John McAfee’s death is already a meme

John McAfee lived as he died—an internet meme.
John McAfee lived as he died—an internet meme.
Image: Reuters
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The death of John McAfee, a complicated figure, looms large for a certain subset of people on the internet, especially after his apparent suicide on Wednesday, July 23. McAfee died by hanging in a prison cell near Barcelona, hours after a Spanish court approved his extradition to the US on tax evasion charges.

The software engineer and founder of an eponymous anti-virus company had warned the internet years ago that he would never “suicide [himself].” If he did, he said in a tweet, he was really “whackd.” There was no evidence of foul play when he was found in his cell. But it only took hours for the internet to turn McAfee’s death into a series of memes.

A software tycoon with legal troubles

McAfee, an engineer in Silicon Valley, sold his stake in his popular anti-virus software company for $100 million in 1994. From that point, however, his life quickly descended into a dark one-man tragedy rife with conspiracy theories, nonsensical tweets, and dire warnings of things to come. He was an ultrarich tech magnate, a two-time US presidential candidate, and a cryptocurrency peddler.

But McAfee was a frequent target for law enforcement around the world. He faced drug and firearm offenses, faced SEC charges for a pump and dump scheme, and was suspected in the murder of his neighbor in Belize, a fiasco that became the subject of a 2016 Showtime documentary. From a hospital in North Carolina in 2018, he tweeted a cryptic tale of enemies poisoning him with no backstory about how or why this happened. But even when he flipped off the camera and his wife stuck out her tongue, it was unclear whether he was in serious danger or tilting at windmills.

A warning on Twitter

In recent years, McAfee had publicly stated he would not hang himself, yet his motives appear as likely to have been commercial and conspiratorial, as any genuine expression of intent. In 2019, he tweeted that if he was found dead of suicide, it should not be believed: “I was whackd,” he stated in a photo with a fresh tattoo spelling out $WHACKD on his right arm. But this was also a marketing stunt for a new cryptocurrency he was planning to sell.

After he was arrested in Spain in October 2020, the eccentric McAfee repeated his warning:

Referencing Jeffrey Epstein in his tweet, McAfee appears to have set himself up for internet immortality. The phrase Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself became an unstoppable meme after billionaire financier and pedophile sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was found dead hanging in his prison cell in 2019. An autopsy showed no evidence of foul play.

Not only was McAfee a fan of the meme conspiracy theory, but he was also a common purveyor of it. “I was stunned by Epstein’s suicide, though probably not as much as Epstein himself,” he tweeted in 2019. Later, he pushed back on a New York Post article that said McAfee thought Epstein was murdered by claiming it was possible Epstein was still alive.

After Spanish media reported McAfee’s death on Wednesday, a torrent of conspiratorial tweets followed. On the internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme, the website made McAfee’s death an entry almost immediately after it was reported. It called McAfee a “meme legend.” Thousands of users promoted the theory that McAfee’s suicide was staged. And one Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted this poll to his nearly 7 million followers:

McAfee’s death was complicated by an internet presence so bizarre, so full of suggestions and marketing ploys and gimmicks, that it’s unclear exactly where the meme of his life ends and the meme of his death begins.