“Bet you didn’t have (insert crazy thing here) on your 2020 bingo card.”
The social media joke quickly became a cliché in 2020 after a global pandemic transformed everyday life into something resembling a dystopian movie. People were forced to grapple with little changes and major losses in their lives, even as headlines blared new and scary details about the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s no wonder that each bizarre development triggered the same response: What now? What next?
Read more: Remembering the celebrities we lost in 2020
Murder hornets? That sounds scary. Monkeys stealing vials of coronavirus-infected blood? Sure, we’re basically living the opening moments of Planet of the Apes anyway. The U.S. government confirms leaked video of UFOs? Get in line, because we have bigger problems right now.
Here are the stories that captured people’s imaginations this year — for better or worse — in the middle of the pandemic.
Here’s what the winning bingo card looked like in 2020.
FREE SPACE: Donald Trump
Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump remained a constant source of viral news and controversy in 2020. He survived impeachment in January, then spent much of the year downplaying the effects of COVID-19 and promising it would disappear. He also tried guessing cures to the virus, including sunlight and bleach, at a widely mocked press conference early in the year.
He flirted with the QAnon conspiracy on multiple occasions during the election campaign and was reluctant to condemn a fantastical theory that believes he is a warrior for God against a cabal of cannibalistic, deep-state pedophiles. (All evidence suggests he’s not.)
Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden in early November and spent the rest of the year denying reality while pushing a wide range of baseless conspiracy theories. One such theory blamed his loss, in part, on the ghost of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader who died years before Trump first sought the presidency.
Trump’s lawyers also became a source of viral news as they fought to overturn his free and fair election loss in court. Led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s team racked up dozens of losses and embarrassing headlines while failing to prove systemic voter fraud.
Giuliani held a press conference at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot in Philadelphia. He sweated through his hair dye at another briefing in front of reporters. Then he brought a discredited witness before lawmakers in Michigan, where he allowed her to argue with Republican officials at length.
Meanwhile, Trump fought the results with a flurry of false claims on Twitter, prompting the social media company to start fact-checking his remarks.
“I won the Election!” the losing candidate tweeted on Nov. 16.
“Election officials have certified Joe Biden as the winner of the U.S. Presidential election,” Twitter wrote in a disclaimer on the tweet, which it has used dozens of times in recent weeks.
Trump’s presidency will end on Jan. 20, 2021.
A multitude of metal monoliths
The monolith trend started by accident and quickly swept around the world, inspiring a wave of guerrilla sculptures from Romania to Manitoba.
The trend emerged out of Utah in November, when state biologists spotted a strange metal object from their helicopter over the desert. They took photos with the object and announced it to the public, though they tried to keep its location secret so people wouldn’t try to find it.
The internet found it in a matter of days, and soon the Utah monument became the hottest photo op on the internet. Online sleuths figured out that the object had been in place for years, stoking the mystery and fuelling speculation that it was linked to aliens.
But the conspiracy theories quickly fell apart. Copycats started erecting their own monuments in secret at various sites around the world, with each new object looking like a shoddy copy of the last. A monolith in Romania was covered in squiggles and crudely welded together. Another in the U.K. could hardly stay upright after someone hastily put it up on a sandy beach overnight. A monolith put up in California lasted for approximately one day before pranksters tore it down under the cover of darkness, shouting anti-alien sentiments as they did so.
The Utah monolith was eventually torn down at the peak of its popularity after drawing hordes of messy humans into the unspoiled wilderness. An artist collective claimed responsibility for the initial stunt, but not for the copycats that followed.
Speak ‘moistly’ and wear a new beard
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provided a rare moment of levity in the early days of the pandemic when he flubbed through a bit of advice on wearing masks in public.
“(A mask) protects others more than it protects you,” Trudeau said during a news conference in April, before slowing down to search for the right words.
“It prevents you from breathing or speaking moistly on them,” Trudeau said, followed by near-instant regret.
“What a terrible image,” he immediately muttered after the misstep, shaking his head before plunging forward. “But it actually is something that people can do in certain situations.”
The moment was widely mocked on social media after it occurred.
Trudeau also caused a viral stir in the early days of the year when he came back from his end-of-year holiday with a new salt-and-pepper beard. Fans and critics were quick to react to the new look, which Trudeau has maintained throughout the trials and COVID-related tribulations of 2020.
The New York Times injected a new nickname into the public’s vocabulary in May when it published a story about an invasive species that one expert nicknamed the “murder hornet.”
The fearsome moniker was well-chosen, as the invasive Asian giant hornet poses a huge threat to honeybees in North America. A dozen of the battery-sized hornets can wipe out a bee colony in an afternoon, slaughtering and beheading bees by the thousands before pillaging the nest for their young.
The hornets are native to east Asia but they were first detected on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada last year and appear to be gaining a foothold in North America.
Washington state wildlife officials found and destroyed the first known nest in the U.S. this fall. They brought the remains of the nest back to their lab for study, in hopes of learning how fast the hornets are reproducing.
‘Try glory holes’
The coronavirus upset many aspects of everyday life, including romance. That forced regional public health officials to think long and hard before offering firm guidance to people about sex — and some of that guidance proved to be a bit unusual.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) thrust itself into the international spotlight in July when it explicitly recommended the use of “glory holes” for maintaining social distance while engaging in sexual intimacy. Other public health agencies in the U.S. had hinted at the idea in their own guidance, but the BC CDC was the first to come out and explain it.
“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact,” the health organization writes on its website.
(A glory hole is a hole cut into a wall that’s large enough for a penis to slip through.)
The BC CDC’s tip exploded on the internet, generating conversation across social media and — perhaps — some real-life attempts to put their advice into practice.
A loon and a bald eagle — birds featured on the $1 currency in Canada and the U.S., respectively — fought to the death in Maine, wildlife officials revealed in May.
And the loon won.
Officials say the loon killed the eagle with a vicious peck in an incident that shocked the internet at the time. (There is no video of the altercation.)
Amy Cooper, race and entitlement
Privilege and thinly veiled racism came under intense scrutiny in 2020 amid a broader reckoning for anti-Black racism following the death of George Floyd.
Protests erupted across the United States and around the world over the summer, as people denounced police brutality and the racism built into many systems of power. The protesters had many goals, but one of their aims was to challenge a legal system in which some people get the benefit of the doubt — while others do not.
That dynamic was at the heart of several controversial videos this year in which white people could be seen threatening to call police on Black people and people of colour for trivial reasons.
Perhaps the most famous case was that of Christian Cooper, the Black birdwatcher who asked a white woman, Amy Cooper, to leash her dog in Manhattan’s Central Park. Christian recorded his entire encounter with Amy, including the moment when she called police and falsely claimed that an “African American man” was threatening her life.
The video shows that Christian Cooper did not threaten her.
Amy Cooper lost her job and was widely ridiculed on social media, but Christian declined to press charges for her false report.
The encounter was one of several that captured viral attention this year. In another case, a cosmetics CEO challenged a Filipino man for writing “Black Lives Matter” on his own wall in San Francisco. A wealthy St. Louis couple also divided the internet by brandishing guns outside their home while BLM protesters walked past them over the summer.
The long stringy stingy thingy
The ocean is full of mysteries, and researchers found a new one this year: an extremely long, jellyfish-like organism composed of thousands of tiny creatures working together.
Researchers at the Schmidt Ocean Institute discovered the so-called “entity,” known as a siphonophore Apolemia, swirling about 630 metres below the surface of the Indian Ocean. Its exact length was unknown, but they said it was likely the longest of its kind ever found.
The entity is actually a massive ribbon of tiny ocean-dwelling organisms called zooids, which latch onto one another and clone themselves so they can act like one big, cohesive creature. The zooids become dedicated organs for the larger colony and spend their whole lives fulfilling a single function such as stinging prey, digesting food, moving around or reproducing.
“The whole thing looks like one animal, but it’s many thousands of individuals which form an entity on a higher level,” biologist Stefan Siebert of Brown University told Wired in 2014, while explaining a smaller specimen.
Researchers were stunned by the deep-sea alien’s discovery in April.
Æ Musk by any other name
The moniker looks like a very safe internet password, but it actually proved to be more akin to a custom licence plate, with the various characters referring to notions that Musk and Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Elise Boucher) hold dear.
Social media users ridiculed the name choice, despite the couple’s enthusiasm for it.
Musk and Grimes were forced to tweak the name under California’s birth certificate requirements later in the month. The child was eventually renamed X Æ A-Xii Musk.
‘No Canadian’ wants a part of Trump’s COVID-19 response
Some Canadians laughed at Trump in March after he ordered troops to guard the closed border between the U.S. and Canada.
Many suggested on Twitter that they felt safer in Canada with its universal health care, and that #NoCanadian (or at least, very few) would risk an illegal crossing to ride out the pandemic in the U.S.
That viral reaction emerged in the early days of the pandemic, before the U.S. became the world leader in deaths due to the virus. More than 338,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 to date.
The Canada-U.S. border has been closed since March.
Monkeys snatch virus-infected blood
Is there anything more apocalyptic-sounding than a monkey raid on a blood lab?
India saw such an incident play out in late spring, when several wild monkeys snatched blood samples from a medical college in Meerut.
The monkeys reportedly attacked a lab technician and fled with the samples in an incident that sparked a flurry of social media jokes. Some compared the incident to Planet of the Apes, while others suggested it was the opening to films like Contagion or 28 Days Later.
The reaction proved to be overblown, as monkeys have not been directly impacted by the virus in a significant way — though lockdowns did trigger a monkey “war” in Thailand in the early days of the pandemic.
The Beirut bride’s explosion video
A warehouse blew up in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, wiping out a large portion of the city’s docks and causing major damage.
Millions of internet users tuned in to watch one bride’s experience of that moment, as the blast swept over her during a photoshoot a short distance from the docks.
The video showed Israa Seblani posing blissfully for images in a ritzy square, then running for cover as the blast swept through and devastated the whole area.
“What happened during the explosion here, there is no words to explain,” she said afterward. “I was shocked. I was wondering what happened? Am I going to die? How am I going to die?”
Seblani was not injured in the blast, but more than 178 people were killed in the explosion and another 6,500 were injured, according to the World Health Organization.
Zombie Angelina Jolie
A teenager was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran this year for a few creepy photos she posted on Instagram in 2017. The photos showed the woman, Sahar Tabar, as a zombified version of Angelina Jolie.
Tabar said she achieved the “Corpse Bride” look through makeup and photo editing.
The images earned her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, but they also upset authorities in Iran, where she was eventually charged under public decency and blasphemy laws.
Tabar ultimately “confessed” on state-controlled TV in December, earning herself bail while she appealed her 10-year sentence.
Nature is healing!
The phrase “Nature is healing” quickly became a cliché in the early days of the pandemic. Human activity slowed down to unprecedented levels during the first wave of lockdowns, triggering all sorts of real and imagined consequences in the natural world.
There were reports of nature “healing” in various places — many of these stories, like dolphins “returning” to the canals of Venice, were false — but perhaps the silliest incident happened in the town of Llandudno, Wales.
The community was overrun by Kashmiri mountain goats in late March, while most of its occupants hid indoors due to the pandemic. The goats feasted on shrubbery, cavorted on top of cars and effectively took over the town in the absence of humans.
They also posed for some great photos.
The truth is out there — on video
The U.S. government declassified three UFO videos in April, confirming that footage first leaked by Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge in 2017 is real.
That bizarre development broke in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, and it still wasn’t the strangest thing happening in the world at the time. Nevertheless, it captured some people’s imaginations and reignited speculation about alien visitors to Earth.
The U.S. navy officially declassified the footage “to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos,” a Pentagon spokesperson said at the time.
The navy described the objects in the videos as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), which is basically another way to say “unidentified flying objects.” The origin and true nature of the objects remains unknown.
It wasn’t the only bit of UFO-related news. A former Israeli security chief stoked speculation about extraterrestrials in December, when he claimed that aliens were real and that they’ve had contact with top world leaders — but they don’t want us in their “Galactic Federation.”
He did not offer evidence to support his extraordinary claims, but we can think of at least 15 reasons why a Galactic Federation would want nothing to do with the planet Earth in 2020.
Just look at our bingo card.