How a fact becomes a meme: The story of George Bush’s head on ‘Game of Thrones’

The image that started it all.

The producers of HBO fantasy epic “Game of Thrones” found themselves on their heels this week, after news that one of the severed heads on display in the show’s first season was actually a prosthetic likeness of former president George W. Bush went viral. (They apologized today.) The storm of controversy was utterly unsurprising — the Internet needs outrages the way babies need milk — but for one thing: Fans of “Game of Thrones” have known about the Bush head for months. How did it suddenly become an issue now?

The severed head Easter egg was first revealed to “Game of Thrones” fans back in March, when the show’s first season was released on DVD. In the commentary track for the episode “Fire and Blood,” (which originally aired in June of 2011) creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talked about the origin of some of the severed heads in this scene (major season one spoilers within):

Explained the producers:

The last head on the left is George Bush. George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice, it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around.

At the time, the news was taken as a fun bit of trivia, popping up on Film.com, Reddit comments and various tumblrs, all without controversy. The hardcore “Thrones” fans reading were too focused on the ethics of beheading Ned Stark to worry about ethics of beheading a former head of state. It wasn’t until Reddit user SidIncognito made a post on the topic Wednesday morning that the story spread outside the Westoros bubble, three months after the factoid first came to light.

What was the difference? Crucially, earlier writers had buried the fact in listicles, as one of “N Different Things We Learned From The ‘Game Of Thrones’ DVDs.” In context, it was a tidbit, a nugget, a Non-Story. SidIncognito’s post, by contrast, put the information into an easily-digestible image format. Here’s a picture of the head, here’s a caption explaining it, and that’s it. Stripped of extraneous information, the Bush fact became a Story even if it wasn’t, technically, news.

The post was tailor-made to be picked up with a minimum of effort, and then it was: io9′s Meredith Woerner wrote a short blog post about the severed head at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, citing the Reddit post. Once up on a Gawker Media site, the news made the aggregation rounds: Huffington Post at 1:09, Politico at 4:48, Gothamist at 5:48, Entertainment Weekly at 6:26.

By the time The Daily Mail got to the story, the DVD Easter egg had been fully tabloidized: “HBO forced to apologise after Game of Thrones showed President George W. Bush’s decapitated head impaled on a STAKE. “ (That story came complete with news of politicians proposing a “Game of Thrones” boycott — which turned out to be the idle remarks of one Republican in Brooklyn, who had never seen the show.)

After two days of screaming headlines and grumbling apologies, the Reddit user who started it all was dispirited by the controversy.

“All I wanted to do was point out something mildly amusing to the people here who might not have seen it before,” he wrote.

Then later: “Watching it develop yesterday made me realize how pathetic it is of the news media to repost old news as if it’s [a] shocking discovery just because someone noticed it on some internet forum that day.”


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