The Pence Fly and red-eye: how unlikely appearances stole the vice presidential debate

Social media stir after fly lands on vice president’s head

A fly rests on the head of US Vice President Mike Pence as he takes notes during the vice presidential debate against US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harris in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.  / AFP / Eric BARADAT
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A rogue fly at the US vice presidential debate on Wednesday was at the centre of attention, stealing the spotlight from the candidates and igniting social media in commentary and memes.

As Vice President Mike Pence stared into the camera and spoke directly to police officers, attempting to make an impassioned address to law enforcement, a fly appeared on his head, diverting attention. The small black insect was starkly visible against Mr Pence’s grey hair.

The fly moved about Mr Pence’s head, seemingly unnoticed, for an elongated two minutes and three seconds.

There were several Twitter accounts mimicking the fly that appeared within minutes of its national television debut. One account racked up more than 6,000 followers in less than an hour.

In a vice presidential debate notably tamer and more civil than last week's presidential debate, the fly quickly captured the attention of online users as a standout moment.

Watchers pointed out that the insect's ability to dominate the conversation showed how little the substance of the conversation will likely swing voters.

A number of viral tweets quickly circulated on social media on Wednesday night, poking fun at the incident.

A fly interrupts the VP debate

A fly interrupts the VP debate
A fly interrupts the VP debate

Joe Biden seized the online opportunity by tweeting a photo of himself holding a fly swatter.

Later, his campaign began selling a fly swatter as part of their fundraising merchandise. The item, which had "Truth Over Flies" written on it, sold out. Mr Biden also promoted the website, which redirects to a Democratic-linked website that helps register voters.

Comparisons were quickly drawn to a similar incident from 2009, in which a fly buzzed about during an interview President Barack Obama gave to MSNBC. Mr Obama paused the interview to kill the fly, drawing the admiration of many at the time.

“That’s some pretty impressive hand-eye co-ordination right there,” talk show host Jimmy Fallon said at the time. “Makes Obama look like a bad ass.”

In an election characterised by crises, from the global pandemic to the faltering economy, online users were quick to embrace the moment of levity.

Despite a night of policy discussions, Google searches for "fly at presidential debate" and "presidential debate fly" were trending. So too was the simple question: "What is on Pence’s head?"

On Twitter, "flies", "the fly", and #Fly2020 were all trending, with nearly half a million tweets posted at the time of publication.

But there were also other questions being raised by viewers.

The top Google search term for the Republican nominee by the end of the debate was "What is wrong with Pence’s eye?"

There has been no comment from the vice president or his team but eagle-eyed viewers pointed out his right eye appeared bloodshot. There is no evidence that it is a symptom of Covid-19 as some users claimed and both candidates tested negative before the meeting.

Searches related to his rival, however, were more policy-focused or personal.

"Is Kamala Harris against fracking," led the field (she has called for a ban but says it's not Mr Biden's policy), followed by questions about her net worth (by some estimates as much as $6m), her religion (Christian) and where her mother is from (Shyamala Gopalan Harris was born in Chennai in modern-day India).

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