon meme has since evolved and different renditions of Biden’s image with laser beams shooting out of his eyes – dubbed “Dark Brandon” – started making the rounds on the internet.
Cutouts of the Dark Brandon meme even made an appearance at the venue for the third Republican presidential primary debate in November 2023.
Has Biden made similar posts in the past?
Regardless of origin, the meme that was intended to mock and criticise Biden has repeatedly been co-opted by Democrats and Biden himself. His tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the Brandon phrase began as early as 2021 and has continued.
In April 2023, Biden put on dark sunshades after making a joke about becoming the “Dark Brandon” persona during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, DC.
Biden’s campaign made its first post on Truth Social, presidential race rival Donald Trump’s conservative social media network in October 2023. With the Dark Brandon profile picture, the verified @BidenHQ account posted, “Well. Let’s see how this goes. Converts welcome!”
This appropriation of memes is part of an ongoing political war, said Al-Rawi, who has researched and written about the politics of memes.
“The meme in itself is a political communication tool,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is being weaponised by different parties in order to attract attention and distract from other issues.”
Al-Rawi believes the Brandon meme has worked in Biden’s favour from the perspective of his supporters, who like the fact that he is taking on a political attack. On the other hand, Al-Rawi said, it could come across as insensitive in parts of the Global South.
Al-Rawi also attributed Biden’s efforts to “meme-ify” political messaging to attempts to connect with younger voters. Biden’s ability to govern has come under scrutiny due to his age and issues with his memory.
Biden is not the only politician who has used memes to relay political messaging. Social media teams and followers of politicians including former US President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have banked on memes and internet trends to further political messages.
World leaders used to communicate through press releases and statements aired on television, but the advent of social media has shifted how they communicate with the public, Al-Rawi said.
Memes are one such way.