A brief history of the Internet being suspicious of Ted Cruz’s identity

Alyssa Bereznak
·National Correspondent, Technology
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Is that you, Ted? (Screen shot via Reddit)

Earlier this week, Reddit user missvh dropped a screen grab from “Maury” into an /r/pics thread with the simple caption, “A female guest on Maury that looks just like Ted Cruz.” The woman in the photo — who appeared on an episode titled “5 Men Tested … Will I Find My Daughter’s Father Today?” — did bear an uncanny resemblance to the Texas senator. For most people, the discovery would seem nothing more than a random, mildly entertaining coincidence. But to many users on the thread, it represented so much more than that.

“That’s actually the Zodiac Killer dressed in drag,” user RandyIsMartian wrote in a heavily upvoted reply. A third user, MarryMeFrisbee, shot back, “…aka it’s just Ted Cruz?”

Like most unsettling doppelgangers that emerge online, the observation went viral, inspiring numerous blog posts and sarcastic jokes on social media. Even “Maury” got in on the fun, posting the photo to Twitter with the caption, “Ted Cruz in drag on Maury? The Lie Detector Test determined-that was a LIE! Ted’s NOT that SEXY!”

The look-alike incident was just the latest entry in a three-year-old conspiracy theory that mockingly questions whether the Republican presidential candidate is really who he claims to be — or whether he is actually the infamous 1960s serial murderer from northern California known as the Zodiac Killer.

The hypothesis first originated out of nowhere in early 2013, when a Twitter account with the handle @RedPillAmerica posted a nonsensical joke that Cruz’s upcoming speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that year would be titled “This Is the Zodiac Speaking.” It took more than a year for the joke to resurface on the social media platform in a completely unrelated context. “Ted Cruz’s Chilling Deathbed Confession: ‘I am the Zodiac Killer,’” user @Flash2844 tweeted, ending the post with the hashtag #TedCruzIsTheZodiacKiller.

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Screen shot via Know Your Meme.

By the fall of 2015, the joke had picked up steam on Twitter, earning popularity from well-followed accounts like @vrunt and @lindzeta, who say that the sheer absurdity of the conspiracy theory encouraged them to publicize it further.

“It was hilarious to me when it first came on my radar,” @lindzeta told Yahoo News in a direct message. “While it’s logically impossible, there’s definitely a part of it that seems like it could be true. It’s so outlandish, but Cruz seems to have this evil lunatic hiding underneath his whole public demeanor. It had just the right balance of possibility and impossibility.”

In other words, it was perfect for the Internet, where preposterous ideas are often rewarded for the sake of being preposterous. (See: Boaty McBoatface.)

“It’s simply funny to act as if this is some open secret about him,” @vrunt told Yahoo News in a direct message. “It’s this shared obvious lie and the only ticket to entry is to play along.”

Jonathan Novak, a 22-year-old history undergraduate at Arizona State University, was one such willing participant. After seeing the joke on Twitter, he was inspired to start a Facebook group titled “Ted Cruz Is the Zodiac Killer” in December 2015.

“I thought it would be a good idea to start one in order to mobilize the masses and help expose a brutal murderer attempting to gain a stranglehold on what is left of American democracy,” Novak told Yahoo News with what sounded like a straight face. “Since then, the reaction has been about 80/20 split, with the majority of responses being millennials who love the joke and share it with their friends, and a small, vocal minority of older conservatives who don’t get it and like to point out that Cruz was not yet born when the murders occurred.”

Through the page, Novak met Bo Quintana, a 16-year-old high school student from Milton, Ga., who also felt passionately about perpetuating the “theory.” The two promoted the page together as the joke simultaneously gained steam on Twitter. On Jan. 20, #zodiacted trended on the platform in the U.S. And by February, the meme had been picked up by publications like Esquire and the Daily Dot. That same month, Public Policy Polling released a national survey that showed nearly 40 percent of Florida voters thought Cruz might be the Zodiac Killer.

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A fan submission to the “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” Facebook page. (Photo via Facebook)

With that uptick of attention, Novak and Quintana began receiving a healthy stream of Photoshopped images and homemade materials from fans of the group. Some came in the form of elaborate cakes decorated with “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” in frosting. One college student used the premise for an art project, for which he made an elaborately produced five-minute whiteboard video that connects Cruz’s odd behavior to that of the Zodiac Killer. A few high schoolers have even used the joke in signs to ask their dates to prom. “Toby, it’d be KILLER if you’d CRUZ to PROM with me,” read one poster board adorned with cryptographic symbols and the candidate’s face. Just this week, the group surpassed 26,000 likes on Facebook.

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A Ted Cruz as Zodiac Killer prom-posal. (Photo via Facebook)

“The most intense submission was probably this incredible edit of the David Fincher movie ‘Zodiac’ with Ted Cruz’s ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ anti-Obamacare filibuster speech imposed on it,” Novak said.

He and Quintana have taken to selling their own “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” stickers and T-shirts, but they say they won’t quit until one of two things happen.

“The first one is that he would address it and deny that he was the Zodiac Killer, because there’s nothing more ridiculous to me than a legitimate presidential candidate that people vote for denying that he was a person he could never be in the first place,” Quintana said. “Our second goal was to be bought out by BuzzFeed for like two grand or something. But that didn’t happen. So we’re going with our guns and keeping with it.”

(The two are at least gratified to know that Google appears to have altered the autocomplete when searching the phrase “Is Ted Cruz…,” meaning the senator’s campaign is attempting to combat the meme.)

Since the meme has gained traction, it has also splintered into bit of a doppelganger-hunting sport. In early March, a Facebook post by Michael Boulerice pointed out that Cruz bore an uncanny resemblance to the lead singer of a Christian heavy metal band named Stryper. It spread quickly online, earning more than 55,000 shares and 3,800 comments. That opened the floodgates for other comparisons, which include (but are not limited to) Grandpa Munster, Kevin Malone from “The Office,” Duke University basketball player Grayson Allen, Mrs. Doubtfire and — most recently — the woman on “Maury.”

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Photo via Facebook

But the meme’s original purveyors aren’t buying it.

“All of those are false, and they simply distract us from the truth,” Novak said. “The only other identity Ted Cruz plausibly has held besides being the infamous Zodiac Killer, terrorizer of San Francisco, is the lead singer of the Christian metal band Stryper. The only thing nearly as sinister as perpetrating such monstrosities as the Zodiac killings is the infliction of auditory torture via skintight yellow-and-black onesies and awful Christian hair metal staples like ‘To Hell With the Devil.’”