Trump’s real mug shot matters in a world of fakes.

Trump's real mug shot matters in a world of fakes.

The Historic Hype of Trump’s Mug Shot: A Memorable Image That Transcends Fakes

Image Source: Link to Image

For months, Etsy has been inundated with a new genre of T-shirt: the Donald Trump mug shot. These shirts, available in two main styles – “Guilty AF” and “Not Guilty,” feature photos of the former US president appearing as if he had just been booked. However, until recently, most of these shirts were fakes, often unconvincing ones. Etsy sellers have been uploading them to the platform since at least March, capitalizing on Trump’s numerous alleged crimes. Even Trump’s own campaign released a fake mug shot T-shirt to raise money.

But yesterday, the 2024 Republican presidential candidate finally faced the criminal tradition of a mug shot in Georgia. He has been indicted on charges relating to attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. This marks the fourth indictment against Trump, who now faces a staggering 91 felony charges in four jurisdictions. Despite the mounting legal challenges, Trump maintains his innocence, claiming he committed “no crime.”

In an era where manipulated images have captured our attention, Trump’s real mug shot, a simple and poorly lit photo, has achieved historic hype. It’s not the image alone that is notable – after all, Trump is one of the most recognizable faces in the world. However, the significance lies in the fact that it is the first mug shot of a US president. In his three other criminal cases, justice officials opted to skip this part of the process. Therefore, this plain image may become one of the most important photos Trump has ever taken.

“The AI-generated ones, no matter how good they are, will eventually be seen as AI-generated. Fakes will be known as fakes,” says Jonathan Finn, a professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, who wrote the book “Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society.” However, the real mug shot “will last forever. It will have all the history and associations tied to it.”

After Trump’s mug shot was released, it flooded the internet, supplanting the fakes that had spread before the real one emerged. It appeared on Instagram stories, as memes, and even on Trump’s own social network, Truth Social. After surrendering to Georgia authorities, Trump made his first post on X (formerly Twitter) since his account was reinstated by Elon Musk late last year. A post featuring the picture reads, “Election interference, never surrender.”

Mug shots serve a practical purpose – to identify the person accused of a crime and document their physical status at the time of arrest. However, media coverage of crimes, often accompanied by mug shots, has contributed to harmful stereotypes of people of color, who are arrested at disproportionate rates. The publication of mug shots can also create a perception of guilt before a fair trial takes place.

But Trump finds himself in a different position, where viewers of the mug shot will likely be split. Those who support Trump may see a man wrongfully accused, while those who presume him guilty may view it as validation of their beliefs.

Trump’s mug shot has already transcended its intended purpose of tying him to alleged crimes in Georgia. Different political alignments have shared the mug shot on social media, and it has even been used satirically, pushing the image beyond its initial context. This phenomenon, known as “context collapse,” occurs when the intent and common understanding around a post disappear as it spreads widely to other groups. With people giving the mug shot meme treatment or plastering it on partisan T-shirts, this collapse is already happening.

“I think it’s a certainty there will be context collapse around any prominent image that can be interpreted or misinterpreted by different communities, both willfully and accidentally,” says Sam Gregory, executive director of Witness, a nonprofit organization focused on using images and videos to protect human rights. With numerous versions of a Trump mug shot circulating online, people may have different memories and associations of this historical event. “We’ll remember the one that we saw in a context that made it memorable to us,” Gregory says.

By this morning, a search for Trump mug shots on Etsy featured many new products sporting the real thing. Trump’s campaign is slapping the photo on mugs, T-shirts, and koozies. Fakes will remain, and some people will be duped. But the real Trump mug shot will be the one for the history books.

Image Source: Link to Image