The Situation Room photograph, which shows U.S. President Barack Obama and cabinet members watching the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011, remains the dominant official image of the event. Within hours of its public release, scores of Internet memes of the famous picture offered alternative interpretations of what had taken place in Pakistan during the military mission, often contradicting the president’s positive description of the operation. This qualitative interpretative study argues that many of the memes that proliferated through cyberspace symbolically subverted the bin Laden raid, disrupting and challenging its celebratory framing by the administration. The study highlights potential competition that Internet memes might pose to institutional accounts of the past and to icons themselves, suggesting possible fracturing of iconicity in remix culture.
Situation Room photograph as icon
Situation Room icon, chronology and discord
Icons in the pre-digital era
Results and analysis
New meanings and functions
Discussion and conclusions
Two days after Osama bin Laden was killed on 1 May 2011, countless U.S. and foreign newspapers ran on their front pages the now famous photograph of the White House Situation Room video monitoring session . U.S. President Barack Obama and top U.S. national security, terrorism and counter-terrorism officials are seen watching the bin Laden raid unfold in Abbottabad, Pakistan on a screen outside the frame (Figure 1). One of the picture’s signature details is the facial expression of then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who sits in the bottom right corner with her right hand over her mouth, looking worried.
Figure 1: U.S. White House Situation Room, 1 May 2011, by Pete Souza. Source: Flickr.
The photograph was among nine images taken by then White House chief photographer Pete Souza and publicly released by the White House on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr the next day to much fanfare. The Situation Room image in particular became and remains the single dominant photograph of the event, whose coverage was tightly controlled by the administration. As it proliferated online, so did dozens of its digital re-imaginings that offered alternative takes on that moment in time. The Situation Room photograph became an Internet meme (Shifman, 2013), a collection of self-referential visual iterations that replicated, mutated and circulated online producing fresh rhetorical statements with each version.
While some seemed to celebrate the event, scores of others invited quite the opposite interpretations. They seemed to condemn, trivialize and even symbolically subvert the monitoring session and the outcome of the mission, often challenging President Obama’s victory speech by portraying the operation as a frivolity or a failure. The goal of this qualitative interpretative study is twofold. First, the aim is to trace and analyze such rhetorical transformations in meanings and functions that the Situation Room icon underwent online as it replicated, mutated and circulated through Internet memes following bin Laden’s death. Second, the broader goal is to consider larger implications of these memetic transfigurations on the ability of a photojournalistic icon to still provide the public with an official, often singularly dominant interpretation of news events in remix culture, in which meaning is unstable, re-configurable and supplied by a variety of sources, including regular people (Deuze, 2006; Lessig, 2008; Manovich, 2008). The “rip, mix and burn”  of digital culture allows members of the connected publics to re-use and mash-up — to remix — an already existing content, including iconic news images as in this case, with other texts to create new meanings that contribute to the public’s co-produced understanding of reality (Deuze, 2006; Manovich, 2008).
The study argues that the digital derivatives of the Situation Room image elucidate memes’ rhetorical work as visual aids that contribute to the public’s understanding of history by co-constructing it alongside the official accounts supplied by institutions of power, in this case the White House. Memes here permit the public to co-participate — however symbolically— in the re-framing of the moment. They invite and circulate alternative interpretations of an otherwise celebrated event presented by President Obama as the crowning victory of the war on terror, producing counter-narratives vis-à-vis “the mainstream public sphere.” 
The icon’s theorized functions as the image that summarizes events and sentiments for generations comes into question here, potentially destabilizing its ascribed metonymy in the presence of intense memetic competition online, further eroding the icon as a concept that has been in transition since the advent of the Internet. In the pre-digital era, iconic news images served that visual function almost exclusively as they defined meanings for the masses (Perlmutter, 1998). As this case study suggests, Internet memes may be changing the old dynamic. It is not to say, of course, that the Situation Room memes significantly influenced or eclipsed the mediated meaning of the bin Laden mission shaped in part by the iconic image, the president’s speech and scores of news stories. Rather, the study highlights a relatively new and understudied relationship between iconic templates and their digital memetic appropriations that may have implications for members of the public in how they learn about the news, how they process it and what and how they remember about the past (Cohen, et al., 2018).
Situation Room photograph as icon
Within the first 24 hours of its posting, the Situation Room icon was viewed 1.4 million times on Flickr alone (Singel, 2011). Since its publication on the photo-sharing portal, the image has been seen more than three million times as it landed in more than 76 photo galleries on the site, including “Most views on Flickr” (Flickr, 2020). Its global exposure has been much wider as it also appeared on front pages of newspapers, on television screens and throughout social media and digital news platforms. As it spread online, the picture was dubbed an “instantly iconic photograph” (Franke-Ruta, 2011) by journalists and media pundits. Such coveted status has been acquired only by a small number of U.S. photographs in the last 150 years — those few, whose broad appeal, recognition, cultural resonance and abilities to define events for generations accrued over time (Hariman and Lucaites, 2007; Perlmutter, 1998).
Pete Souza’s picture, in fact, became an “instant news icon”  that shot to fame unprecedently fast and grabbed the attention of Internet users, journalists and news commentators alike, the so-called impromptu publics, that turned it into a celebrity in mere hours (Mortensen, 2016). They all ascribed it rhetorical authority to capture a complex moment in simple terms calling it “fascinating,” “powerful,” “arresting,” “mesmerizing” and “historic,” qualities characteristic of iconicity (Dahmen, et al., 2018; Perlmutter, 1998). As one journalist wrote in the New York Times a few days after the photograph’s release, “rarely has a photo revealed so little while evoking so much.” (Johnson, 2011)
Translated from the Greek εἰκών (eikon) as likeness or reflection, the iconic image in its immediate function operates as a mirror, a visual referent of the physical event or person it depicts. In the case of the Situation Room icon, however, this dynamic, as the Times reporter noticed, is complicated as the event shown in the photo is ambiguous. Although Souza’s snapshot gets lauded as the representative image of the bin Laden mission in the absence of any live news coverage, it functions as an indexical photograph that points to, not reflects, the bin Laden raid. It is, in other words, a symbolic placeholder for bin Laden’s assassination by proxy, not a literal iconic likeness of the occurrence; it does not show the firefight itself but the raid’s corollary event.
The ambiguity gets further compounded by the photo caption, which informs the viewers that they are looking at a White House monitoring session of the bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Yet, the icon obfuscates the monitor that ‘proves’ it, once again performing its rhetorical function by pointing to the facial expressions and body language of those gathered in the room — not the monitor or the ongoing action — to decode meanings of unfolding events on the allusive screen. The synchronized head turn, frozen gaze and palpable tension of the moment written on the participants’ faces combined with Souza’s cutline and the imagined firefight on a presumed monitor outside the frame all add to the photograph’s ascribed powers to stir emotion without communicating much information.
Another element that contributed to the mystique of the icon at the time is tied to Clinton’s hand gesture seen by some journalists and viewers as a clear indication of something unprecedented unfolding in real time. Some even speculated that the instance Souza captured was the moment of bin Laden’s death, adding an extra layer of drama to the picture. As one New York Times writer noted at the time, “She [Clinton] is what the French critic Roland Barthes called ‘punctum,’ the not necessarily conspicuous detail that gives a photograph its emotional resonance.” (Johnson, 2011) More specifically, Clinton’s hand gesture, which implies movement amid emotional reaction, becomes that distinct detail — the prick — that grabs the viewers’ attention, particularly when juxtaposed with the eerie stillness of the room.
When asked about the gesture, Clinton had said she could not recall the reason behind it but added, “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever.” (Madison, 2011) She later recounted, saying the gesture was, in fact, accompanied by a gasp in reaction to the unfolding firefight on the screen (Karni, 2019). Souza speculated years later that his snapshot most likely froze the moment “when the special forces were inside the home and there was no video of what was occurring inside the house. So I think they were watching to see what would happen.” (Salter, et al., 2019)
Another compelling feature of the photograph that contributed to its fame and was scrutinized by journalists, media commentators and Internet users at large at the time was the appearance and positioning of President Obama. Sitting to the side of Brigadier General Marshall Bradley “Brad” Webb, who commandeers the meeting at the helm of the table, Obama is leaning forward in his chair, appearing disproportionally small, almost huddled, next to others. Clad in a white polo shirt and a casual windbreaker — an outfit he had worn to a golf game preceding the raid — the president looks in the direction of a monitor that is not pictured, his gaze fixated on the absent screen. His solemn face suggests tension, even worry.
Situation Room icon, chronology and discord
When considered alongside the president’s address to the nation from that night, the icon — the tension, anxiety and stillness it communicates — clashes with the boasting and triumph that dominate the speech. It is not to say that there should have been an expectation on the part of the public for the presidential speech to match the Situation Room image in content and stance; the issue is not one of synchronicity between the two but rather of the chronology of their release to the public. One might speculate that the audio-visual discord between what the audience hears first from Obama and later sees in Souza’s picture is a temporal consequentiality (Gries, 2013) of the disrupted order in which events were reported by the administration and the news media to the public vis-à-vis their unfolding in real time.
It would be a mistake to assume that all viewers watched the coverage of the bin Laden mission in the order in which it was mediated, acknowledging a non-lineal and time-shifted nature of contemporary news dissemination and consumption. Even with such a stipulation in place, consideration of chronology in this case is useful in helping to better understand the context within which the Situation Room memes were produced and circulated.
The icon and its eight companions were posted on Flickr’s White House photo stream about 12 hours after President Obama’s 1 May 2011 televised victory speech, which celebrated “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda” (White House, 2011). If consumed in the order of their creation — if the release of the Situation Room photographs were to be followed by the president’s address to the nation — the artifacts would likely present a quintessential narrative arc with a sequence of events that start with a plot setup and proceed to a complication and some development, only to be followed by a resolution and denouncement at the end (Bizzocchi, 2007; Thompson, 1999). When controlled in this particular order, the narrative arc provides a sense of congruency in the plotline because it follows a logical progression of action, from the beginning, through the middle to the end (Bizzocchi, 2007; Thompson, 1999). In this particular temporal sequence, the storyline includes an implied complication and development — expressed in the Situation Room image through the solemn facial expressions, Obama’s placement in the space, Clinton’s hand gesture and the caption — that get resolved by the time of the president’s speech.
This, of course, is not the order in which the public learned about bin Laden’s assassination. The disruption in chronology of events — which is how the raid played out in American media — yields an assassination coverage that begins with the conclusion and concludes with the beginning, breaking down a classic arc of a story. The mission’s lauded success in Obama’s speech as resolution and denouncement preempts the icon’s complication and development, partially dismissing the middle of the narrative in favor of the celebrated ending. In the disrupted order, the viewers learn about the success of bin Laden’s raid before they get any context half a day later, by then presumably already aware of the narrative’s resolution.
It is impossible to gauge whether such reversed order of informing the public by the administration registered among the viewers or influenced their understanding and interpretation of the assassination mission. Based on the prolific nature of the meme production that followed the icons release, one might speculate that scores of Internet users refused to end the narrative arc of the military operation with President Obama’s speech, which told them how to think about what happened in Pakistan. As this study argues, they created alternative storylines that symbolically questioned, ridiculed and even undercut the mission to re-frame its celebrated outcome, stretching the narrative arc through post-event remix production.
Icons in the pre-digital era
Despite capturing a variety of events, icons in photojournalism conjure up singular photographs that are famous, immortal and visually striking. Such was the pre-digital definition of iconic news images for decades — visual artifacts of public culture that stand alone and out from all the others as they define historical events for generations, provoke emotional responses, reproduce or subvert ideology and model societal norms, values and behaviors for the masses (Cohen, et al., 2018; Dahmen, et al., 2018; Hariman and Lucaites, 2007; Perlmutter, 1998).
Although not all icons can boast technical perfection, they tend to be compelling thanks to decisive moments that they often capture. They usually tap into familiar cultural myths and elevate their meaning from the immediate scene or event to a larger sentiment, thus becoming metonyms for societies (Dahmen, et al., 2018; Perlmutter, 1998). Some people have ascribed special powers to iconic images to influence policy, end wars and humanitarian crises or ignite social movements, claims that have been challenged at times for their perceived lack of empirical evidence of such causality (Edrington and Gallagher, 2019; Hariman and Lucaites, 2007; Harold and DeLuca, 2005; Perlmutter, 1998; Smith-Rodden and Ash, 2012). Given their summarizing qualities as “simplified glimpses of the past,”  iconic images have also been tapped as contributors to the formation and maintenance of collective memory (Hariman and Lucaites, 2007; Zelizer, 2004).
Icons in transition
With the rise of digital and social media technologies, however, the theoretical concept of a photojournalistic icon has been in flux (Dahmen, et al., 2018; Mortensen, 2016; Perlmutter, 2007). The Golden Age of the singular big picture seared in public memory and replicated in textbooks, posters, commemorative albums and on clothing has largely come to pass, making room for not one but multiple photographs or videos that emerge from a single news event (Dahmen and Miller, 2012). What is more, some contemporary news icons are no longer supplied by traditional journalistic institutions as was largely the case in the pre-digital and pre-social media era. They are now also produced by citizen journalists and bystanders armed with smartphones and distributed as snapshots through social networking sites to bypass the very gatekeepers who were once solely in charge of their production and dissemination to the public (Borenstein, 2009; Dahmen, et al., 2018; Mortensen, 2016).
Amid instantaneous transmission capabilities and the phenomenon of virality, the path to stardom of contemporary news icons has also been changing — shrinking, in fact. The instant news icons of today tend to reach global fame within mere hours of their initial posting online and skip years of accrued cultural resonance of their pre-digital counterparts (Dahmen, et al., 2018; Mortensen, 2016; Perlmutter, 2007). The tradeoff, some argue, is their ephemerality as the speeded-up icons are unlikely to linger in public consciousness as long as and as permanently as their predecessors, potentially undermining their once-central role in formation of collective memory (Cohen, et al., 2018; Dahmen, et al., 2018; Perlmutter, 2007).
Icons, memes and signification
The lives of iconic images continue past their initial publication. They reappear in new contexts and formats over time and serve diverse functions for different segments of the public (Gries, 2013; Mitchell, 2011; Zelizer, 2010). These processes take place independently of the icons’ authors, who lose editorial control over their creations to prolific “third party recomposition”  that de- and re-contextualizes the original, in this case through Internet memes. Such appropriation is neither new to remix culture nor limited to iconic news pictures; as a cultural practice, it dates back millennia (Ashley and Plesch, 2002). Appropriation — including meme-ization — has, in fact, been theorized as an instrumental mechanism that contributes to iconicity of a visual artifact as it recycles its parts or its entirety to produce scores of iterations (Dahmen, et al., 2018). It is an outcome of a rather paradoxical relationship that the iconic templates have with their memes (Boudana, et al., 2017; Mielczarek, 2018; Milner, 2016; Mortensen, 2016). The latter retain some elements of the base photograph as they repeat them throughout the iterations, but they also depart from the template through digital manipulation and intertextuality, becoming in effect separate visual artifacts. The former lets memes claim some fixity of meaning through the repetition of established premises of the icon, often carrying some of the meanings of the icon into the memetic form. But, as noted, memes also rely on manipulation of content, through which they invite rhetorical novelty to the iterations (Cohen, et al., 2018; Milner, 2016; Wiggins and Bowers, 2015).
The consistently reused elements of the photograph throughout the memes — gestures, facial expressions, poses, characters, sayings, scenes, backgrounds and more — become key signifiers (Burgess, 2006) that meme creators redeploy in ongoing production of memetic content. With time, these textual hooks “are then available for plugging into other forms, texts and intertexts — they become part of the available cultural repertoire.”  In this project, they help to track and understand rhetorical transformations in meaning and functions of the Situation Room memes.
In digital participatory culture, content users have also become content producers — or produsers (Bruns, 2006) — who simultaneously consume and create meaning that perpetually flows online through the connected networks of members of the public (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins, et al., 2013). Such convergence of information has yielded a highly “collaborative, iterative, and user-led production”  that takes place outside and alongside the gatekeeping media institutions (Jenkins, 2006).
In remix culture, this vernacular creativity is the ordinary production of blogs, videos, social media content and Internet memes (Burgess, 2008). Those who participate resemble bricoleurs (Lévi-Strauss, 1966), the do-it-yourself creators who re-use, re-combine and further re-appropriate already existing content to contribute personalized accounts of the everyday to the churning public discourse online (Deuze, 2006; Lessig, 2008; Manovich, 2008; Milner, 2016). Bricolage builds a “fragmented, edited, yet connected and networked worldview in itself,”  making digital participatory culture a remix culture.
The cut-and-paste practices have expanded the ways in which members of the public co-contribute meaning alongside the dominant structures of signification, including traditional news media, governments and the entertainment industry (Barney, et al., 2016; Burgess, 2008; Jenkins, et al., 2013; Lessig, 2008; Manovich, 2008). Participatory media, including memes, allow those outside the mainstream institutions to “link up with other excluded voices in developing representative, strategically effective counter-discourses; and subsequently to contest the discursive boundaries of the mainstream public sphere.” 
Memetic logics and circulation
Internet memes, as noted, have become popular artifacts of these exchanges and contributions. They are self-referential groupings of digital images that share common elements, awareness of one another and transformative circulation as they mutate during spreading (Milner, 2016; Shifman, 2013). The lives of Internet memes are guided by certain logics, with multimodality, re-appropriation, resonance, collectivism, intertextuality and spreading chief among them (Milner, 2016). Memes can incorporate a variety of modes — images, words, audio and video — and create layers of meaning. Multimodality “influences the complex tapestry of mediated conversation; the more semiotic code participants have to work with, the more versatile their mediated conversations can become.”  They become most successful when members of the public recognize and, in turn, re-deploy and manipulate their referential meanings to participate in a collective public discourse, some of which extends beyond news events at hand, as was the case here. Paradoxically, as mentioned, because of their intertextuality and ongoing transformations during re-circulation, memes meanings may also become flexible and varied as they serve different functions for different people. As the Internet’s lingua franca (Milner, 2016), memes have served as channels for political and social commentary, humor, civic engagement and activism (Hristova, 2014; Knobel and Lankshear, 2007; Mielczarek, 2018; Milner, 2016; Schifman, 2014).
Grounded within the frameworks of remix culture, iconicity and Internet memetics, the project posed the following questions: How did the Situation Room memes engage dominant textual hooks of the iconic photograph? What potential new meanings and functions did the selected Situation Room memes invite vis-à-vis the icon and the presidential victory speech following the bin Laden raid? How does the interaction between the iconic news image and its memes inform our understanding of iconicity as a theoretical concept in flux in remix culture?
Iconographic tracking online
This study relies on three qualitative research methods: iconographic tracking (Gries, 2013), Brummett’s (2010) techniques in close reading and visual rhetorical analysis (Foss, 2005). The overall goal of iconographic tracking is to trace the circulation, transformation and transfiguration (change in function) of an image through its online circulations as it changes hands and contexts over time (Gries, 2013). My aim, however, is not to account for all memetic iterations of the Situation Room photograph and their trajectories online, recognizing that meme production in remix culture is ongoing. Rather, the idea is to perform comprehensive searches on selected social media networks to assess the overall scope of production of these particular memes, the breadth of their circulation and the dominant textual hooks that they recycle as key signifiers of new meanings they evoke.
Iconographic tracking recognizes the flowing, churning and interactive nature of the Internet and therefore neither imposes preconceived destinations on an image nor does it anticipate its predetermined meanings and functions. Instead, “Scholars (...) let themselves be drawn by the psychogeographical effects that keep drawing their attention,”  oftentimes following links that lead to other links, and so forth, an approach that was also adopted here.
With those conditions in mind, the study casts a wide net to track the Situation Room memes, first through Google and Google Image searches using keywords “Situation Room photograph,” “Situation Room meme,” “bin Laden mission photograph” and “bin Laden mission meme.” The searches yielded scores of links, which, in turn, led to other sites online and so on, making this a comprehensive but not an exhaustive search. The Web site Know Your Meme , which is a commercial platform that tracks and curates popular Internet memes, served as a helpful reference. Additionally, the same keywords were used to perform searches on Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter and Facebook, social networking sites known for meme incubation and dissemination.
As expected, the searches yielded dozens of Situation Room memes, most of which were posted in the hours and days following the bin Laden operation, reflecting a typical dynamic of meme production and circulation following an event that triggered them (Milner, 2016; Shifman, 2013). Searches on the selected social networking sites were curbed once the same memes began to surface multiple times on the same platform, suggesting a level of cross-posting characteristic of memetic spreading. All memes were then organized by platform.
Close reading and genre
Brummett’s (2010) methodology of close reading was then adapted to guide the next step of the analysis, which involves categorizing the Situation Room memes into genres. A genre is a “recurring type of a text within a context”  and typically has three qualifying components: style, substance and situation (Brummett, 2010; Campbell and Jamieson, 1978). In this case, the situation that repeats itself in all of the iterations is the monitoring session of the bin Laden mission in the White House, though, as this study argues, the memes appropriate it only to rhetorically depart from it. The substance of a genre encompasses certain expected issues, topics and arguments the text is likely to present depending on the situation. Here, the substance remains raid-related, but the dominant visual arguments that emerge throughout most of the collected artifacts deal with some form of subversion of the bin Laden mission, whether through condemnation, trivialization or disruption. More specifically, most of the memes analyzed here manipulate key visual signifiers of the original icon — inserting new characters to the room or changing activities in the room — to produce visual arguments that suggest mockery and disapproval of the military operation. Those dynamics receive more attention in the forthcoming section of the study.
A style of a genre has to do with the tone or mood that the text communicates, shaped by the situation, the substance and audience expectations (Brummett, 2010). In memes, the expected style almost always involves humor, though, as is apparent with this case study, styles may change, depending on the situation the meme tackles and the functions it serves. Here, the predominant style combines humor, irony, mockery and indignation. What emerges is a subversive genre of the Situation Room memes that accounts for most of the artifacts collected and will therefore be the focus of further analysis.
Visual rhetorical analysis
The study employs a multimodal approach to memes, acknowledging that meaning is created through interactions among various modes of representation, in this case text (words) and image (Jewitt, 2009; Unsworth and Cleiright, 2009). With that in mind, the visual interpretation of the subversive genre of the Situation Room memes that follows incorporates readings of the memes with accompanying text of captions and comments to better understand the potential influence of those elements on meme interpretation.
The last part of the study relies on visual rhetorical analysis, whose primary goal is to understand how images operate symbolically beyond what they show, pushing analysis into a structured interpretation (Foss, 2005). The first step of visual rhetorical analysis addresses the nature of each image with regard to its presented and suggested elements (Foss, 2005). The former register what one can see when looking at an image: content, colors and size and media used to produce the image. Suggested elements include concepts, allusions, symbols, metaphors and myths within a shared public culture that the viewer is likely to infer during interpretation. Next, the analysis proceeds to uncovering potential functions that the memes may have served by relying on the results from the first part of the visual rhetorical analysis, close reading of the memes and their iconographic tracking.
It is important to note that Foss’ visual rhetorical analysis stipulates that once an image has been created, it gains its meanings through interactions with the public, thus shifting the focus of interpretation away from the authors and their intentions for the image to members of the public and their readings. Therefore, this project does not attempt to make arguments on behalf of meme creators nor does it suggest that the analysis put forth offers the only or the “right” interpretation of selected memes. Selected Situation Room memes analyzed here are treated as representative exemplars of the genre that were among the most highly visible and shared memes following the bin Laden mission.
Results and analysis
The Situation Room memes recycle three dominant textual hooks: the cast of characters present in the room, the activities in the Situation Room (typically signified by a head turn in the direction of the invisible monitor) and Clinton’s hand gesture.
Situation Room attendance
Almost all of the Situation Room memes analyzed here add new characters to the iconic image, sometimes doubling or tripling the number of witnesses present at the monitoring session. In some instances, fresh characters replace the original members of the Situation Room cast, as if taking over the mission. Some look into the camera as if taking a selfie from the bin Laden raid to mark the occasion as “having been there.” Others remain frozen in their original poses, merely cut out and pasted into new contexts. This type of manipulation creates visually striking and often absurd-looking compositions through juxtaposition of unlikely pairings. That is particularly true in memes that borrow fictional characters — Mr. Clean or Mickey Mouse — from a wide range of popular texts including movies, television shows, literature, paintings, cartoons and comics. They create anachronistic collages of seemingly random gestures, inappropriate facial expressions and mismatched moods that do not fit the icon’s story.
Such unexpected combinations disarm the otherwise tense scene re-appropriated from the icon and turn it into scores of lighthearted mashups that blend humor and intertextuality. There is the highly circulated Joker Situation Room meme, for example, that replaces the brigadier general in charge of the mission with Batman’s arch nemesis embodied by the actor Heath Ledger in the 2008 blockbuster movie The Dark Knight. Another popular Situation Room meme redraws all gathered as Marvel Comics characters, with a younger version of Hillary Clinton in a tight superhero costume and long blond hair.
But as the forthcoming analysis suggests, the presence of extras in the monitoring scene often produces more than an initial chuckle. The characters ripped out of their original settings and deployed throughout the memes rhetorically re-negotiate the purpose of the Situation Room gathering by their sheer presence in the space. Through grimaces, hand gestures and original story lines, some newly installed figures communicate disapproval of the bin Laden raid and the behavior of those gathered to watch it. Others, simply by entering the room, turn the raid to a complete failure, symbolically undermining the success of an event that was highly praised by the administration in the media.
No matter their provenance, the appropriated characters as a collective transform a covert meeting into a public event, to which nearly everyone and anyone is now invited. Those who make an appearance could be seen as the public’s emissaries deputized to ensure a degree of transparency that was grossly missing as the story of the raid unfolded in real time. With additional observers in the room, the clandestine bin Laden operation receives — however symbolically — a degree of scrutiny, though only after the fact as the Souza image was released some hours after the military operation.
Activities in the Situation Room
All memes analyzed in the study build on the icon’s premise of watching, often by inserting various artifacts into the Situation Room that signify the activity. Pizza, popcorn, soft drinks, red plastic party cups, gaming consoles and 3D glasses transform the occasion from a monitoring session of a military raid to a leisurely time with co-workers. The act of watching expressed through the synchronized head turn to the right in the original photograph becomes a visual shorthand for entertainment in the memes. It reduces war to a spectacle, those watching to spectators and those fighting on the screen to performers. The inserted artifacts further disarm the otherwise tense moment and infuse it with a sense of frivolity, thus trivializing — and transfiguring — someone’s assassination into someone else’s play and enjoyment.
The entertainment-themed memes may elicit laughter thanks to the photoshopped red Solo cups or snack bowls, but they may also be seen as visual signifiers of a harsh political commentary. By likening the bin Laden mission to a captivating performance, the memes allege that those around the conference table transform a military operation into a simulation, thus removing it from reality. They frame a state-sanctioned capture-or-kill as a show for the benefit of the White House audience who sits back, relaxes and watches it as if screening a movie. Yet, paradoxically, the 3D glasses that everyone wears in some appropriations are designed to enhance the sense of “being there” in the midst of action, creating an illusion more real than reality itself — a simulacrum. The performance becomes an exciting but safe sensory experience for those on the White House side of the monitor, a thrill so engrossing that even Clinton’s hand gesture gets re-worked to hold a pizza slice in some iterations as she watches mesmerized by the action on the screen. What emerges from such readings of the entertainment memes is a critical and cynical portrait of a callous administration and naive military members who perform as entertainers for hire while risking their lives for their superiors’ — and by extension, the viewer’s — pleasure.
Sitting in the lower right corner of the original Situation Room photograph, Hillary Clinton is the only one at the conference table whose hands are not crossed, folded or resting. Clinton’s right hand is over her mouth in a gesture of apparent surprise, shock or even fear, singling her out as the one person in the room who expresses visible affect. She appears to be physically reacting to what unfolds on the invisible monitor, suggesting to the viewer that the mission may be more difficult than expected or acknowledged by the president in his speech. Most of the Situation Room memes analyzed here repeat Clinton’s gesture either manipulating it or copying it verbatim to fit new contexts.
Such borrowing often creates absurd compositions with Clinton’s arm and hand resting on different bodies, but it seems to serve more than a comedic purpose. Without direct access to a live feed or journalistic coverage of the bin Laden raid, Clinton’s hand gesture operates in the memes as a visual clue that helps the public interpret the photographed moment and the event as a whole. Pegged by the president hours later as a seamless mission carried out with “extraordinary courage and capability” (White House, 2011), the heroic tale gets visually re-told by Clinton’s hand position. Its repeated mobilization perpetuates the textual hook’s rhetorical work of questioning the credibility of the official story; it interferes with parts of the narrative arc of bin Laden’s assassination as relayed by the administration and the media to suggest that perhaps not everything went as smoothly as the president said.
But the hand gesture also serves as a gender identity marker as it differentiates Clinton from her male colleagues who surround her. Clinton is one of two females in the original makeup of the Situation Room, with the then-Director of Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason standing in the back, her head the only part visible to the viewer. The two women in attendance are either relegated to visual obscurity or presented as emotionally reactive and therefore diametrically opposite of their composed male counterparts. Intentionally or not, the Situation Room meme (and the icon) activate the trope of a hysterical woman, who, unlike her collected male co-workers, is visibly shaken during a tense moment. Such juxtaposition through the use of this textual hook might question a woman’s competency and professionalism vis-à-vis her composed male peers.
Misogyny and gender stereotyping figure in prominently in meme rhetoric in certain corners of the Internet, where exchanges involve “a cold and brutal brand of male-generated ‘rationality’ over what trolls critique as a soft and feminine ‘emotionalism’.”  Clinton was on the receiving end of similar criticism and ridicule from some political pundits for being perceived as overly emotional during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential run. While on the campaign trail, she had been asked by a woman in the audience how she was able to handle the grueling schedule. As one reporter recounted the moment, “her eyes got teary. Her voice got shaky. Her answer, uncharacteristically emotional, made news.” (Kruse, 2015) Eight years later during the 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton was criticized again, this time for not being emotional enough (Clarke-Billings, 2016; Lind, 2016; Traister, 2017).
New meanings and functions
Grumpy girl’s disapproval
The three primary textual hooks repeatedly manipulated and redeployed in the subversive genre of the Situation Room meme transform the iconic image of a tense moment into scores of digital derivatives that fall into three broad categories: a disappointment, a joke or a moral and tactical failure. The first is achieved by representing disapproval through an artificially created contrast that often involves a character that is in a position to judge through facial expression or gesture. The second typically displays mockery of the mission through trivialization of the activities and participants in the room. The third undermines and symbolically subverts the mission by interfering with its outcome and the monitoring session, often rendering the former as ineffective and the latter as morally dubious.
One of the first and most widely circulated Situation Room memes on social media that represents the first category as it expresses blatant contempt for the military operation is the so-called grumpy girl meme (Figure 2). In it, the Situation Room gets an unexpected guest: a little girl sporting a white dress with a flower wreath on her head. She is standing next to the admiral in charge, looking directly into the camera. Her ears are covered with both of her hands, her grimace signifying frustration, unhappiness and disapproval.
Figure 2: Grumpy girl meme, by Graham Scott. Source: Twitter.
The sheer presence of a child in a White House conference room during a military operation creates a visual dissonance as the little girl clearly does not belong there. Dressed as a flower girl, she is the three-year-old Grace Van Cutsem, one of the bridesmaids at the 29 April 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which took place two days before the bin Laden raid (Carbone, 2011). As the newlyweds stood at the balcony of Buckingham Palace for their first public kiss as a married couple, the girl covered her ears to block the crowd’s cheers. Her striking pose of disapproval turned her into an online sensation at the time. Internet users inserted her into myriad contexts as a visual symbol of disapprobation and dampened mood (Carbone, 2011).
As she gets reworked into the Situation Room meme, Van Cutsem once again carries the original context of her gesture to now comment on bin Laden’s raid. Similar to the royal wedding, she covers her ears as if in response to the perceived “noise” inside the White House, communicating her disapproval. The little girl, in fact, abhors it and turns her back on the mission. The target audience of her displeasure, however, is not just the president and his advisors who surround her. Given her placement and pose in relation to the occupants of the room, Grace is also communication her disapproval of what is unfolding behind her to the audience with whom she connects by looking directly into the lens. She is observant and outspoken beyond her years and functions symbolically as the conscience of the room, exposing what she deems unconscionable taking place in the room and on the hidden monitor.
The grumpy girl meme is among the Situation Room memes that deploy characters that connote innocence, from Muppets and Big Bird to Mickey Mouse and Patrick Star from the SpongeBob SquarePants story. Such visual juxtapositions create a stark contrast between the purity and goodness embodied by children’s favorites and the presumed violence of an impending death on the screen, setting up invitations for moral judgment. Greta, the Muppets and Patrick Star function as shaming devices that, in a role reversal, mobilize children and child-like figures to censure adults for their “bad” behavior.
Fun, games and mockery
The grumpy girl’s indignation and disapproval of the bin Laden raid transforms into mockery of the mission in Situation Room memes that trivialize the raid through injections of irony and seemingly callous humor. Despite their diversity in content, the memes primarily engage the textual hooks of activities and characters in the room to rework the mediated monitoring session and the assassination into a farce. Such jamming of the silly into the serious is par for the course for memetic creativity, in which no topic is sacred and no character safe (Coleman, 2014; Milner, 2016; Phillips, 2015). Here, the memes rhetorically diminish the seriousness of the viewing, the raid and bin Laden’s death by turning all three into a laughing matter — or so it seems.
One of the earliest and most prominent memes of this type remakes the tense moment in the conference room into an inter-generation soire of real and imagined characters from art, literature, film and music (Figure 3). The Situation Room, now reminiscent of the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” is filled to the brim with a collage of characters and colors that highjack the space and the occasion. President Obama and his original companions from the iconic photograph are still present, but they fade into the background, overtaken by the new faces and torsos that capture the audience’s attention. They are among the few still watching the mediated raid as almost all of the newly photoshopped figures look into the camera, visibly disinterested in and oblivious to the main reason for the gathering. Even Clinton’s hand gesture, which blends in amid the explosion of color, loses its signification powers, rendering it an empty visual signifier in this scenario. The mood does not seem celebratory, however, as no one visibly cheers bin Laden’s demise.
Figure 3: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band meme, by John Stricker. Source: Wired.
Similar remixes abound as they transform the monitoring session into a pizza party, a movie night, a poker game or a fun evening with the comedian Jimmy Fallon, disarming a tense scene through visual juxtaposition. The interjected absurd elements make for jarring compositions that evoke both laughter and reflection. By making light of the icon, the memes could be seen as engaging in an ironic critique of not only the military raid but also the government officials who gathered in the room to watch it. Through a dose of facetious humor, they seem to criticize and even accuse those inside the Situation Room of trivialization of war and death as mere entertainment.
The memes mock the perceived callousness and desensitization on the part of the administration gathered around the conference table through what could be considered lulz lite, a relatively benign version of an online mode of poking fun that is always at the expense of others and often practiced by Internet trolls with varying degrees of cruelty (Coleman, 2014; Milner, 2016; Phillips, 2015). Here, the “distanced, ironic register”  of the frivolity memes makes war trivialization playful and silly through a flippant sense of humor that, as already noted, could be seen as surprisingly harsh and accusatory. The “distanced” quality of this particular type of humor deserves a bit more exploration. The frivolity memes also operate on a degree of ambiguity embedded in the irony and fun they deploy to transfigure the icon, making them open to other — even contradictory — interpretations. The memes could, in fact, be performing an earnest act of rhetorical erasure to hide, minimize or delete war and combat death as visual palette cleansers
Symbolic subversion and failure
The mockery of the bin Laden mission turns into a symbolic subversion ex post facto in a handful of memes that highjack the occasion by inserting Osama bin Laden himself into the Situation Room (Figure 4). In an ironic twist, the al-Qaeda leader, whose assassination plays out on a monitor in front of him, makes an appearance in the White House. In this iteration, bin Laden is sitting between Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama; he is wearing a white headscarf, a white robe and an overcoat. His signature salt-and-pepper beard extends to his chest. Bin Laden’s head repeats the textual hook of watching as his face looks in the direction of the invisible screen outside the picture frame; he blends in seamlessly into the composition. What catches the eye is a pair of video game joysticks that bin Laden and Obama hold above their lap. The two are playing video games together while the rest of the gathered focus on the monitor ahead to see the outcomes.
Figure 4: Osama bin Laden meme, author unknown. Source: Twitter.
As with the grumpy girl-type memes, this digital derivative of the iconic photograph also produces a visual discord that baffles at first glance. The presence of Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room next to the president of the United States is preposterous given bin Laden’s most-wanted status and his impending death simultaneously mediated in the room. What adds to the visual incongruity is the activity that connects the two men. A favorite pastime, the act of video game playing here has much higher stakes than a tally of points; it is a confrontation of ideologies and a battle for survival. Although the rivalry takes place in simulated reality, the victories, the defeats and the impending death of one of the players extend beyond the screen.
Similar to the other two categories of the Situation Room memes, this type also disrupts and ultimately stretches the narrative arc of the bin Laden story — as told through the president’s speech and the iconic image — beyond the actual event. Chronology once again plays a role in this rhetorical process. The meme, even though it comes out after the military mission, Obama’s address and the releases of the icon, symbolically disrupts the monitoring session while the raid is in progress, pointing to the parts of the story that get glossed over by the administration in the presidential address.
The president’s engagement with bin Laden through the act of video game playing as the latter is dying renders the mission, at least symbolically, a failure. Obama in this scenario could be seen as someone whose actions diverge from his words in the impending victory speech, in which he calls his gaming partner “a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.” (White House, 2011) The rhetorical work of the meme does not change the outcome of the mission or the president’s address. It does, however, suggest some pushback on the part of the participating members of remix culture against the official narrative of bin Laden’s assassination.
Such rhetorical stretching and re-configuration of the icon through the meme after the fact demonstrates that neither the icon nor the president’s speech had the final say in the framing of what happened — or should have happened — in Pakistan and the Situation Room. Memes function here as expressions of alternative opinions held by some members of the connected publics to process, re-interpret and self-communicate as their reactions to the news — functions often ascribed to Internet memes in remix culture (Milner, 2016; Shifman, 2013). Their production in this case study shows how regular people engage with the news and the newsmakers to co-create meanings alongside the institutions of power that have traditionally supplied often-singular and dominant versions of reality. Here, news consumers outside of those structures riff off the official accounts of bin Laden’s death to create their own narrative arcs of what might have, could have or should have happened in the Situation Room during a tightly controlled news event. Even though memes are mere re-imaginings of reality that do no change the outcomes of events they tackle, the sheer act of their creation and circulation may be seen as a symbolic reclamation of rhetorical powers by regular people who, through a shared cultural practice, supplement, undermine and even counter the dominant voices of institutions — the pop polyvocality of the digital age (Mielczarek, 2018; Milner, 2013).
Discussion and conclusions
The telling of the bin Laden assassination mission by the administration with the help of the news media departed from the chronological account of the military operation as it unfolded in real time because of temporal shifts in reporting on the part of the information gatekeepers, i.e., the government. The drama captured by the iconic photograph — the tension present on the faces of those in the Situation Room during the complication and development phases of the event’s narrative arc — was preempted by President Obama’s victory speech, watched by some 56.5 million viewers in the U.S. (Nielsen, 2011). It was the first piece of communication about the raid that the administration shared with the public even though the iconic picture and its eight companions had already been taken by Souza during the monitoring session.
The late-night address focused on the missions successful resolution and conclusion but overlooked the middle of the story almost in its entirety. The only reference to military action was the president’s brief mention of “a firefight,” (White House, 2011) after which the Navy SEALs killed bin Laden and took possession of his body. Instead, the speech lauded the successful capture of Osama bin Laden the most important achievement of the war on terror and made it — not the overcoming of adversities amid combat — the focal point of celebration. It remained the dominant — and the only — narrative that circulated the news and social media for a time in the absence of live coverage of the raid or the viewing session in the White House.
The act of reporting the conclusion before the rest of the bin Laden raid story set up a particular narrative that capitalized on the American might and strength, not the larger context of a near failure at the onset or the reasons for the tension captured by Souza’s snapshot. Victory and triumph were what the public heard about first, only to be instructed later by the icon that the mission was perhaps not as flawless as the president initially framed it, given the palpable tension in the room captured by the now famous image. But, as mentioned, although the icon communicated worry, it remained otherwise ambiguous amid a contextual vacuum. The viewer could not have gleaned much else than what the facial expressions and Clinton’s hand gesture implied — that something “bad” had unfolded on the screen. Something “bad” had, in fact, happened in that instant, though accounts vary as to the particulars. President Obama speculated a year later that he believed that Souza’s picture was taken when one of the helicopters crashed on bin Laden’s compound, contradicting both Clinton and Souza’s recollections (Bowden, 2012).
The Situation Room memes participated in the untangling of the story. They did not reverse the course of the military operation, of course, despite re-drawing it in numerous ways. Bin Laden was still killed, and the president still delivered his glowing report to the nation about the successful capture of the culprit, offering the only interpretation of the event at the time. The prolific production of memes that followed suggests, however, that some members of the connected publics were not entirely persuaded by the president’s framing of the bin Laden raid. The singular narrative of a flawless and honorable operation started to crumble in some corners of the Internet as the president’s boasting got retroactively intercepted by the memes, scores of which seemed to disapprove, mock and even symbolically undermine the military mission, occasionally minimizing and ridiculing it after the fact.
Intentionally or not, the memes exploited this rhetorical incongruity by re-versioning the tension and fear communicated by the icon, in part also speculating about the mission itself. They might be interpreted as having produced moral indignation, condemnation and even symbolic subversion of the otherwise praised military achievement by manipulating key visual signifiers of Souza’s photograph to re-negotiate the official narrative of the event after the fact.
In doing so, the subversive genre of the Situation Room memes presented a type of counter-knowledge (Fiske, 2016) to the institutional account of the past. Production of counter-knowledge includes “recovering facts, events, and bits of information the dominant knowledge has repressed or dismissed as insignificant.”  In this case, Obama’s speech omitted fear, worry, and the troops’ exposure to danger in favor of courage, strength and justice, communicating to the public that the deed was honorable, necessary and justified. The memes of interest responded with some pushback through mockery, disapproval and occasional censure, effectively functioning as counter-images to the version of the mission described by the president even if they did so after the fact. They paraded various characters through the Situation Room and engaged them in myriad activities, from smoking cigars and eating pizza to playing video games and holding a superhero convention in effect to de-stabilize the ascribed meanings of the raid and often minimize it to a mere frivolity that ought not be celebrated.
The counter-knowledge that the memes represented sits within a broader cultural discourse that the raid generated at the time, one which aligned with the dominant — the president’s — sentiments expressed in the victory speech. Close to three-quarters of Americans said after the raid they were relieved, and 60 percent said they were proud and happy about the killing of Osama bin Laden (Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, 2011). The memes clearly did not budge public opinion about the raid, but their participation in the public discourse should not be discounted. About 14 percent of Americans ages 18–34 said they first heard the news about bin Laden on social media (Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, 2011), the very platforms that incubate and circulate memes. Mainstream media outlets from the Atlantic and the Washington Post to NPR wrote stories about the Situation Room memes as artifacts of a popular cultural practice that gave Internet users an outlet to digest and react to the news.
As the Situation Room memes multiplied and mutated, the icon served as a “malleable resource for endless memetic performances”  in which the raid as an “experience began to be understood as an image,”  or a series of images in this case, that chained out of the iconic template. The memes extended the icon’s narrative arc beyond its initial publication and beyond the story’s official conclusion as they provided a robust stream of fresh accounts that, through photoshopping and multiplication, moved past the icon rhetorically; they re-interpreted what took place inside the conference room and in Pakistan, producing a corpus of “open-ended rhetorical becomings”  of the iconic image, and by extension, bin Laden’s death.
It is not to say, of course, that the Situation Room memes overrode the government’s official account and thereby displaced it or the icon. Rather, this case study illustrates a chain of events that gave way to a polyvocal process of visual framing of a historical event with institutional and vernacular accounts attempting to interpret and define it in tandem. Meme-ization of an iconic image triggered meme-ization of a cultural memory, suggesting that the icon and its long-standing rhetorical powers to exclusively define the past are in question. Memes may not operate rhetorically on the same level of importance and prominence as their iconic photographic templates, but they do play a vital part as the lingua franca of the Internet in online conversations of the connected members of the participatory publics (Milner, 2016; Miltner, 2014).
The traditional iconic news images — the singular big pictures supplied by institutional media outlets such as magazines, newspapers and television for more than 150 years — have encountered increased competition in digital culture from non-institutional sources such as citizen journalists and bystanders (Dahmen and Miller, 2012; Dahmen, et al., 2018). Memes, in part, only add to the idea of a fractured iconicity in remix culture as they poach the icon and supplement it with new interpretations that typically deviate from the main narrative behind the famous image (Cohen, et al., 2018; Mielczarek, 2018; Milner, 2016). It would be baseless to suggest that once-dominant iconic news photographs have been displaced by their mutated derivatives in the form of Internet memes. Traditional photojournalistic icons still play an unprecedent role in shaping public understanding of news and history — but now they do so with a relatively new competition (Dahmen, et al., 2018). The authority of a news icon as an exclusive image to define events and sentiments for generations might be in question as the photojournalistic news icon no longer reigns alone.
About the author
Natalia Mielczarek is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include iconicity, Internet memes and rhetorical transfigurations of images in remix culture. Before joining the academy, Mielczarek worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade.
E-mail: nmiel [at] vt [dot] edu
The author thanks Dr. Jim Kuypers in the Department of Communication at Virginia Tech for his feedback on this manuscript.
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Received 10 February 2020; revised 30 March 2020; accepted 1 April 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Natalia Mielczarek. All Rights Reserved.
The Situation Room icon and its Internet memes: Subversion of the Osama bin Laden raid and fragmentation of iconicity in remix culture
by Natalia Mielczarek.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 6 - 1 June 2020