I wrote this article for Prospect Magazine, where it was first published in November 2016 here.
At the end of September, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added Pepe the Frog to its list of hate symbols. The ADL opposes bigotry and the cartoon character has become increasingly associated with the alt-right—an American far-right group with a poisonous and chaotic agenda that promotes white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism and is heavily associated with Donald Trump. Pepe was originally created in 2005 by the illustrator Matt Furie, in his online comic series Boy’s Club. Furie described Pepe as an “everyman frog… he’s just a chill frog and is pretty good natured.” So how did he end up on the Hate on Display symbols database?
Pepe first appeared as a meme around 2008 on the online community 4chan, often taking the form of an image of the frog’s head and the words “feels good, man.” The character slowly grew in popularity on the internet to become the most reblogged meme on Tumblr in 2015. Until recently, Pepe memes were non-bigoted, and simply a comic expression of generic feelings. Last November, the singer Katy Perry tweeted a Pepe image to describe her jetlag, and in January, the rapper Nicki Minaj instagrammed an image of Pepe “twerking.”
But the use of Pepe in popular and celebrity culture resulted in a backlash. The move from internet forums towards the mainstream led hardcore fans on 4chan to lament the loss of their private joke: “WHY DO NORMIES HAVE TO RUIN EVERYTHING?” wrote one. Ironic eBay auctions of “rare Pepes” went online, generating bids of up to $99,000 before being removed. The “real” fans were killing Pepe — if he wasn’t solely theirs, they didn’t want anyone to have him. Much more troubling, however, were the growing number of memes associating Pepe with the alt-right.
In mid-September, amid the increasingly heated presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton stated that half of Donald Trump’s supporters belonged in the “basket of deplorables.” In response, Donald Trump Jr posted on Instagram a Photoshopped poster for the action film The Expendables. It was retitled The Deplorables, with the actors replaced by Trump and his supporters—and Pepe. This was the peak in a wave of hateful Pepe memes that were spreading over the darker fringes of the internet: Pepe as Hitler, Pepe as a SS serviceman, Pepe as Trump, a smirking Pepe wearing a Muslim skull cap as the Twin Towers fall behind him—the list goes on.
For those still unfamiliar with the meme, Clinton’s website posted an explainer, claiming “that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realise.” This caused a turning point for Pepe, as a flurry of articles in the mainstream media repeatedly labelled the character as a white supremacist meme. As an anonymous white nationalist, @JaredTSmith, told The Daily Beast earlier this year, there was “an actual campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies… We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association.”
Their work paid off when the ADL added Pepe to its list of hate symbols. The organisation recognises that not all images of the character are hateful, saying “because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist.” But surely this qualification removes any meaning—if context is what counts, what value does the list hold? Any image or symbol could be seen as racist or offensive, when used or adapted in such a way.
Images like this are constantly being re-appropriated online by different causes and it is futile to try to prevent this. In a September interview with The Atlantic, Furie was asked about the Nazi association: “I think that it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase, obviously that political agenda is exactly the opposite of my own personal feelings, but in terms of meme culture, it’s people re-appropriating things for their own agenda… This isn’t the first time that Pepe has been used in a negative, weird context. I think it’s just a reflection of the world at large.”
But that was before the ADL put Pepe on its list. In mid-October, Furie joined forces with the organisation for the #SavePepe campaign. “As the creator of Pepe, I condemn the illegal and repulsive appropriations of the character by racist and fringe groups,” said Furie. “The true nature of Pepe…celebrates peace, togetherness and fun. I aim to reclaim the rascally frog from the forces of hate and ask that you join me in making millions of new, joyful Pepe memes.”
Adding Pepe to the ADL list of hate symbols only gave the alt-right the reaction it wanted. There would be no need for the #SavePepe campaign if the frog had not been granted to them in the first place. Far more worrying than the re-appropriation of a symbol on the internet, is the powerful effect that a minority of extremists can have on the mainstream politics of the US today, and a political system that engages seriously with hysterical meme culture.