In a tweet on Wednesday, President Donald Trump addressed his social media followers with four words, all caps: “LOOK AT THIS PHOTOGRAPH!”
Under that was a video showing Chad Kroeger, the lead singer of the Canadian postgrunge rock band Nickelback, holding a framed picture of former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian businessman.
The video, which Twitter had removed by Thursday morning, is from the music video for “Photograph,” a 2005 Nickelback single.
In the song’s original video, Kroeger holds up an old picture of himself and a friend as he sings: “Look at this photograph/ Every time I do it makes me laugh/ How did our eyes get so red?/ And what the hell is on Joey’s head?”
Trump used an altered version of that footage, and he was far from the first to do so. The Nickelback meme is more than a decade old, and you can find multiple versions online: video clips or still photos of Kroeger holding up his photograph, with a funny or absurd picture edited into his frame.
Part of the joke is that a lot of people don’t like Nickelback. The band is known for inspiring some pretty vigorous contempt, in spite of — and also because of — its history of filling stadiums and generating a steady stream of megahit singles that were inescapable on radio stations during the 2000s.
In the video shared by Trump, the inserted photograph showed Joe Biden and Hunter Biden holding golf clubs. And as Fox News had reported on Tuesday, the man at far left was Devon Archer, who served with Hunter Biden on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company. In Trump’s video, that photograph was juxtaposed with a clip of Biden saying, “I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.”
But by this morning, the video in Trump’s tweet was not there. In its place was a message saying that the video had been removed in response to a report from the copyright owner.
The president’s tweet was in line with his recent attempts to deflect attention from the controversies surrounding revelations that he pressed Ukraine’s leader to investigate Biden, a leading candidate in the Democratic presidential primary.
Trump has accused Biden of trying to help Burisma by pushing for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor. As the New York Times reported this spring, no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor’s dismissal.
An impeachment inquiry against the president was announced on Sept. 24. Since then, Trump has promoted conspiratorial messages that suggest an impeachment would amount to a coup or could cause a “Civil War like fracture.”
Some critics of Trump have called on Twitter to take stronger action to rein in language that could be seen as bullying, dog-whistling or inciting violence — even if it comes from a sitting president.
But the removal of the president’s “Photograph” clip was about copyrights, not content.
It is unclear whether Nickelback members were involved; representatives of the band and of Kroeger did not immediately respond to requests for comment today. But an entry in Lumen, an independent database at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, shows that the record label company Warner Music Group alerted Twitter to the copyright infringement on Wednesday.
As a result of that notice, Twitter confirmed, the video Trump had shared was taken down. Warner Music Group declined to comment.
This has happened before. In February, Trump shared a video on Twitter that included a song by the rock band R.E.M. The group tweeted its disapproval, and the video in Trump’s tweet was removed. In April, another tweet from the president featured music from the movie “The Dark Knight Rises”; that, too, was reportedly removed because it had been unauthorized.
Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, said the president’s use of memes to reach his supporters directly was worthy of examination.
“The president is a pro memer, and the way he uses social media needs to be taken seriously,” they said. “A Nickelback meme is bizarre, to say the least, but it’s effective when it comes to its propaganda properties.”
Doyle Canning, a Democratic congressional candidate in Oregon who wrote a book on memes and political movements, said that tweets like these drew attention away from more important issues.
“Trump is using Twitter, and then this controversy, to amplify this story rather than the story about his impending impeachment,” she said. “And so the pile-on and the echo effect that you see around Trump’s tweets distract, I think, from a real constitutional crisis in the country.”