The ‘George Floyd Challenge’: How a Handful of Racist Idiots Went Viral

Tarpley Hitt
Change.org

Wednesday morning, a Change.org petition circled the internet calling to “Have TikTok remove any content involving the ‘George Floyd challenge!!’” The page featured a disturbing layout collage, cropped to reveal only the bottom two photos. In each, two white guys mugged for the camera, as one knelt on the other’s neck—both mocking the murder of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis cop knelt on his windpipe for eight minutes and 46 seconds. By that evening, the petition passed its goal of 5,000 signatures. The new goal is now 7,500.

“There is a challenge currently ‘popular’ on the app TikTok,” the petition claimed. “It’s called the ‘George Floyd challenge’. It shows teens (white teens) kneeling on the neck of another teen and with a big smile on their face. This is a racist, inhumane challenge and needs to be deleted from TikTok IMMEDIATELY!!!”

In the past few days, several images of the “George Floyd Challenge” made their way across Twitter and Facebook, prompting callouts from the musician Ciara, among others, and articles from dozens of media outlets. “Social media cracks down on sick challenge mocking George Floyd’s death,” a New York Post headline read. “George Floyd Challenge on social media called ‘hateful,’ disgusting,” read another on Channel 2 KUTV from Salt Lake City. “Don’t Participate in the George Floyd Challenge,” said a third on Distractify. 

But what the petition and several articles overlooked is that there is not a George Floyd Challenge on TikTok. There is a hashtag #georgefloydchallenge, which has been viewed a collective 36.6K times. But it has been used on just 28 videos, all of which openly supported the past week’s protests, while condemning the challenge itself. 

There is not much of a #georgefloydchallenge on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or Twitter either. The hashtag has never been used on Instagram, though a close approximate, “#georgefloydchallenger,” was used twice (both posts are currently hidden because “the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram's community guidelines”). 

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There are two existing tags condemning the challenge: “#georgefloydchallengeisdisgusting” appeared once; “#georgefloydchallengeendsnow” showed up eight times. 

Searches for the challenge on Facebook mostly yielded outrage over the incidents, alongside a few panicked statements from men named “Adam Wilkinson,” the same name as a guy in the photos. Reddit forums have shared the challenge to denounce it. Even on Twitter, it’s hard to find a mention of the hashtag not written in anger, though there is at least one. A recent Truth or Fiction analysis, which found that searches for the phrase began in late May and spiked in the last few days, drew similar conclusions. “There was no other indication on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram,” they wrote, “that any such challenge existed, was common, or existed anywhere outside a possibly misidentified image.” 

The one platform where the challenge did find support was, to absolutely no one’s surprise, 4chan’s /pol/ message board. One user asked, “How do we make the George Floyd Challenge go even more viral? Ridicule and zoomers are our very best weapons against this global madness of mass virtue signalling.” When Know Your Meme added an entry on the trend Wednesday evening, a moderator noted, “While many expressed outrage at the challenge, it is unclear if it was truly widespread or an effort to create liberal outrage started by anonymous users on 4chan’s /pol/ board.”

But the so-called trend did not emerge from thin air. The cropped illustration in the Change.org petition, among the most widely-shared graphics of the challenge, features photos of four Challenge attempts. There are at least four more documented instances, including three photos and a grotesque video. An eighth picture, featuring two white teens laughing in a bunk bed, is also frequently found in posts about the challenge. The latter image is wildly racist (the caption reads: “if we kept them as slaves this would of never happened [sic]”), but does not mention or depict the “George Floyd challenge.” 

If eight images makes for a viral challenge, the meme’s origins date back at least to May 27th, when a Washington wrestling coach named Dave Hollenbeck posted an image imitating Floyd’s death on Facebook. The image shows Hollenbeck facedown, with a knee in his back, which he claimed was intended as a “defense” of police officers. He was fired from the Bethel School District the next day. The coach did not call his stunt the “George Floyd challenge,” or connect it to any broader trend. 

The following day, two construction workers from East Bethel, Minnesota, texted a photo in the same pose, along with the message, “Ivan said he can fully breathe with all my weight on his neck,” according to screenshots. When the photo later leaked and the men were identified, both were fired from their jobs at Shade Tree Construction. The business’ owner announced their terminations in a post to Facebook, acknowledging that one of the two involved was his son. The workers did not identify their photo as part of a challenge. According to Know Your Meme, however, a user shared the photo to /pol/ on a since-archived thread, with the caption “Do the Floyd Challenge.”

On May 29, two more photos emerged, both taken on Snapchat. One of them, variously identified as from the Chardon, Ohio, or Chicago areas, featured the caption, “George Floyd Challenge.” The other, taken by three U.K. teenagers, read “police brutality.” The latter photo caught the attention of local police in Northumbria, U.K., who arrested the three teens—two aged 19, the other age 18—on Sunday, calling the photo a “hate crime.” 

“We can confirm we are investigating after an image was shared on social media which showed two men imitating the recent death of US citizen George Floyd,” an officer told the Daily Mail. “They have since been released on bail. We understand that this social media post has caused significant upset and we want to reassure the public it is being investigated robustly and is being treated as a hate crime.” Northumbria police did not respond to requests for further comment. 

The U.K. arrest spurred its own media coverage, which, in turn, amplified the challenge’s visibility. When the Daily Mail covered the arrest, classmates of the students submitted a photo and video of two similar stunts. On May 31, Twitter user @GloriaRabson re-shared the U.K. image, alongside the unrelated bunk bed photo, and another “Challenge” picture, to call attention to the “trend.” Users identified several of the subjects in the replies, but none responded to requests for comment (this piece may be updated to reflect their responses).

Like the Momo Challenge, a famously overblown meme that spurred panic among parents, the “George Floyd Challenge” garnered far more attention from the outcry than anything put out in its name. But unlike Momo, a wholesale fabrication, the George Floyd Challenge has roots, not only in a handful of real events, but in the same kind of ugliness that these protests are pushing against. That’s why it’s easy to believe. 

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