Pepe The Frog, even if you have aren’t familiar with memes, chances are you’ve heard of the green frog that has been the staple of meme culture for the past decade. Pepe was a cartoon originally published in a 2005 comic book series known as Boys Club, drawn by Matt Furie. “Feels good man,” was Pepe’s catch phrase in the original comics, though in the past two years, the character has gone through a series of bad feels.
For the entire duration of the 2016 presidential campaign, Pepe went from a lovable and relatable meme, to being adopted by the alt-right and turned into an apparent symbol for neo nazis. Major news outlets and politicians began to vilify Pepe and denounce anyone who used the meme as a white supremacist, or as Hillary Clinton alluded “a basket of deplorables.” By September 27 2016, the Anti-Defamation League to their online hate symbol database.
Was Pepe in fact taken by white supremacists to spread hateful messages? Or was he taken by a group of internet trolls occupying a message board on 4Chan, and ironically transformed into a nazi symbol for shits and giggles?
This is a story showcasing another example of mainstream media taking internet trolls seriously. This is important, because if trolls can manipulate the way we perceive an innocent meme, then we may be vulnerable to another incident of supposedly credible media sources feeding us inaccurate information via internet jokesters. With the ever growing problem of fake news, it is significant to note cases like this where a group of people go out of their way to intentionally mislead the media as well as the individuals who consume the content unironically. This is the story of Pepe, and how trolls convinced the world that this green amphibian is the frog of white supremacy.
It all started as a campaign to take Pepe back to the imageboard website 4Chan.org, where the meme was first popularized. The trolls of 4Chan had grown disdain for the current state of meme culture and the overuse of Pepe by “normies.” Urban Dictionary defines normies as “Someone who embraces mainstream culture.”
Normies essentially turned Pepe into a stale and trivial meme, the oversaturation of the meme aided to its downfall in relevancy. It didn’t take long before Pepe went from a novelty meme, used only in certain contexts, to a meme shared by everyone from your grandma, to celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. So how did the trolls of 4Chan reclaim Pepe The Frog from the “normies”?
The Daily Beast published an article explaining the backstory, it began in late 2015 on /r9k/, a controversial 4Chan board where, as on any message board, it can be difficult to discern how serious commenters are being or if they’re just joking. The blurred line between authenticity and satire prompted trolls on 4Chan to take advantage of this, thus introducing the idea that Pepe could be linked to white nationalists.
Trolls then took to the message board with the purpose of doing everything they could to form that link between Nazis and Pepe. They burned together two ends of a rope to create a Frankenstein’s monster of racism intertwined with memes. It was the perfect concept, transform Pepe into a hate symbol and in turn, most people will cease using the meme for the fear of being labeled a racist.
One of the 4Chan trolls, Jared T Swift, told The Daily News Foundation “Basically, I interspersed various nuggets of truth and exaggerated a lot of things, and sometimes outright lied — in the interest of making a journalist believe that online Trump supporters are largely a group of meme-jihadis who use a cartoon frog to push Nazi propaganda. Because this was funny to me.”
Meme creators on the message boards began churning out anti-semitic Pepe memes as quickly as people would share them. Eventually, these memes went mainstream and made their way to Twitter. This is where politicians began to notice the propagandist nature of the memes, completely unaware of the fact that they are being purposely duped.
The Daily Beast reports, on January 7 2016, Cheri Jacobus, a Republican consultant and pundit who is suing Trump for defamation and has been harassed by Trump supporters, tweeted, “The green frog symbol is what white supremacists use in their propaganda. U don’t want to go there.” She was one of the first to take the bait.
Pretty soon, the trolls from 4Chan migrated over to Twitter, as well as other popular social media platforms to continue taking advantage of gullible politicians and activists. The meme propaganda machine was officially in full effect.
Pretty soon, trolls from all over the internet began flooding social media with racist Pepe memes, but it didn’t stop there. The original campaign to take Pepe back from mainstream culture turned into something completely different along the way. The trolls of 4Chan concocted another idea, not only turn Pepe into a symbol of hate, but turn him into a Donald Trump supporter as well.
GOP consultant Cheri Jacobus continued to be a gold mine for trolls to trick into believing these memes are genuine. As they spammed her Twitter profile with Pepe memes, she would not cease responding to them directly, even tagging Trump himself to these tweets. She tried to pass these tweets off as evidence of Trump having violent supporters, when in reality, they were just pranksters on the internet purposely enticing a reaction out of her.
Realizing the inevitable spreading of this meme propaganda, the trolls of 4Chan rejoice and discuss future outcomes as if they were an army overcoming their first battle. This realization gave rise to more variations of Pepe memes. As more anonymous people around the world joined in this fight to win back their memes, not only were anti-semitic Pepe’s distributed, but so were other racist, sexist and overall obscene forms of the frog.
What initially started off as a campaign to discredit the usage of a meme soon turned into a contest to see who could produce the most offensive depiction of Pepe. The once unaltered frog was now being drawn into the limelight of adult content not suitable for the children who were the original intended audience for the meme.
Though the trolls of 4Chan are uncompromising human beings, they can be sympathetic, channeling their sympathy through memes.
As the Donald Trump presidential campaign was beginning to gain traction, some users on the message boards expressed their concerns in possibly having a hand in crippling his image, as his supporters were being portrayed as racists. Though the trolls who originated the joke know this is not the case, the rest of the media remains unaware.
Though it didn’t take very long for sanity to be regained by the trolls, ironically.
Although the memes kept pouring in like a broken dam, mainstream media stayed relatively quiet on the issue. Other than a few reporters having their buttons pushed on social media, the trend was not making the waves it anticipated. The trolls needed to come up with another more elaborate plan in order to fan the flame that is keeping the controversy surrounding Pepe alive. Little did they know, there was one movement the trolls of 4Chan had almost excluded themselves from, the Alt-Right.
John Daniszewski of the Associated Press described the Alt-Right movement as “a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States in addition to, or over, other traditional conservative positions such as limited government, low taxes and strict law-and-order.”
So if 4Chan is where the trolls assembled? Where was the meeting grounds for the alternative-right community? Enter, reddit.com/r/The_Donald.
The subreddit known as “The_Donald” is where the online forum of Donald Trump supporters congregated to discuss their shared politics, theories and other social commentary. With over 300,000 members as of today, this subreddit remains highly influential among Trump supporters, giving anyone apart of the community a platform to express themselves on. So how does The_Donald enter the narrative of Pepe being recognized as a hate symbol?
As 4Chan creates the memes, members of The_Donald were happy to circulate them on their forum. The_Donald embraced the new found meme culture, and the racism attached to it, but when this forum praised the racism now synonymous with Pepe, they were serious.
In a 2016 article regarding The_Donald, The New York Times notes “The community is home to copious Islamophobia, trolling of liberals and near constant bashing of Hillary Clinton. It has evolved a dialect decipherable only to insiders, which includes insults like … memes featuring a cartoon frog associated with racism.” Other insults include use of the word “Cuck” which is short for cuckold (a term used by insiders to describe conservatives who are emasculated by globalist progressive forces). Members of this subreddit promoted the hateful message of Pepe, except they did so unironically. This includes white nationalist and former Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan David Duke.
Pepe was propelled into the spotlight like never before. Though the meme went from an inside joke used by trolls to convince the media of Pepe’s association with racism, to alternative right activists using the frog as their official racist mascot. It seems as though there was no one that could speak out against Pepe, at this point.
The day was August 25, 2016, the location was Reno, Nevada. As she polished up her notes, the subject regarding the alt-right movement could no longer be pushed to the back burner. Stepping up to the center of the stage in her light blue jump suit, the podium reading “stronger together,” Hillary Clinton had no idea of the true dedication held by the group she was about to stir up. With all the eyes of the United States people centered on her during this speech, the subject finally came up.
“Ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim, Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Women [ideas] –– all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’” Hillary Clinton said regarding the movement. Along with calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
As the phrase “alt-right” left the speakers that projected her disgust with the words she just spewed, a loud proclamation came from the crowd.
“PEPE!” Shrieked the unmasked man among the audience. Breitbart reports that the man, Sean Lewandowski, was ejected from the rally soon after wards. At that moment, you could almost see the regret plastered on Clinton’s face.
The story of Pepe was now covered all over mass media. The Donald Trump family went on to embrace the Pepe meme as well, with Donald Trump Jr. posting a rendition of the meme with the caption “The Deplorables,” a play on the movie “The Expendables.” Donald Trump himself retweeted a picture of himself as a portrait of Pepe. The meme propaganda machine has gone into full effect, with the traces of Pepe’s attachment to the alt-right being fused together as a goof completely faded. Hillary Clinton knew she had to refute, just to keep her head above water.
“Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer” wrote Elizabeth Chan in a September 12 2016 article published by the Hillary Clinton Campaign. The expose on Pepe the frog included such accusations such as “[Pepe] is symbol associated with white supremacy.” The article even cites Jared T Swift, a known troll from 4Chan. One of the most prominent political leaders in the world has officially fallen victim to the trolls who have successfully created the correlation between Pepe and white nationalists.
“I think the most ridiculous thing is that a random guy on the internet who trolled a journalist once is now a ‘prominent white supremacist.’ I mean, the only accurate part of that is the ‘white’ part,” Swift told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And my Italian ancestry means that even that is disputed!”
Pepe went from an obscure meme, to a mainstream meme, to an alt-right meme, to now being a significant hurdle in Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. The Independent points out “The association with Pepe will be seen as controversial, however, after [Trump] took several days to condemn endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.”
The meme machine peaked when on September 28 2016, The Anti-Defamation League announced that Pepe was now officially classified as a hate symbol. “Though Pepe memes have many defenders, the use of racist and bigoted versions of Pepe memes seems to be increasing, not decreasing.” they elaborated. The creator of the original Pepe, Matt Furie even stepped in to team up with the Anti-Defamation League to bring back Pepe from the Alt-Right. He told The Independent, “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 that share the light hearted spirit of the original chilled-out champion.”
The campaign initially started by 4Chan to win back Pepe from the “normies” went so successfully, that the creator of Pepe is now fighting back to reclaim Pepe from the trolls. It’s hard to believe that a cartoon character could cause so much controversy. It all started when some bored internet users wanted to bring Pepe out of popular culture, the result ended up cementing the legacy of the meme.
The most recent pepe sighting among the alt-right was on Inauguration Day, January 20 2017 when Neo Nazi Richard Spencer was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Company. The ABC reporter was inquiring Spencer about the Pepe pin on his suit. Right as Spencer was answering his question, he gets dealt a sucker punch right to the side of his face. He never did finish explaining the meaning behind his Pepe pin.
Pepe was later named the most influential fictional character of 2016 by Daniel D’Addario of Time magazine.
4Chan pulled the biggest prank of 2016 by forcing Pepe into the Anti-Defamation League’s wall of shame. The trolls fooled the media into taking the hate symbols seriously, in turn, capturing the full attention of the alt-right, fooling them as well. This is a perfect example of anyone being able to manipulate media. In this day in age, the platforms provided to us by internet forums allows us to catapult our ideas over the wall of mainstream culture, like a monkey flinging feces over a zoo enclosure. It’s disgusting, unexpected, and incredibly hard to decipher the true context behind the message. Pepe is that piece of feces, and it will not be the last. Journalist and everyday people have been fooled before, and they will be fooled again. This is why it is important to dissect these cases, so we can learn from them in the future.