Pepe the Frog meme declared a ‘hate symbol’
He was once a harmless cartoon character. Then an internet meme. Now he has been added to a database of hate symbols, alongside swastikas and burning crosses. Why all this fuss about Pepe?
Last month, Hillary Clinton stood at a fundraising event in New York and said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters could be put in the ‘basket of deplorables’. These are the ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic’ people who had been raised up by his campaign.
A few days later, her website published a blog post titled ‘Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer’. The extremist online community known as the ‘alt-right’ has a mascot, it said: Pepe the Frog. And ‘that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realise.’
Now, Pepe has made headlines again. He has officially been added to a database of hate symbols by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), putting him in the same category as swastikas, the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Confederate flag.
How has an internet meme become such a major issue in a presidential election?
Pepe was originally created in 2005 by Matt Furie, author of a laid-back webcomic called Boy’s Club. It was silly, surreal and harmless. ‘If anything, he’d be part of the Green party,’ says Furie (a Clinton supporter) of Pepe’s political persuasions.
The character eventually became popular on message boards like 4chan and Tumblr, where he was the most popular meme of 2015. He could be used to make jokes about almost anything; the singer Katy Perry used him to complain about jetlag. But earlier this year, he was ‘adopted’ by the alt-right, who used his image to send racist and anti-Semitic messages — including many in support of Trump.
Once an obscure online community, the alt-right has recently been thrust into the spotlight. Clinton points to it as an example of Trump’s most extremist supporters. Trump himself sometimes retweets them. And Pepe ‘kept coming up in racist contexts,’ says the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. By branding him a hate symbol, they hope to ‘start a discussion about the hateful underbelly of the internet’.
Come off it, say Pepe’s fans. This is a cartoon frog we’re talking about, not a Nazi logo. It is an inside joke for bored people online, and it had nothing to do with racism until a few months ago. The whole point of memes is that they are amorphous and universal. Sometimes that means they are shared by people with appalling views. But that’s not Pepe’s fault.
It doesn’t matter, say others. The swastika was once a harmless Hindu and Buddhist symbol — but having been adopted by the Nazi Party, it was tainted with a history and ideology that can never be undone. When it comes to symbolism, context is everything. Yes, it may seem ridiculous. But if this particular symbol is being used to promote racism, we cannot ignore it.
- Does Pepe the Frog deserve his label as a hate symbol?
- Once an image has been associated with extremist views, can it ever be reclaimed?
- As a class, list five more symbols which have taken on new meanings over time.
- Imagine you are writing an account of the 2016 US presidential election 50 years from now. How would you explain Pepe the Frog to future history students?
Some People Say...
“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us.”Gene Wolfe
What do you think?
Q & A
- It’s just a frog. Why are we talking about this?
- The story seems ridiculous at first. But despite its surreal face, it has thrown up some important themes. Understanding the alt-right gives us an insight into some of Donald Trump’s supporters (although they are in the minority — as even Clinton admits, there are also many who feel left behind by modernity and globalisation). Plus, it makes us think deeply about how the meanings of certain images can change over time.
- Does Donald Trump support the alt-right?
- Not explicitly, although he has not condemned them either, despite their extremist views. In fact, over the summer he hired Stephen Bannon to be his campaign CEO. Bannon is the editor of Breitbart.com, a website which often promotes alt-right views and conspiracy theories.
- Short for ‘alternative right’, this community is tricky to define — it ranges from ‘paleoconservatives’ (extremely right-wing isolationists who romanticise the past as better than the present) to internet trolls who enjoy provoking outrage on social media.
- The symbol is thousands of years old, and was originally associated with good fortune. However, in 1920 Hitler chose it for its ‘hypnotic effect’, hoping it would ‘win over the worker’ to the Nazi Party.
- Burning cross
- The KKK claimed they burned crosses as a symbol of their religious faith, but many associate the practice with the group’s extreme racist history.
- Confederate flag
- The flag which was flown by the slave-owning South during the American Civil War. Although the Confederacy lost and slavery was eventually abolished, the flag is still flown in some states.
- Internet meme
- An image, phrase, or in-joke which is widely shared and adapted online.
- A simple online bulletin board where anyone can post images and messages anonymously.