He stares right at us, this bespectacled older man in his zany homemade costume. Arms bent, golden antennae cocked, he grins at the camera with unadulterated joy. Is he supposed to be a butterfly? A bumblebee? Regardless, the image is ridiculous, just the kind that the internet loves. It was taken by a wire photographer at a gay pride celebration in Buenos Aires in 2011. Its subject was never identified. Years later, it reemerged in Russia as a homophobic meme aimed at the president of Estonia.

The photo ricocheted across multiple national internets, a real-life butterfly effect that was amplified by social media. After circulating mostly in Latin America, a Russian speaker noticed that the Bumblebee looked like Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then the president of Estonia. Russian nationalists seized on this resemblance, and with regional tensions flaring, the fake bumblebee president went viral.

An example of pride or hatred, weakness or strength — depending on who’s looking — the photo raises other, less obvious questions. What ultimately happens to all of the online photos we post, or that are posted of us? Could any of us have a meme-worthy doppelgänger on another continent? How can we be sure?

This is the story of one photo’s journey from unremarkable news item to object of international intrigue.

5 November 2011 – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

An attendee of Buenos Aires’s 20th annual gay pride parade poses for Reuters photographer Enrique Marcarian. The caption on the image, one of eleven Marcarian filed to Reuters’ newswire that day, described its subject only as “a man.” A video crew working for CBS News captured the same parade-goer, but didn’t record his name, either. No one has identified him since. When contacted by Rest of World, Marcarian said this particular image didn’t stand out in the more than 21,000 photos he has taken for Reuters. “I had no idea if the picture circulated in later years.”

Eight months later

23 June 2012 – Latin America

Video still from YouTube video featuring the Bumblebee image

Marcarian’s photo begins to take on a life of its own. Several months after the pride parade, a fan of Latin American YouTube stars uploads a homemade video for a raunchy novelty song by the Spanish singer Chivi called “El Abuelo Es Gay” (Grandfather Is Gay). The track, which was first released in 1998 and made popular through P2P networks like Napster, tells the story — in explicit and brazenly offensive lyrics — of an elderly man with cartoonish virility. Among the images tossed up as visual accompaniment: the Bumblebee. There’s no reason to suspect he was dragged into this video for any reason but his age, his look, and, perhaps, his high Google Image search ranking that day for “abuelo gay.”

Seven months later

1 February 2013

Bumblebee image with Raúl Castro's face Photoshopped on to it under a headline calling the then-president of Cuba an

The Bumblebee enters the realm of geopolitics when a Cuban dissident blogger living in Miami decides to Photoshop Raúl Castro’s face onto the photo and add a headline calling the then-president of Cuba an “old [anti-gay slur].” The occasion was the beginning of Castro’s term as head of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, but it built on longstanding theories about the new leader’s sexuality. A 1963 CIA secret memo quoted a “Latin American revolutionary” telling the American intelligence agency back in 1959 that “Raúl Castro Ruz is a known homosexual.” Eight years after the openly gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was expelled from Cuba during a 1965 visit, he guessed why in an interview: “The worst thing I said was that I’d heard, by rumor, that Raúl Castro was gay.” In 2006, shortly after Raúl succeeded his older brother Fidel as president, Radar Magazine reported that this had long been a source of gossip among Cuban exiles. For our Bumblebee, though, it was just one stop among others. He appeared on a Catholic website in Uruguay railing against the spread of same-sex marriage, and was the lead image in a Mexican blogger’s post on the definition of the aforementioned Spanish-language anti-gay slur. He was on his way to becoming a kind of clip art for homophobic diatribes.

Two years later

5 June 2015

Screenshot of appearance on RusVesna.su (Russian Spring)

Two years later, the Bumblebee appears on RusVesna.su (Russian Spring), a news site named for the 2014 pro-Russian and anti-Ukraine demonstrations preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The photo illustrates a short post about gay artists in Ukraine trying to make the country “more European and tolerant.” Once again, there’s no apparent rationale for including the Bumblebee other than to illustrate a stereotype.

One week later

13 June 2015

Twitter screenshot of Bumblebee

About a week after the posting on RusVesna.su comes the earliest known instance of someone suggesting the Bumblebee is Estonian President Ilves. The Twitter account @markinainna2015 puts up a version of the photo with the RusVesna.su watermark and adds, “This is the president of Estonia. At a pride parade!” The account, which is still active, mostly reposts popular humor photos from other sites. Right before the Bumblebee post, the account tweeted a photo of a mug of tea with two spoons (“I asked my son to make tea with two tablespoons of sugar”), a visual gag that frequently makes the rounds on the Russian-language internet. Within a few minutes of the tweet comparing the Bumblebee to Ilves, another Twitter account purporting to belong to a pro-Russian separatist in Crimea tweets the photo with more-explicit homophobia: “And this is the president of Estonia … [anti-gay slur],” and credits @markinainna2015. The Bumblebee-Ilves connection becomes so widespread that the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s Nika Aleksejeva conducts an investigation of the meme, concluding there has been no coordinated effort to promote the comparison and that “the false narrative appear[s] to have spread organically, aided by the unidentified man’s visual resemblance to Estonia’s former president.”

14 months later

21 September 2016

Once the Bumblebee becomes synonymous with Ilves, he joins a canon of pro-Russian, anti-European memes and travels far and wide on the Russian internet. Someone who claims to be from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East posts a meme on LiveJournal that places the Bumblebee alongside a doctored image of the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, wearing a moose hat, and a video still of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russia-backed president of Chechnya, in armor. (The photo was taken at a celebration of Kadyrov’s reelection in 2016, where he was “conspicuously the only person in attendance dressed in armor,” The Washington Post drolly observed.) The caption underneath reads: “Ramzan Kadyrov, the king of Sweden, the president of Estonia. ANY MORE QUESTIONS?”

Six months later

25 February 2017

Screenshot of image on forum Yaplakal

Ilves leaves office in October 2016, but the Bumblebee-Ilves meme lives on as a casual way for Russians to disparage Estonia. For instance, in a thread about Estonia’s 2017 Independence Day parade on the popular forum Yaplakal, a commenter makes a snotty remark suggesting the current Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, looks like a homeless person. Another user replies, “Compared to their previous President, this is nothing,” and serves up the Bumblebee meme (note the RusVesna.su watermark). The text on the image translates as “Not ‘some [slur]’ but the president of Estonia.” A year later on the same site, the Bumblebee meme pops up again, this time in a thread about a report on members of the European Parliament urging the then-president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, to offer official support to a gay pride parade scheduled in Kyiv. Amid images of Western politicians Photoshopped to include gay stereotypes, a user posts the Bumblebee meme and adds, “Well, the president of Estonia participated.”

A year-and-a-half later

10 June 2018

SCreengrab from International Sawmill, a satirical Daily Show–style program hosted by the filmmaker Tigran Keosayan on NTV
Screenshot via NTB

By 2018, the Bumblebee photo becomes a veritable Russian-language-internet phenomenon, appearing in memes, comment threads, message boards, news sites, and, eventually, in Russia’s mainstream media. Over the summer of 2018, almost two years after leaving office, Ilves gave a number of interviews critical of Russian influence in Eastern Europe. His comments draw notice on “International Sawmill,” a satirical “Daily Show”–style program hosted by the filmmaker Tigran Keosayan on NTV, a Russian television network known for its close ties with the Kremlin. During a segment that begins with footage of Ilves warning about the consequences of a Russian invasion of Estonia, viewers hear an effete chiming sound — “the Bumblebee” laughing from the audience. “No need to be offended by him,” Keosayan says. “We need to feel sorry for him and cure him.”

One year later

10 July 2019

The Bumblebee keeps getting remixed with propaganda. In July, a LiveJournal user whose profile says he lives in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea nestled between Lithuania and Poland, posts a meme placing the Bumblebee alongside the Photoshopped Swedish king in a moose hat and a carefully staged shot of Putin from 2010. In the image, as the Daily Mail described it at the time, the Russian leader assumes “his meticulously crafted action man image by donning black shades and camouflaged army cargos.” The text above the meme reads, “The outfits of the president of Estonia and the king of Sweden. . . and you still ask why they hate us in the West?” The Bumblebee, far from home, has been stripped of all its original context. A reveling Argentine parade-goer has been turned into an icon of anxiety, xenophobia, and fragile masculinity.