The little cartoon is hardly the best-drawn depiction of an amphibian, but Pepe the Frog might be the world’s most famous frog. Originally a character in a comic about bros being bros, the alt-right co-opted Pepe. Today, poor Pepe is a hate symbol. How did this happen? The story demonstrates the dark power of the internet and human nature.
Pepe the Frog is born
Artist Matt Furie always had a soft spot for frogs. He designed Pepe and put him in a comic called “Boy’s Life.” The frog and his animal friends lived their lives like stereotypical “bros” in their mid 20’s. They smoked, skateboarded, and ate pizza. Pepe had a catchphrase: “Feels good, man.” By 2008, fans started putting Pepe online and by 2009, the frog had become an established meme. Edited versions of Pepe with sad or angry faces popped up, but the fun wouldn’t last. In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League listed Pepe as a hate symbol.
Pepe began his transformation from harmless to hateful on 4chan. One of the darker parts of the internet, 4chan hosts many problematic messageboards. Users use coded language and images, like Pepe, to communicate their values. The memes spread to Twitter and Pepe became a symbol of white nationalism. Users began identifying themselves with a frog emoji.
The Anti-Defamation League took notice. They scan the internet looking for symbols and images associated with potentially-dangerous groups. By 2016, Pepe fit the bill. The ADL noted that Pepe was linked to anti-semitic views. But why choose this cartoon? Because Pepe was so popular in the mainstream, white supremacists wanted to take him over. Twisting a symbol in this way is not a new phenomenon. The swastika is an ancient symbol sacred to Hindu and Buddhist cultures. After the Nazis stole it, it has a much darker meaning now.
Furie fights back
Matt Furie doesn’t even draw Pepe anymore, but his creation has taken a life of its own. A pretty non-political guy, Furie wishes that Pepe could become a symbol of positivity. He describes the frog’s current incarnation as a nightmare. Furie isn’t taking all this sitting down, though. In 2017, a court ordered the author of a hateful children’s book featuring Pepe to give all the profits to the Council of American-Islamic Relations. The next year, Furie got all Pepe images removed from the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website. In 2019, Furie filed a copyright lawsuit against InfoWars, who sold the Pepe image on posters. Furie’s team settled out of court for $15,000. They hope it sends a message to anyone hoping to make money off of Pepe.
While the story of Pepe the Frog is depressing, there are glimmers of hope. He’s only a symbol – a cartoon – and even though a hateful movement stole him, he can be taken back. In Hong Kong, he’s become a symbol of hope and rebellion for the Hong Kong protestors. There, he doesn’t have negative associations. As Furie continues his campaign to save Pepe and people flood the internet with positive memes, Pepe could be redeemed.
Want to learn more about online trolling and how it warps once-innocent or everyday images? Click here to read Gildshire’s article on the evolution of online trolling.