Politics

How 'Pepe the Frog' went from harmless to hate symbol

Feels bad, man.

Denizens of the darker corners of the Internet turned an innocent frog comic into a hate symbol of the "deplorable" alt-right. 

"Pepe the Frog" first appeared in 2005 in the comic "Boy's Life" by artist and illustrator Matt Furie. The comics depict Pepe and his anthropomorphized animal friends behaving like stereotypical post-college bros: playing video games, eating pizza, smoking pot and being harmlessly gross.

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For the Record

Dec. 7, 7:15 p.m.: This article incorrectly says the Pepe the Frog character first appeared in Boy's Life. It should have said Boy's Club.

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In 2008, fans of the comic began uploading Furie's work online. In one comic, Pepe responds to a question about his bathroom habits with, "Feels good, man."

That reaction image and catchphrase took on a life of its own on the Internet, meriting a Know Your Meme entry by 2009. Alternate iterations of Pepe, including sad, smug and angry Pepes, followed. Pepe memes are ubiquitous across 4chan, Reddit, Imgur, Tumblr, and other social media and image-sharing sites.

It all seemed in good fun, but in late September, Pepe's green visage was designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.

Pepe the Frog.
Pepe the Frog. (Matt Furie / mattfurie.tumblr.com)

The ADL's online hate symbol database is designed to help law enforcement, educators, and members of the general public identify potentially hateful images, explained Oren Segal, the director of the organization's Center on Extremism. He said that in recent years, hate symbols have proliferated online. Now, with things like Pepe the frog, anti-Semitic images are originating and circulating almost primarily on social media.

In some instances, Pepe wears a Hitler mustache, and his signature message is replaced with "Kill Jews Man." In others, Pepe poses in front of a burning World Trade Center, dressed like an Orthodox Jewish person with a yarmulke and payot. He's also been spotted wearing a Nazi soldier's uniform and in a KKK hood and robe.

In May, the Daily Beast spoke to a white supremacist who said there had been a concerted effort on the site 4chan to "reclaim Pepe" from normal people in late 2015. Pepe had gone mainstream: He's been tweeted by Katy Perry, who said she has a "Pepe file" on her computer, and has made multiple appearances on Nicki Minaj's Instagram. So the supremacist group remixed him with Nazi propaganda for a laugh.

It originated on /rk9/, the 4chan message board associated with some of the least savory elements of the Internet. Last fall, people on that board purposefully framed two innocent individuals for the Umpqua Community College shooting. It's allegedly where Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger announced his shooting before it took place — in a post with a Pepe meme.

Nazi Pepe made its way to Twitter, where people who regularly tweeted messages supporting white nationalism and anti-immigrant views quickly absorbed it into their Internet repertoire. People who identify with those movements add the frog emoji to their Twitter name.

In August, Hillary Clinton gave her now-infamous speech denouncing some of Donald Trump's supporters, particularly the segment known as the alt-right, as a "basket of deplorables."

A couple weeks later, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. posted a photo on Instagram that depicted him and other supporters as "The Deplorables" -- a play on the poster from the movie "The Expendables." In the lineup? Pepe.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BKMtdN5Bam5/

Two weeks after that, the ADL made its official designation. Segal, the representative for the organization, said that while the ADL was researching harassment of journalists on Twitter -- particularly the use of the triple-parenthetical (((echo))) around names to designate Jewish people -- they began to notice Pepe's face coming up more frequently.

He said people on his staff were aware of Pepe's original, inoffensive incarnation, but it was clear that the frog had become associated with anti-Semitic opinions online.

"When we felt that [Pepe] was reaching that point of the hateful version becoming more widespread, that's a criteria for adding it to our hate symbols database," he explained.

To be clear, not every instance of Pepe is hateful, Segal explained. It depends on the context. Using Pepe to describe how it feels when you eat your friend's French fries or to express concern about getting your life in order: not hateful. Photoshopping Pepe in front of a concentration camp: hateful.

Hopefully, he says, the Pepe meme will be able to move past this dark point in its history and go back to just being fun. If enough people share positive -- or at least non-hateful -- Pepe memes, to the point where few people encounter Nazi Pepe online, it wouldn't be a hate symbol anymore.

"The hate symbol database isn't the final stop for this meme," he said.

That came as a big relief to Furie, the artist who created Pepe. He has been understandably devastated by the turn his creation has taken.

"To have it evolve into what it is today, it's a nightmare," Furie said. "It's kind of my worst nightmare ... to be tangled in forever with a symbol of hate."

“I would love to help the ADL and do my part by flooding the Internet with positive Pepe memes,” he added.

He's not even a particularly political guy. Prior to the ADL's hate symbol announcement, he had never heard of the alt-right or the nascent white supremacist movement that's sprung up around Trump. Though he'd heard of Pepe being used as a meme as far back as 2008, he never made the memes himself. He says he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.

"I'm a lifelong artist," said Furie, who lives in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood. "Hate and racism couldn't be further from something on my radar. I try to focus on positivity and nature and animals."

Furie stopped drawing Pepe about six years ago, though he did revive him recently for a very special drawing on his Tumblr. It depicts the frog wearing a "Make Pepe Great Again" hat, urinating on a green-faced Trump.

Reclaiming your own work from anti-Semites: Feels good, man.

@jessica_roy

jessica.roy@latimes.com

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