On September 27th, the Anti-Defamation League added the meme known as “Pepe the Frog” to its database of hate symbols. Widespread shock ensued. In a subsequent press release, the ADL acknowledged that the meme did not originate in anti-Semitism or white supremacy but had since turned hateful, sprouting a subset of racist memes on 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. The Pepe meme then spread across Twitter and Facebook and is now used to “spread bigotry and harass social media users,” according to the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt.
Even though the ADL acknowledged that the original meaning of the meme had been “twisted” to propagate bigotry, many began to ask deeper questions, with some wondering whether internet memes should even be considered hate symbols. The conversation initially spurring a series of New York Times articles debating the subject. Cooper Fleischman of Mic disagrees with Pepe’s designation, arguing that the ADL’s announcement gives bigots too much power to co-opt harmless symbols for hateful purposes—a list of symbols that has even grown to include Disney’s Elsa, propped up by the racist right as an ideal of white womanhood. Matt Furie, Pepe’s creator, has even weighed in, writing in Time Magazine that the “chill frog-dude” has mutated from his beginnings as “a blissfully stoned frog.” Furie acknowledges that Pepe is beyond his control and now means whatever people decide he means, but to Furie, Pepe has always been a symbol of love.
Furie is correct to point out this mutation; symbols are imbued with meaning not only from their creator’s vision, but from general consensus as well. In Pepe’s case, it is a well-organized band of Internet extremists—an increasingly prominent group known as the alt-right—that have determined the meaning.
Described in the most sympathetic terms, the alt-right is a conglomeration of Internet users who stand against political correctness. At its worst, the alt-right supports eugenics, the establishment of all-white states, and rejecting egalitarianism and feminism—part of what they call the “Jewish Establishment.” And it would seem that Pepe has joined their ranks.
But who exactly is using Pepe? Who are the “alt-right”? I went online to find out.
My first top was The Daily Stormer—a notorious radical-right site that takes its name from Hitler’s Stormtroops. When I visited the site on October 6th, the homepage featured a total of four Pepe memes as thumbnails next to the articles. One Pepe was especially jarring. Its bright red eyes contained black swastikas. This thumbnail linked to Stormfront’s official guide to the alt-right.
Another Pepe thumbnail was attached to an article extolling President Duterte of the Philippines, whose government has encouraged extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers. The website also includes a section devoted to race war, mainly warning of violence supposedly perpetrated by mobs of black people.
But how representative is the Stormer? In his explanation of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart—one of the alt-right’s foremost evangelists—describes those who “eagerly plan the race war” as only a small part of the movement. According to Yiannopoulos, “it’s clear from the many conversations…had with alt-righters that many would rather [that] the [Neo-Nazis] didn’t exist.”
Who are the “moderate” alt-righters, and how do they relate to Pepe? I followed Yiannoupoulos’ lead to VDare.com, another member of the alt-right media web. While the site does reject the label “white nationalist” and does not espouse white supremacy, it does believe that white people have specific interests for which they should advocate. In VDare’s view, diversity is a weakness because it ignores what the supposed biological fact of race. Strikingly, there are no Pepe memes on the site, only simple links to news articles, some leading to seemingly reputable sources such as Time. But this is a question of milieu; a self-styled “non-profit journalistic enterprise,” VDare styles itself as a highbrow intellectual endeavor rather than a network of white supremacists. But this is a façade. A recent headline complains that America is now “an open air prison for whites”—and the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the site as a hate group.
American Renaissance, another alt-right outlet, also bills itself as an intellectual center by refusing to use racial slurs in its. But it is still considered a hate group. One of the site’s leaders, Jared Taylor, released remarks from an alt-right press conference in September in which he declared that the alt-right, however loose the movement may be, is “united in contempt for the idea that race is only a ‘social construct.’” Taylor stated that he and the rest of the alt-right want to advance white interests just as minority groups do, a common white nationalist trope.
Sites like VDare and American Renaissance put forward an intellectual image and thus do not use Pepe memes. But despite their divergent aesthetics, Pepe is still considered an alt-right symbol. When the conservative news media aggregate Breitbart published an article titled “The Mainstream Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right”—widely seen as the first mainstream endorsement of alt-right ideologies—the editors used a Pepe graphic as the title image. And so the relationship began. Pepe has since been inextricably linked with the alt-right. By this sort of transitive property, Pepe is now a hate symbol.
History shows that hateful symbols become hateful through a process of acclimation and evolution. Take, for example, the swastika, the Nazi Party’s emblem that is a universal metonym for evil incarnate. The swastika was not always a symbol of racism or hatred; it has a long apolitical history, transcending time periods and cultures. A statue decorated with swastikas in Ukraine was shown by radiocarbon dating to be over 15,000 years old. Among the ruins of ancient Troy archaeologists found a potsherd decorated with swastikas. The swastika was, and is, a part of Hindu iconography, visible on sacred Indian statues. But the Nazis appropriated this history for their own purposes. The Trojan potsherd was used by German archeologists to assert German society’s connection with the Trojan past. When nationalistic Germans were translating Sanskrit texts, they noticed similarities between German and Sanskrit, presumably because the two are Indo-European languages, and connected the swastika to a mythical vision of the primordial Indo-European past. So too with the term Aryan. In Indian history, the Aryans were originally a group of people that subordinated the indigenous inhabitants of the Indus River Valley and imposed the caste system. To the 20th century’s far-right Germans, these Aryans constituted a warrior class deserving of emulation and claimed them as part of their own patrimony. This reinforced the Nazis’ claim on the swastika as a German symbol. In current discourse, this process would be called cultural appropriation.
The ADL has been aware of this phenomenon long before the Pepe case broke out. As the New York Times notes, “the group’s database of more than 150 symbols includes others that started out with neutral connotations and were then co-opted.” Evidently Pepe is only the latest symbol to become associated with bigotry. What makes the case of Pepe unique is the effort underway to reclaim him. In response to the outcry against Pepe’s new designation, Pepe’s creator and the ADL have partnered to flood Twitter with positive Pepe messages under the hashtag #SavePepe. Thus the dual-edged sword that is technology; it is only our modern age that allows people to “reclaim” a symbol in the manner the ADL and Furie are proposing. (Case in point: there was never a #ReclaimTheSwastika or #ReclaimTheBurningCross movement.)
But it is unlikely that flooding Twitter with positive Pepes will effect change. As data scientist Gilad Lotan has pointed out, social media accounts are echo chambers that reinforce the given user’s existing political biases and inclinations. If a Twitter user is already browsing Pepe memes that endorse white nationalism, it is unlikely that same person will come across any of these positive Pepes—leaving the meme to gain prestige among the alt-right.
Since Pepe was designated a hate symbol last September, The Daily Stormer’s layout has changed significantly. When I visited the site in late October, the Pepes had multiplied. Pepe emoticons now framed the website’s title. There were now six in total. Five were thumbnails—and the final one, replete with black swastikas in its red eyes, advertised the site’s guide to the alt-right.