The nearly ubiquitous internet meme Pepe the Frog has been labeled as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. The cartoon frog was first created by cartoonist Matt Furie in his 2004 internet cartoon "Boy’s Club" and has been adopted across the internet to express sadness, disappointment, disgust and a wide range of emotions. The aptly nicknamed “sad frog” meme has become widely accepted by the alt-right subgroup of the white supremacist movement on forum sites including 4chan and Reddit, where users share “rare Pepes” featuring anti-Semitic and overtly bigoted imagery.
While not inherently racialized, Pepe has been altered by internet users to feature KKK symbolism, racial caricatures, neo-nazi themes and explicit sexual imagery, earning its place on the ADL’s “Hates on Display” database of signs and symbols used to spread hateful messages. While it is often hard to decipher when users of sites such as 4chan are being serious, the meme has a history of bigotry stemming back to multiple different forums. The ADL acknowledges that while the the majority of people do not use the meme in a defamatory way, the meme has been proliferated in intolerance and prejudice far too long and now carries hateful connotations.
In a time where content warnings and political correctness are constantly introducing themselves into our daily conversations, it is interesting to note the role of memes in issues of censorship and hate language. While most other symbols on the ADL’s list such as the Confederate flag are explicitly linked to racist groups, the addition of Pepe exemplifies the importance of context in language. Pepe lives as a popular internet meme in all corners of the internet, unfortunately even in the web’s darkest corners. Though context is often lost when we interact with others digitally, language is much easier to misconstrue than an image, in this case a visual meme. The racist undertones of different Pepes are overt when used, including swastikas and other examples of neo-nazi imagery. One picture in particular features Pepe red with swastika shaped pupils, tattooed with the words “Skin head” and the number 88, a neo-nazi code for “Heil Hitler.” Though the meme has been adopted by hate groups, the image itself does not carry hateful connotations. It is only when the extra details are added on that the meme becomes a hate symbol.
Though the ADL’s addition of Pepe on their list of hate symbols protects marginalized people from hateful language, it blames the symbol instead of those who have appropriated it. Though Pepe has seen wild popularity among the alt-right supporters on the internet, it also remains popular across blogs and other sites such as Tumblr among innocent users. While the Pepe character has been imbued with white supremacy, the symbol has had a much longer history as an innocent example of the internet’s sense of humor. Pepe’s face has made it onto t-shirts, phone cases, and other memorabilia without negative connotation. Those who use the meme to spread hate do so intentionally and blatantly.