Pepe the Frog has gone from the sad frog to the hateful frog of the internet.
In late September, the frog was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbol database. The non-governmental organization, which focuses on fighting anti-Semitism, claims that Pepe the Frog’s portrayal in racist contexts have been on the rise.
Pepe the Frog became a popular meme in 2008 after surfacing on 4chan, a popular imageboard website. In 2015, the frog peaked in popularity and spread to more mainstream websites such as Facebook and Tumblr, where it became associated with the “rare meme trade.” This year, the meme became an unofficial symbol of the American alt-right, with renditions of the meme referencing 9/11, the Holocaust, and other racist imagery, popping up on Reddit and 4chan.
According to Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, Pepe the Frog’s rebranding is an effort by 4chan and Reddit users to reclaim the once-rare meme from mainstream social media by making it into something vulgar.
“When (a meme) gets repurposed for the public, anons get very sad about this,” Pelletier-Gagnon, who is preparing to teach a cyberliterature course next semester, said. “They feel like they’re losing part of what makes them different. And so some want to reclaim that.”
Pelletier-Gagnon believes that some racist variations of Pepe the Frog were done by internet users who aren’t alt-right supporters – but are instead just “trolling.”
“Anons know that if they turn Pepe into an image that’s racist and anti-Semitic, all the normies are going to let (Pepe the Frog) go,” Pelletier-Gagnon said. “That is the big strategy.”
In an interview with Vice, Matt Furie, the artist who created the meme, said the American presidential race has blown the frog’s media attention out of proportion.
“Whoever’s making these super racist, fucked up Pepe things are probably just dudes that don’t have much of a life other than message boards and creating dumb, hateful jokes,” Furie said.
Recently, versions of Pepe the Frog sporting Republican candidate Donald Trump’s hair have appeared on social media and in public spaces. For instance, an image featuring the frog stylized as Trump was shared by Trump himself, his son, and his adviser Roger Stone. A blog post by Clinton’s official campaign then denounced the three for sharing a symbol of white supremacy. According to Pelletier-Gagnon, the post furthered the association between Trump, the white supremacist movement, and Pepe.
“This is where the link between white supremacists and Pepe the Frog is cemented in the public’s imagination,” Pelletier-Gagnon said. “The best proof we have of this is the Anti-Defamation League website listing Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol.”
Pelletier-Gagnon said it’s fair to connect Pepe the Frog and the Swastika, as both are symbols that were co-opted by extremist political movements. But, he said, it’s important to note that memes are phenomena that can be modified to fit whatever message one wishes to convey.
There is nothing inherently negative about Pepe the Frog — really, he’s just “some random dude-frog who smokes pot and plays video games,” Pelletier-Gagnon said.