“Feels bad, man.”
The iconic frog who once spread to every corner of the internet culture thanks to his popularity on 4chan has been listed as a potential hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
In what amounts to a warning, the ADL was careful to disambiguate the history and uses of Pepe by white nationalists, Donald Trump voters, and other hate groups online from its rich history and broader popularity.
In recent years, with the growth of the “alt right” segment of the white supremacist movement, a segment that draws some of its support from some of the above-mentioned Internet sites, the number of “alt right” Pepe memes has grown, a tendency exacerbated by the controversial and contentious 2016 presidential election. Though Pepe memes have many defenders, not least the character’s creator, Matt Furie, who has called the alt right appropriation of the meme merely a “phase,” the use of racist and bigoted versions of Pepe memes seems to be increasing, not decreasing.
However, because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist. However, if the meme itself is racist or anti-Semitic in nature, or if it appears in a context containing bigoted or offensive language or symbols, then it may have been used for hateful purposes.
Put another way, Pepe the frog has not yet assumed the same meaning as the swastika — an ancient symbol that Hitler appropriated, to its eternal harm as a useful graphic — but we are getting there.
If the number of Nazi frog memes continues to proliferate like an invasive species of competing amphibians at this rate, by November Pepe may no longer be a joke about self-indulgent hedonistic stoners, but a permanent marker of self-indulgent hedonistic stoners who form online hate groups.
When Donald Trump Jr. recently tweeted a Pepe meme, Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center observed that “Pepe the Frog is a huge favorite white supremacist meme.”
“It’s constantly used in those circles,” Beirich said. “The white nationalists are gonna love this because they’re gonna feel like ‘yeah we’re in there with Trump, there’s Pepe the Frog.'”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2015
There are doubters and Pepe lovers, however.
In a recent article for New York magazine, Jesse Singal explains that much of what we perceive about Pepe right now in social media is just the same old online ‘LULZ’ culture getting a kick out of stoking outrage. In the best anarchist tradition of the internet, they are just creating havoc for its own sake.
[W]hen channer and normie culture collide, normie culture indeed tends to spasm with offense. From the point of view of a normie, why would you post Holocaust imagery unless you actually hate Jews or want them to die? To which the channer responds internally, For the lulz. That is, for the sake of watching normies get outraged…
[…] It would be inaccurate to say that the media or politicians are entirely getting played here. They, too, benefit from this whole bizarre game. Outrage garners clicks and it turns out voters. To journalists, there’s little incentive to do anything but cover every racist-internet twist and turn like some dangerous new development. To the Clinton campaign, the Pepe explainer was just a useful way of highlighting some perfectly true facts about Trump: He sure does seem to attract a lot of racist and white nationalist support. All the better if they can do so by acting like the internet has produced some weird, new, uniquely racist threat.
I don’t fully agree with Singal’s argument. I have argued that the Alt-Right is not uniquely racist, but an eclectic and vibrant online counterculture that bears watching and understanding. And it certainly is a little weird that half the Twitter accounts with Pepe memes sending send rape and death threats are just ‘joking.’
Pepe’s creator also assures us this is just a phase for his character, yet a key characteristic associated with the paranoid narrative underlying Trump’s campaign is that it serves to spoil social media spaces, creating an “atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” as one Russian opposition leader has told Adrien Chen of Putin’s social media tactics.
Singal’s essay is worth reading, however, because he brilliantly explains why the ‘hate speech Pepe’ phenomenon is accompanied by such a visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton.
Underlying chan culture is a fundamental hostility to earnestness and offense that plays out in how its members interact with each other and with outsiders. To wit: If you, a channer, post a meme in which Homer and Lisa Simpson are concentration camp guards about to execute Jewish prisoners, and I respond by pointing out that that’s fucked up, I’m the chump for getting upset. Nothing really matters to the average channer, at least not online. Feeling like stuff matters, in fact, is one of the original sins of “normies,” the people who use the internet but don’t really understand what it’s for (chaos and lulz) the way channers do.
My opinion: Pepe still isn’t a symbol of hate speech yet. It would probably take an actual Trump administration for that to happen, or a sustained growth of Nazi Pepe’s popularity on the right after a close Hillary Clinton victory. But I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for any new data that comes along.
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