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Oh Pepe, No!
Pepe the Frog — a multivalent green cartoon used in Internet culture as a vehicle for a wide range of emotions and ideas — has over recent months become particularly associated with racism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right.
And on Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its “Hate on Display” database of symbols used to spread hateful messages.
The anthropomorphic frog, which is based on a 2004 comic by Matt Furie, is frequently shown as smug, sad, angry or rather gross. Like most memes, he’s frequently used in variations and remixes. Know Your Meme, a guide to image macros like Pepe, has collected some examples and a short historical summary.
By late 2014, the meme had spread from a handful of Internet communities into mainstream culture, much to the displeasure of groups that were originally using the image. Later, observers began noticing an increase in white supremacist themes in Pepe images — or a rise in Pepe usage by white supremacist accounts. Either way, an association was building.
This May, an “anonymous white nationalist” told The Daily Beast that the shift was intentional: a dedicated campaign to “reclaim Pepe from normies,” or members of the mainstream, by making Pepe so culturally unacceptable that only the fringe Internet would dare to use him.
Donald Trump had earlier tweeted an image of Pepe-as-Trump, and then his son posted an image on Instagram that included Pepe. This month Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a widely mocked “explainer” that featured both those posts and called Pepe the Frog “a symbol associated with white supremacy.” Now, the ADL has stepped up to label the frog a hate symbol.
ADL’s inclusion of Pepe in its database does not, as some online have suggested, mean that using Pepe memes is a hate crime. It’s a designation that carries no legal weight, and the ADL is quick to note that the mere use of Pepe the Frog doesn’t, by itself, indicate extremism or hatred.
Furie, the artist who drew the original frog, told The Atlantic he thinks the association with far-right ideology is “just a phase.”
“In terms of meme culture, it’s people reappropriating things for their own agenda. That’s just a product of the internet,” he said.
With that, let’s pause here to note a few things.
First, if the entire concept of the Pepe the Frog meme makes no sense to you, don’t try too hard to crack open the enigma.
Life is short, much of Internet communication is more Dada-esque than denotative, and mastering dank memes has an effort-to-payoff ratio that really, truly is not worth it. Suffice to say he’s a character used to express things online, through endless variations on a simple image.
Second, Pepe the frog is not usually racist. There’s nothing inherently hateful about the original image. “He’s just a chill frog,” as Furie told The Atlantic.
And as ADL acknowledges in its hate symbol database, “the majority of uses of Pepe the Frog have been, and continue to be, non-bigoted.”
But Pepe is certainly a meme that’s popular among racists. Its inclusion in the ADL database isn’t meant to make Pepe an amphibia non grata. Identifying whether Pepe is being used in a hateful way requires looking at the context, the ADL says.
In that, it’s no different from the many other symbols in the database that appear in innocent forms as well as offensive ones. Take, for instance, the numbers that have been associated with white supremacist movements — such as 88 or 14. They can be covert signals of white supremacy or, you know, just numbers, depending on their context. Similarly, the Celtic cross is “one of the most important and commonly used” white supremacist symbols, according to the ADL, but the “overwhelming” use is not extremist.
Third, let’s just acknowledge that it’s been a long, strange trip for Pepe from the Internet’s imageboards to NPR’s home page. We have no plans to write explainers on Harambe or Dat Boi anytime soon.
But the intersection of politics and the Internet is more fascinating in this election than ever before. Now that the presidential candidates from both major parties have invoked or criticized Pepe and a major civil rights organization has denounced him, there’s no denying that he’s news.
And if there is indeed a vast alt-right conspiracy to make Pepe the exclusive property of the Internet fringe, this piece might either be the ultimate case of normies killing the joke — or a reinforcement of Pepe’s odd status as subversive cultural icon that will actually keep him alive.
Feels bad, man.