- Pepe the Frog is one of the most popular internet memes of all time. It originated in the non-political comic, “Boy’s Club” by Matt Furie.
- In 2016, political extremists began associating the meme with white nationalism, which led to the Anti-Defamation League adding it to their database of hate symbols.
- Then in 2019, Hong Kong protesters began using Pepe as an icon of hope and youthful rebellion.
- Though Pepe the Frog is the best modern example of the evolution of symbols, the swastika is another notable example in history.
- Documentary “Feels Good Man” tells the story of how Pepe The Frog went from meme to alt-right icon.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Memes are some of the most easily recognisable images of our generation. They’re funny, relatable, and, most importantly, they’re versatile. But sometimes this versatility creates something darker.
This is Pepe the Frog, one of the most popular internet memes of all time. It’s now considered a symbol of hate, according to the Anti-Defamation League. But it wasn’t always like this. The cartoon frog that currently sits beside the swastika and the Iron Cross was born here, a nonpolitical comic about four roommates who enjoy being lazy and playing video games.
So, how did we get here…from here?
The green frog first debuted in 2005 in the comic “Boy’s Club” by Matt Furie. It featured Pepe along with his three roommates all living together and hanging out. The humour was generally gross or crude but was completely nonpolitical in nature.
Then, in 2008, Pepe made his first steps to internet stardom. This panel was posted as a reaction image on the internet forum 4chan. And it became a trend almost instantly. More and more users began sharing Pepe on 4chan. And some were even putting their own spin on it. Pepe became a versatile meme. It was happy, sad, smug, and angry. It represented a relatable range of emotions.
And this relatability spread its influence to other social-media networks over the next several years. In 2015, Tumblr reported that it was the No. 1 most reblogged meme of the year. But at this point, Pepe was being shared a little too much, and the inside joke was beginning to lose its comedic value.
To keep the joke alive, people began creating “rare Pepes,” novel versions of the meme that hadn’t been made before. This phenomenon generated a mock economy, where the less frequently the meme was posted, the more valuable it was. With new images constantly being produced, Pepe grew stronger and reached mainstream status. And once Pepe became mainstream, everyone was in on the joke.
Now, it was rumoured that there was an alt-right campaign to reclaim the meme from the “normies” by associating Pepe with white nationalism. But this was later revealed to have been an elaborate prank to mislead journalists. In reality, Pepe was just so versatile that it was inevitably drawn as everything. This sometimes included racists and even Donald Trump.
On October 13, 2015, Donald Trump retweeted this post. It linked the video “You Can’t Stump the Trump ” and tagged the notable right-leaning publications Breitbart and the Drudge Report. And under the video was this image of Pepe.
Before this, only fringe users on social media posted versions of the frog as Klan members or SS personnel. But this post was the catalyst that fuelled the far right’s claim of Pepe. More racist frogs appeared, particularly on Twitter, which spurred the movement #FrogTwitter. Much like how the echo is used by anti-Semitics to signify Jewish names, members of the alt-right began adding the frog emoji to their Twitter handles in solidarity with white nationalism.
And the more curious people got about the racist Pepes, the stronger the connection grew. When journalists asked about the “green face” they often saw “Trumpsters” and alt-right people use, they were met with white-nationalist Pepes as a response. So they began picking up on this trend, and when they saw someone use Pepe, whether in or out of racist context, they would respond by saying something like this.
Then, in 2016, Pepe’s alt-right career came to a boiling point. Hillary Clinton delivered a campaign speech in which she referred to half of Trump’s supporters as: Hillary Clinton: A basket of deplorables. Narrator: This led to the creation of a parody of the “Expendables” movie poster where the characters were replaced with conservative figures, known as “The Deplorables.” And in that lineup, with Trump and notable conservative leaders, was none other than Pepe the Frog. Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr., who both appeared on the poster, reposted the image, stating that they were proud to be one of the deplorables.
Shortly after this parody circulated, Clinton’s campaign website denounced Pepe and called it “a symbol associated with white supremacy.” And in September 2016, the Anti-Defamation League officially added Pepe the Frog to its database of hate symbols.
Since this designation, we’ve seen Pepe worn by self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer and sold as merchandise by Alex Jones, host of right-wing conspiracy outlet InfoWars. But Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, has publicly stated his dislike for Pepe’s evolution and has made efforts to take back his creation from the alt-right. In 2017, he released a one-page comic where he officially killed off the lazy green frog. Furie has also been involved in legal disputes with both The Daily Stormer and InfoWars, which effectively prevented them from using Pepe to promote their ideology any further.
But Furie’s fight against the alt-right hasn’t stopped other groups from using the meme. This time, however, Pepe has become a symbol of hope halfway across the world.
In 2019, protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to rally against police brutality and Hong Kong’s extradition bill. They held signs, graffitied walls, and messaged stickers with a peculiar, yet familiar face: Pepe the Frog. So, how did this lazy green amphibian become the face of yet another political movement? Simply put, Hong Kongers thought it was just a funny face, and most didn’t know about its alt-right ties in the United States. In the eyes of Hong Kongers, Pepe existed as a Hello Kitty character. It looked strange and was eye-catching enough to grab attention. But, most importantly, it was versatile enough to become anything they wanted it to be. For these protesters, Pepe symbolized the youthful nature of rebellion and had nothing to do with the far-right movement in the West. In a New York Times interview by Daniel Victor, a young Hong Konger noted that symbols can mean different things in countries with different cultures. In the end, she encouraged other Hong Kongers to explain to Americans what Pepe really means to them.
We live in a world where information spreads almost instantly and the meaning of images changes just as fast. It’s about culture and context. Pepe is the best modern example of this. But it wasn’t the first victim. The swastika, for example, is actually considered sacred in certain Eurasian religions. It’s a significant image meant to symbolise good fortune and well-being. But Nazis rebranded this symbol during World War II and made it an icon of hate instead. At least for Pepe, there is hope that it won’t be a hate symbol forever, because Furie reminds us that “in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2019.
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