Last week protesters in Bangladesh waved signs supporting Osama bin Laden, some bearing collages of photographs. In one of the pictures, bin Laden is seen standing next to the Sesame Street muppet Bert.
There was no mistake; the muppet is clearly visible in photos from both the Associated Press and Reuters.
Bert's journey to the Bangladesh protest sign began in 1997 with an unsuspecting young Web developer named Dino Ignacio. He was simply a fan of the funny Web sites that appeared in the "Weird Wide Web" section of Internet Underground magazine (which stopped publishing later that year). Innocently enough, Ignacio had an idea for a funny site of his own. "I collected pictures of Bert from the 'Net and my niece's books and manipulated them and ended up with something that made my friends laugh," he says in an online biography.
His site purported to expose the black-haired muppet's unsavory past, Photoshopping the innocent muppet into pictures with notorious figures of the 20th century. (Bert with Hitler, Bert at Dealy Plaza, even one depicting Bert as Ted Kaczynski.) "I figured it just might make other people laugh," Ignacio wrote. He realized his goal of being mentioned in Internet Underground before its demise in 1997 -- and the "Bert is Evil" page eventually won a "Webby" award.
At least 20 other Web sites began mirroring Ignacio's efforts to keep the parody online -- which is how Bert ended up standing next to Osama bin Laden. A duplicate site run by Dennis Pozniak created additional images of the muppet. They depicted Bert outside the bombed U.S. embassy in Tanzania, next to the Jon Benet Ramsey family, and, yes, next to Osama bin Laden. ("U.S officials have not been able to talk to Bert about this possible connection 'cause of his Muppet immunity," the Webmaster quipped.)
The photo -- credited to Jeroen Meeuwissen -- was created well in advance of the World Trade Center attacks and it went largely unnoticed. A single newsgroup post in 1999 argued the photo proved Osama bin Laden was actually a Puerto Rican actor, whom he claimed he remembered seeing in a PBS special titled The Sesame Street Caper -- Ernie's Missing.
Two years later, the strange twist occurred. AP photos of protests in Bangladesh taken on two different days last week clearly capture the Bert-with-Osama image. San Francisco graphic designer Matthew Alexander theorizes that the propagandists found the picture through an Internet search. (Users searching for "Osama bin Laden" with the image search engine at Google.com discover it's the twelfth picture on the page.) "I mean, seriously, how much PBS do people get to watch in Kabul?" the designer jokes.
His explanation is echoed by others online. "[T]hese protesters obviously made their bin Laden sign from a bunch of pictures printed off the Web," theorized another Webmaster. "It's a clever idea, except for the fact that they used a parody [picture] with Sesame Street's Bert still in it. Duh."
It came as quite a shock to the author of the first Bert parody page. He has now added a copy of the image from the later pages to his site and posted his response: "I just wanted to say I had nothing to do with this! I am honestly freaked out," he wrote. "Reality is imitating the Web!" He asked his readers to send him a copy of the poster if they found one -- and added the words "Muppets at War" to the image. On the mirror site where the image first appeared, the Webmaster went even further. He replaced the picture with an announcement saying it was being removed "Out of respect for those who died on 9/11/2001 at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." It then includes a link for online contributions to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
But mostly the incident has prompted laughter. "Ernie's finally driven him over the edge," one observer joked in the alt.conspiracy newsgroup. "I knew this day would come." And on an online discussion site users pondered the irony of the photo. "After all they've done to eradicate the West from their country," one joked, "Bert manages to sneak onto thousands of posters!" Another pointed out a New York Post story reporting that in a videotape released this week, bin Laden appeared to be wearing a Timex wristwatch.
David Cassel is a free lance writer living in Oakland, California. He is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.This article first appeared on AlterNet.