The campaign to save Pepe the Frog

Pepe started life as a “chill frog dude” but is now a recognized neo-Nazi symbol. His creator wants his meme back.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos

As the 2016 election approaches, one man hopes he will finally be able to regain control over his art: the creator of Pepe the Frog.

Born of the pen of artist Matt Furie during the mid-2000s, Pepe the Frog has taken on a life of its own, becoming popular in online message boards throughout the world as a meme.

“I’ve been working professionally for about a decade now. Pepe the Frog is just one of four characters that kind of reflected an exaggerated point of view of me and my friends in our early 20s living that post-college life,” Furie explained. “He’s just a frog creature. You know, just a chill frog dude, and then it kind of like turned into a meme.”

But he often has not been used as a “chill frog dude” — especially in this election.

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a public statement, adding Pepe to their library of known “hate symbols” used by neo-Nazis and white nationalists as an inter-community code. Pepe the Frog, a heavy-eyed cartoon amphibian that seems more at home in a syndicated web-comic, joined the Swastika, the KKK burning cross, and the “SS” Nazi lightning bolts.

The listing doesn’t come as a huge surprise, given the prominent usage of Pepe in the largely online “alt-right” movement, a far right movement characterized by men’s rights activism, libertarianism, and white supremacy. Originally created in 2005, Pepe became a character in the online comic strip Boy’s Club the next year, and soon became a viral meme. But its popularity on message boards quickly made it a favorite among the alt-right, who were using these internet memes to develop their own jargon and racist talking points.

Now that the alt-right has found a voice in the Trump campaign, the Pepe memes have made it into the campaign. In November 2015, Donald Trump retweeted a photo of Pepe as Trump. Almost a year later, Donald Trump Jr. posted a picture with Trump and some of his advisers and supporters, one of which was Pepe the Frog. After facing backlash, he said he had “never even heard of Pepe the Frog.”

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“I didn’t know anything about the alt-right until a few weeks ago, when Hillary Clinton posted that thing about how Pepe is being used predominantly by the alt-right as a symbol of their cause or whatever,” Furie said. “So it’s all kind of relatively new to me. I’m just learning about it through being randomly associated with Pepe by being his creator.”

Despite calling the condemnation of Pepe a “rush to judgment,” Furie is now working with the ADL to change its image as a hate symbol. Furie will create “a series of positive Pepe memes and messages,” which ADL will help spread with the hashtag #SavePepe, as part of the campaign.

“There’s a metaverse of different Pepes out there,” Furie said. “There’s sad Pepe, mad Pepe, and all these different kind of weird things.”

“Pepe was never intended to be used as a symbol of hate,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL, said in a statement announcing the campaign. “The sad frog was meant to be just that, a sad frog. We are going to work with Matt and his community of artists [to] reclaim Pepe so that he might be used as a force for good, or at the very least to help educate people about the dangers of prejudice and bigotry.”

Furie agrees that the images that the SPLC share on their database are “inherently racist”. “There’s no question about it. There’s no hidden agenda behind it. It’s not like ‘0–1–3–0 if you see that it means there’s a secret nationalist society, and look out for that,’” he said. “No, it’s [a] straight up Nazi frog standing in front of a smoke-stack. Just seeing that, it’s like, ‘no, it’s fucking racist.’”

When asked about the predominant theme behind Pepe, Furie was more circumspect. “What is the internet? The internet is this thing created by the military to communicate ideas and then it moved on to the public domain and it’s almost this digital consciousness, and it links everybody in the world together that goes online. So it just carries a broad spectrum of ideas from love to hate,” Furie said. “So I think that Pepe’s being an internet meme and being totally out of the control of its creator — you know, I don’t have anything to do with the memes outside of creating the frog — it becomes a chaotic figurehead for message boards. I don’t know what it is.”

The internet has not only provided a platform for the growing alt-right, but it has molded their own internal culture and the way they see their nationalist politics developing in the 21st century. “Meme magic” is a way for them to popularize alt-right talking points about race and Jews, making it hip and fresh in a lightning fast discourse of social media irony. The importance of Pepe within that cannot be overstated as it represents a specific group of racist activists, complete with their own views on racial science, politics, and spirituality.

For many of them, Pepe’s ability to gain traction to their ideas has even taken on a transcendental component. Building on the pseudo-spiritual ideas of people like Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano, who have long been popular in the Nazi underground for their veneration of Hitler and Aryan superiority, Pepe’s appearance has been traced to the ancient Egyptian pagan God named Kek, which is also a popular gaming slang used on alt-right message boards. In this way, whether literally or metaphorically, Pepe has become a would-be avatar of an ancient Aryan force awakened within the alt-right’s “racial consciousness.” Kek, the God of Chaos, represents the veritable “chaos” the alt-right has brought down on the GOP, attempting to destroy the conservative movement to lay down their own vision of the “right.” While this seems like a far-fetched meta-religion, in a hyper-intensive internet culture of conspiracy theories and alternative science, it has gained a surprisingly large following.

Yet with red flags from both the ADL and the SPLC, the Pepe meme has lost a bit of its edge for the core alt-right ideologues. In a recent attempt by Vice TV to do a story on the origin of the racist usage of Pepe, for example, journalists attempted to interview the hosts of the white nationalist Daily Shoah podcast about the meme. Yet the hosts refused to discuss it, instead directing the conversation to debates over race, crime, and “Jewish power.” While the Pepe meme allowed them a snarky entry into social media conversation, the alt-right is now struggling to reclaim their talking points and to have their racialist conspiracy theories taken seriously. Pepe’s recent identification with Trump and the alt-right may have robbed it of its ability to act as a covert “signal” between racists, and in this way it may actually provide an opportunity to use Pepe as it was originally created — a truly random meme of a frog.

“I think [re-appropriating Pepe] will be a grassroots effort for the kids of America,” Furie said. “Pepe is popular in China and Korea, and he’s just an international success at this point as kind of the Mickey Mouse of memes. To just say that Pepe the Frog is a hate symbol is like saying that a teenage kid who uses Pepe on their shirt to represent their clarinet team [is a racist]… Obviously people who make Nazi memes have their own loser agenda. But I know for a fact that the predominant thing behind Pepe is not racism.”

For Furie, the issue has never been about Pepe, but about building a movement against hate and asking the tough questions.

“[A]nybody who’s racist should just take some mushrooms and get out of whatever thought pattern would get them there in the first place. Maybe somehow return to a state of innocence before racism. Why were you programmed to be racist anyways, and why do you think putting up walls and getting rid of diversity in life is going to make you feel good?”