By Brian J. Karem
Bartha picked up the I-phone for the seemingly umpteenth time and stared at the Instagram image that had been shared by 70 million people. She stared at it longingly and then placed the phone back down on the coffee table. She shook her head and looked at her husband.
“I don’t get it. I just can’t take my eyes off that photo,” she said.
“I told you,” James said evenly. “Why do you think so many people have looked at it in the last day?”
“Seventy million likes . . . “
“It’s up to 70 million? Wow, it was at 45 million last time I looked.”
“So pure . . .”
“Yeah, most of the comments.”
“You should really be proud.”
“I just helped with the programming.”
“Well, you should get paid more money. I mean 70 million likes, several million shares.”
“I didn’t take the picture honey.”
“I don’t know. Someone with the handle @SlevenKayrouz.”
“Did you look him up?”
“I’m too busy for that.”
“Well whoever it is they’re getting famous off of the program you developed.”
Bartha again picked up the I-phone and looked at the photograph. It wasn’t even that outstanding a photo. But the emotion behind it? She couldn’t deny she felt something pure just looking at the picture. She never felt that pure in her life. It was joyous. What was it? Love? Yes. Maybe that was it. Hope? That too. Just a pure feeling of joy. 71 million people now had “liked” the photo. Others obviously felt it too.
Bobby McGee walked out of the lower press office at the White House with a few printouts from his computer and some notes. Walking up the ramp past the Secret Service agent, he nodded perfunctorily and then walked into the press secretary’s office and knocked.
“Come on in,” he heard from the other side.
He walked inside to greet Jamae Alcindor, the press secretary who sat behind her desk with a smile.
“What do you got?” She said.
“I’ve been tracking social media trends,” McGee said.
“I know Bobby. What do you got?”
“Well there’s this trending thing on Instagram.”
“Pro or con.”
“Then why do I care?” Alcindor was busy and had no time for discussions that didn’t directly involve the president. She was an hour out from the daily briefing and five minutes from her staff meeting to prepare her for the briefing.
“I think you might get a few questions about it if you call on the TMZ crowd. You might want to be ready.”
Alcindor sighed. She hated the entertainment media. One of the biggest challenges she faced as a press secretary was restoring some faith in government after the unmitigated disaster of the previous administration. Taking questions from the entertainment media undermined those efforts, in her opinion, but she also recognized she could ill afford to ignore anyone asking a question - lest the current administration be saddled with the same reputation of the previous administration - most of whom were now behind bars.
“Okay, make it brief,” she finally said.
“There’s a photograph trending. It already has 75 million likes and 15 million re-posts on Instagram. It’s at about 5 million on Twitter with one million retweets,” McGee said.
“And . . .”
“Oh, well it’s using the new ‘emote’ feature Instagram introduced last month that lets you feel the emotion of the person who took the photo.”
Alcindor put down the notes she had been reviewing and for the first time looked at McGee.
“And . . .”
McGee cleared his throat. “Well people who have viewed the photo all say it lets the viewer feel a sense of pure joy or love or hope. I can’t really define it, but . . .”
“Have you seen it?”
“And . . “
“That’s why I bring it up. It’s the purest thing I’ve ever felt. I can’t describe it. It . . .”
“What?” Alcindor was growing impatient but was curious.
“It’s like the most hopeful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alcindor screwed her face into a question mark. “What is it a picture of?”
McGee laughed. “I don’t know. A goose. A duck? Some kind of water fowl I think.”
“Who took it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well the profile picture is of a puppy, but that could mean anything . . .”
“Did you send me a link?”
“Okay. I’ll look at it. Meanwhile, find out who this person is. I also want to know where their politics are and I want to make sure we aren’t being manipulated. We have a re-election coming, and I don’t want anyone trying to undermine us with some propaganda. I want to make sure this isn’t a Russian troll farm or some other huckster trying to scam us or scam the American people.”
McGee nodded. “Okay. I’ll try to get you the info for the briefing in case you get a question on it.”
“We’ve had enough manipulation through social media during the last decade to last a lifetime,” Alcindor said testily. “Do your job.”
“Right,” McGee said. He got up and left.
After he left, Alcindor checked her email, found the link to the picture and called it up on her desktop. She stared at the picture briefly and then audibly said, “Oh my God.”
Hallie Jordan sat on the phone in the ABC bureau, rifling through a carrot plate, trying to find a nice fat carrot she could dip in the accompanying ranch dressing while she spoke with her producer from New York.
“ . . . we have a producer going out to Staten Island. We have a lead on the photographer there. He seems to think it’s a professional photographer out there.”
“Why?” The voice on the other end of the phone said.
“Oh, something to do with the profile picture. Seems the background is like Staten Island.”
“I don’t understand why we don’t know who the account belongs to?”
“A tree or something in the background or a building. I don’t know. Something recognizable,” Hallie said casually.
“Yeah, but why don’t we know who the account belongs to. We know everyone on social media. What’s the deal?”
Hallie shrugged as she chased the ranch dressing with a carrot. “I don’t know. It’s new. There’s no real profile.”
“Don’t we have connections at Instagram?”
“Well, you know privacy concerns and everything. It’s not like it was a few years ago. Much harder to find who this is.”
“Makes me suspicious. Are we sure this isn’t manipulated? Somebody trying to make money? A troll.”
Hallie nodded. “I suppose. It’s a new account. There’s only two other posts on it. One is of ducks on a pond. We think that’s in Staten Island as well. The other is a picture of a dog. Same dog as in the profile picture. A beagle. Pretty nondescript.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. “Fuck. Makes me even more suspicious. What emotions do the other photos have?”
Hallie shrugged. “None. They were posted a few weeks before the new emote-app was introduced. Do we really think someone is scamming us?”
The producer on the other end of the phone line got mildly animated. “Nothing. Nothing is that pure. I’ve been in this business too long to fall for some Cinderella, Pollyanna bullshit.”
“Never mind. You’re the investigative reporter. Find out what you can as quickly as you can.”
Hallie sighed. “Yeah. It came up in the White House briefing today,” she said.
“I was watching. I know. And they denied everything. They’re probably behind this, trying to manipulate the American public into thinking all is great when everything is going to shit.”
“Well,” Hallie said. “You can hardly blame them after the last administration.”
The producer snorted. “Gives them no right to manipulate us.”
Hallie nodded. “I agree, but we’ve got no proof they’re doing that. It could be a coincidence.”
“I’m not that naïve Hallie and neither are you. Call me back when you’ve got something. I want it at the top. Two minutes.”
Hallie heard a click as the producer hung up. “What a prick,” she said audibly as she hung up the phone.
Steve Shetler spent 25 years as an investigator for the Government Accounting Office before he took the job as lead investigator for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. At 63 he was one of the few people who was respected equally on both sides of the aisle. He earned his reputation as a pragmatist when the GOP controlled congress and retained that reputation when the Democrats came back into power. Though he prided himself on staying above partisan nonsens, he was finding it hard to do his job today. He sat at his desk with the ranking members of the GOP and the Democratic party, their chiefs of staff and their press representatives.
“So, basically,” he said, “both of you suspect the other has planted this photo on the Internet to arouse suspicion and manipulate voters.”
Both men and their staff nodded vigorously and Shetler couldn’t eliminate the image of a shelf full of bobble heads in an earthquake.
“What we have is a viral emotophoto of something that I cannot identify that has gained traction because people who view it experience an overwhelming sense of pure love. Right?”
Again the nods. “And both of you think this is a scam trying to manipulate voters. But no one has explained how the scam would work, how you would manipulate the photo or why anyone would do such a thing. There is no advertising attached. The person who posted the photo hasn’t made a dime off of it. . .”
“That we know of . . .” a voice said quietly from the right side of the room.
“That we know of,” Shetler said evenly. “And, no one has come forward to claim responsibility and there seems to be no other shoe to drop. . .”
“Not yet,” Silvia Dimwitty, the GOP press secretary found her voice.
“Exactly,” countered Armande Erdu, the Democratic chief of staff. “This could be prelude.”
“To what?” Shetler countered.
“Well that’s for you to find out,” Dimwitty said. “That’s why you’re our investigator.”
“Exactly,” Erdu said.
Shetler chuckled. “You suspect each other, but you are going to work together.” That statement was greeted with a room full of “harumphs”. So, Shetler cleared his throat and motioned at his own chief of staff to bring in several folders which he handed out to those in attendance. “Okay folks. I’m going to make this quick. We’ve spent the last two days investigating the photo. Here’s what we know: Whoever shot the photo posted it at 3:14 p.m. EST. Monday a week ago. It has acquired 117 million “likes” on Instagram mostly we surmise because of the new emotophoto app which allows whoever views the video to feel the emotion of the photographer who took the photo. Most everyone who has seen it says it is the emotion of “pure love” or “Pure joy” that makes the photo most appealing. As for the photo itself, it is fairly bland. It is slightly blurry. It seems to be of a wood duck - a common wood duck. There is a suspicion that the photo was shot somewhere in the New York area, probably Staten Island. We haven’t confirmed that. We contacted Instagram. The photo hasn’t violated any internal rules of the company, and as you know because of the legislation Congress passed and the President signed six months ago, it will be a long laborious process for us to find out from Instagram who owns the account. We are assured it belongs to a real human being. The person who posted it has the handle of @SlevenKayrouz. The first name suggests someone Gaelic, though Kayrouz is also of Middle Eastern descent. . .”
“Middle Eastern?” Erdu said. “That’s racist stereotyping.”
“Sounds like a terrorist to me. Is this is a terrorist?” Dimwitty exclaimed.
Shetler swallowed hard. He looked at the two Congressmen. They said nothing. They were letting their lackeys run interference.
“It is neither racist, nor am I claiming this is a terrorist plot. ‘Kayrouz’ is of Lebanese descent. 'Sleven' is Gaellic and means mountain.”
“I saw a movie Lucky Number Sleven once,” Erdu said.
“Good for you,” Shetler said. “Anyway, It isn’t a bot and whoever posted it has made no attempt to make any money from it. Conjecture over the last few days has the photographer being a second-coming of Jesus, or alternatively the anti-Christ, a charlatan or someone who likes wood ducks.”
He took a breath as it all sank in. “The truth is I’ve seen the photo and it does give one the sense of pure joy or love. At least I can confirm it did for me. As you all know this is slightly unusual because in the month or so the app has been in the general public all, and I emphasize all,other photos have given off a variety of emotions when people view them. Some more intensely than others, but nothing that can be described as “pure.” Most photos give rise to a variety of emotions, even if - well especially if - they are emotionally stirring photos like car wrecks, sports plays, pornos or anything else. What’s different about this photo is that it is really rather bland and that’s why people are so taken aback by the emotion it invokes.”
Shetler looked at his audience. He’d successfully taken some of the starch out of their shorts. As they shifted uncomfortably in their chairs he cleared his throat once more.
“To sum it all up folks. We don’t know who took the photo. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to be up to anything nefarious - as of yet. We’ll keep an eye on it and let you know when we find out any more. The damn thing’s only been out there for a little more than week. I think it’ll peak and be forgotten in a day or two if we let it die.”
Now it was time for Dimwitty to clear her throat. “I hope you know this isn’t good enough. Not nearly enough.”
Shetler shrugged his shoulders.
“I have to agree,” Erdu said. “This thing smells. And if you can’t find out who is behind it and why, then we’re going to find someone who can.”
Again Shetler shrugged and he looked at both the Democrat and the Republican ranking members as he slowly spoke. “I serve at your pleasure. Any time you’re not pleased, then feel free to replace me.”
Without speaking both ranking members rose, then offering a “Thank you,” to Shetler they excused themselves and their staff from his office.
“God I hate politicians,” Shetler said to no one as they left.
The director of the FBI had been on the job for just 13 months. As the first African American female to take the hot seat at the head of the country’s largest and until recently most prestigious law enforcement agency, she had a lot of work to do and she took her job seriously. She was a no-nonsense, blunt spoken pragmatist. She had enraged some, endeared herself to others but was generally respected for putting the FBI back on task. She’d fired some lackeys left over from the previous administration, promoted other - well respected within the community - career agents and had vowed to keep the nation’s top cop on the job of ferreting out federal crimes “Of consequence”. It was her favorite saying.
She did not like what was before her now. The head of the terrorism task force sat in front of her going through read outs and briefing her on the viral activity of a picture of a wood duck.
“We have to take this seriously,” Tom Baker, the head of the terrorism task force said. “In the last 10 days this photo has been used to endorse the KKK, antifa . . .”
“Antifa? What all 20 of them?” the head of the FBI asked.
“Well, okay the far right and the far left . . .”
“How the Hell does the KKK use a picture of a duck to endorse their actions?’
“They say it’s a good old fashioned American Wood Duck and represents basic American freedoms.”
“What the . . .”
“Other supremacists say the joy and love evoked by the picture is joy of service and the love of country. The far left says it says something about climate change and loving the environment. The flat earth society says it represents the joy of knowing the earth is flat.” Baker read without inflection.
“Is this serious?” The FBI director asked.
“Oh, and wood ducks are most prolific in eastern and western North America. It’s breeding habitat is wooded swamps, shallow lakes, marshes or ponds and creeks. They are perching ducks with a wingspan between 26-29 inches long . . .” Baker said flatly.
“Spare me,” The FBI Director said. “Anything else?”
“I think the funniest posts are from the Monty Python fans . . .”
“Never mind. Are we sure it’s a wood duck?” The FBI director paced her office while the head of the terrorism task force sat before her going through his notes.
“It is kind of blurry . . .”
“This shit . . .”
“What do we know about where it was taken, when, all that crap?” She was not happy to be spending time one what she thought was a frivolous affair.
“Well, we ran the profile. We aren't sure about the name, not really. It could just be a nickname or a handle.There are no adult Sleven Kayrouz’s in the United States . . .”
“None? So it’s a foreign post?”
“No. We know that it’s domestic. Both the Congress and the White House have been investigating it and they’re fearful it’s a case of domestic social media tampering, possibly as a prelude to a cyberattack.”
“Somebody wants to make us feel pure love and joy before they hack us? Does that make sense? What do our friends at Langley say?”
“Well, ma’am, they’re kind of closed-mouthed about it.” Baker shifted uneasily in his seat.
“They say it is domestic and there are no ties to any known terrorist organizations . . . but . . .” He paused. The FBI director hated when people paused for dramatic effect.
“But what Baker?”
“But they cannot tell us if it is from an ‘unknown’ terrorist group, or if any group will try to take advantage of it.”
The FBI director sat down at her desk and put her head in her hands for a second before sighing and looking up.
“And what do we know about the software and the photo?”
“Well the photo is genuine. Or it’s a picture of a picture. We’re still tracking that down to be sure. We think it’s a real photo of a real duck. You know it's not a fake duck . . .”
The FBI director shook her head. “I’m having a discussion about a fucking duck.”
“Right,” Baker said. “And the software was in beta testing for a year and a half. It’s software was developed and owned by Instagram and it’s one of the most popular apps on the market - mostly because of this photo.”
“And we’re sure it’s not a marketing ploy?”
“Absolutely. Instagram pulled the photo for a couple of hours before they determined it didn’t violate any of their internal rules and complied with the FCC and other federal regulations. They’ve been fielding equally negative and positive publicity since then. They seem to be in a panic mode. They really weren’t prepared for this.”
“Neither were we. So, who posted it?”
“You know the law. I can’t get a warrant to find out. I’ve got no probable cause.”
Baker swallowed hard. The FBI director looked him steadfastly in the eyes. “Who the fuck posted it?” She asked bluntly.
“You know, we cannot legally know that.” Baker returned the stare. Then without saying a word, he passed her a folded piece of paper. Without saying a word, she unfolded the paper and looked at it for several minutes in silence as she read the two sentences on the piece of paper. Then she looked at Baker with her eyebrows raised. He nodded silently. She shook her head and placed the paper down on her desk.
“Shit,” she said.
“I know.” He replied.
"Is this for real?" She asked.
Baker shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Who knows?"
Margot Kielly packed a lunch for the trip to the park. She fastidiously packed away a baby bottle, for she didn’t like to nurse her newborn in public. She also packed away a blanket and enough chew toys for her seven-month old to stay busy. For her four-year-old son she packed away his favorite baseball glove and ball so he could play with his father in the park. She then gathered the leash so she could bring their beagle puppy to the park with them.
“John, how long do you think we’ll be at the park?” She shouted into the kitchen where her husband was busy making the food for the picnic.
He thought about it for a second. “It’s supposed to rain late this afternoon. . .” He said.
“It never rains in California,” she said evenly.
“Girl don’t they warn you? It pours, man it pours,” He laughed. She returned it with a chuckle.
“No. Seriously,” she said.
“Oh I don’t know. A couple of hours. I have to finish editing that commercial later, but I think I got that much in me.”
“Well, I’m packing his ball glove. You know how much he loves to throw with you.”
“Oh that’s fine,” John said. “I can’t imagine a picnic without tossing a ball with him. Works for me.”
“Oh hey, don’t forget the chips.”
“The kettle or the ridges?”
“Kettle of course,” Margot said.
John packed up the food, smiling. A few minutes later they found themselves at their favorite Woodland Hills retreat. John could never understand why the rest of his family felt so angry about the Valley. Ever since moving from the East Coast, he felt Woodland Hills was the perfect synthesis of West Coast and East Coast lifestyles. He was less than hour away from his office even in notoriously thick L.A. traffic and just a half hour from the beach via Topanga Canyon.
As they spread the blanket in the park and laid out the food, Margot began nursing her young daughter while John and his son tossed the ball around. It was a beautiful April day, and Margot’s favorite way to spend time with her growing family. The sojourns always seem to put John at ease. His high pressure job often made him surly, but she knew his time with his kids gave him respite.
“Hey John,” did you see the news? She said as he tossed the ball to his son.
“No,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ve been buried for the last two days in edits. Haven’t had time to see shit. The world’s not going to Hell again is it?”
“Daddy, grounder.” His son said. John laughed. His son loved to try and field ground balls.
“Okay son. Okay. Hold on.” He slow rolled one and his son fielded it and threw it to his father waiting on an imaginary base.
“Out!” John shouted and his son jumped up and down.
“Again!” The boy said.
“Seriously Johnny, you should look at this,” his wife said as she held up her I-phone.
“Okay. Okay.” He said. To his son, “Wait a second buddy. Mommy wants me to look at something.”
The boy nodded. “Okay daddy.”
John walked over to his wife’s extended arm as she thrust the phone in his face with a smile. He grabbed the phone and read what was on it quietly. Then he looked at his wife laughing.
She smiled. “Yeah. Can you imagine? They think it’s either Jesus come back from the dead or the anti-Christ. Congress and the President have weighed in on it.”
“Man, they’ll make news out of anything these days.” He shook his head. “Hey did you bring me a bottle of coke?”
She reached over to a nearby cooler. “I wouldn’t forget that. Here you go.” She flipped open the cooler and handed John a glass bottle of coca cola.
“Thanks,” he said evenly.
Then he walked over to his son. “Sleven Octavius Kayrouz,” he smiled.
“Dad! More ball?”
“Yes son. More ball. Remember that duck you saw last week.”
“Love ducks daddy!”
“What else do you love?”
“Baseball!” He said with a squeal.
“Want to take a picture of your baseball and glove and show everybody?”
Margot couldn’t stop giggling. “Good lord John, you’re just stirring it up.”
John tilted his head and smiled. “I’m just making my boy happy!”
With that he went back to throwing the ball to his Slevs. He posted the photo of the ball glove and baseball later that afternoon. This time he added “With Love . . .” to the post.