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When a Meme Becomes a Hate Symbol: The Story of Pepe the Frog

The+%27sad+frog%27+variant+of+the+Pepe+meme.+
The 'sad frog' variant of the Pepe meme.

The 'sad frog' variant of the Pepe meme.

benluna12/Pixabay

benluna12/Pixabay

The 'sad frog' variant of the Pepe meme.

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If you’ve been on the internet in recent years, you’ve probably seen the ubiquitous image Pepe the Frog. Pepe’s likeness, once a simple cartoon character in the comic Boys’ Club, has spread like wildfire over the internet, becoming arguably one of the most well-known memes. The frog has been Instagrammed by Nicki Minaj, tweeted out by Katy Perry, and been reincarnated in thousands of forms and reaction images; but the once innocent character has only recently become a symbol of the alt-right and white supremacy.

     Pepe started off as one of the heroes of the comic Boy’s Club. Pepe was featured along with a few other monster friends in Boy’s Club short comic strips, which featured the laid-back frog hanging with his friends amid simple. Slang-Filled dialogue and psychedelic imagery. The birth of his cult status as a meme was a panel of him saying “Feels good, man,” which quickly became an extremely popular reaction image.

 

The birth of Pepe as a white supremacy symbol started as a movement to reclaim the meme from ‘normies,’ the Internet’s pejorative term for mainstream media. It gained speed in 4chan, (an anonymous image-sharing site)’s controversial /r9k/ board, where members of the site started photoshopping Pepe to look like President-elect Donald Trump. The movement only spread from there, with mass creation of anti-Semitic images of Pepe being created on 4chan. One of them depicts Pepe wearing a balaclava and white supremacy insignia, holding an AK-47; another shows the frog as an offensive stereotype smiling beside the burning Twin Towers; and yet another shows the frog as a caricature of people of colour.

This rise in offensive imagery lead the frog to be labeled as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, which states that “Though Pepe memes have many defenders, the use of racist and bigoted versions of Pepe memes seems to be increasing, not decreasing.” ADL also went on to say that “The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist.”

In early October, the ADL joined forces with Matt Furie, Pepe’s creator, to start the #SavePepe campaign, which would share positive messages and Pepe memes in the #SavePepe hashtag on Twitter. “As the creator of Pepe, I condemn the illegal and repulsive appropriations of the character by racist and fringe groups,” Furie said. “The true nature of Pepe, as featured in my comic book, ‘Boys Club,’ 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 that share the light hearted spirit of the original chilled-out champion.”

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When a Meme Becomes a Hate Symbol: The Story of Pepe the Frog