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How a Photoshopped Picture of Sir Ian McKellen Fooled the Internet

This past weekend, Sir Ian McKellen attended an event in Hyde Park to protest the policies of Pope Benedict XVI on the Pope’s very first state visit to the UK. Shortly thereafter, the photo to the above left began to make its way around the tubes, wherein McKellen wears a shirt that says “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it!” The Internet being the Internet, it “went viral,” as the kids say, with the picture getting more than 250,000 views on Twitpic, close to 200,000 more when it was ripped to Imgur, and who knows how many more via blogs and other third-party sources.

Indeed, it is a pretty awesome shirt. However, it is not the shirt that McKellen actually wore to the anti-pope rally: Rather, he wore the shirt to the above right (“Some people are gay. Get over it!”) which actually makes a lot more sense considering 1) that the typeface changes in the Gandalf shirt, but is consistent in the real thing; 2) that the protester behind him is wearing the same shirt in both instances; and 3) that as mind-blowing as is the Gandalf-Magneto singularity presented by McKellen, the Church’s positions with respect to homosexuals are a bit easier to protest. All good Photoshop fun, maybe, but it apparently actually fooled a lot of people; The Advocate ran the ‘shopped McKellen shirt on their website before correcting it, and lots of social media sharing of the picture takes it at face value. As The Daily What wrote when they debunked the ‘shoop earlier today: “Before this goes so far that it gets picked up by the Times … right – real; left – fake.” It’s instructive how this happened:

On September 18th, shortly after the BBC article ran, writer and illustrator Greg Stekelman tweeted out the Photoshopped pic with the deadpan caption, “I see Ian McKellen joined in the anti-Pope march in London today.” Not much later, as the pic began to garner retweets, he clarified, “I point out that Ian McKellen didn’t actually wear that t-shirt. I photoshopped it. The original said: ‘Some People Are Gay. Get Over It.’” Had Stekelman been setting out to hoax the world in this decidedly minor way, he would have undercut himself far too quickly.

Luckily for the propagation Gandalf meme, he didn’t have to: The picture spread, buoyed by celebrity tweeters like Simon Pegg, who seemed to be in on the joke — he wrote, “Magneto was at the anti-pope rally! That explains why the pope mobile is made from reinforced neo carbon fibre” — but who didn’t credit Stekelman beyond linking to his Twitpic, much to the latter’s ire. (The sources of Twitpics, while visible when browsing from Twitter.com, are often obscured when viewed in Twitter clients.) The pic hit the Reddit frontpage via a sourceless Imgur link, though in fairness to Reddit’s upvoted comment system, the top comment linked to the BBC article and debunked the pic. As the ‘shopped pic continued to spread, that final layer of context was stripped away, such that a humorist’s Photoshop which obviously referred to a real-world event became an uncredited Photoshop became, in the minds of many who saw it, an actual photograph. This is how very many things happen on the Internet.

Stekelman, the forgotten originator of the pic, had the following to say, in cartoon form:

So that’s that. But the “Gandalf and Magneto” idea has proven so irresistible, it’s managed to cross the gap into reality after all: “Before somebody else makes millions off them,” Stekelman is now selling the ‘Shopped shirt-made-reality on Cafepress.

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