Pepe, the goggle-eyed green frog seen across thousands of message boards and Twitter avatars, has been having a tough week. On Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League officially classified the green-faced cartoon meme as a hate symbol, and added it to the organization’s growing hate-symbol database, which also includes the swastika, the Confederate flag, and the echo, a set of triple parentheses used by anti-Semites online to denote that someone is Jewish. While Pepe’s creation was entirely benign (his creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, told Esquire, “the vibe of the comic is very chill and mundane and absurd”), the frog has taken on a new life as a racist and a bigot, thanks to its popularity on websites like 4chan and Reddit. (These Pepes are often edited to look like Hitler or KKK members, or are drawn in blackface.)
To find out how the Anti-Defamation League decides when a meme crosses the line from internet novelty, to internet vitriol, to full-on internet hate speech, Select All talked to Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism to talk about about memes, social media, and what’s next for our friend Pepe.
So, first, talk to me about the process of declaring Pepe a hate symbol.
We’re not actively looking for memes to add to the ADL database. Our database has historically been very much focused on hate symbols commonly used by extremists that people may come across at a rally, or as vandalism. It’s intended to be an educational tool to give people context so they have a better understand of use of imagery by extremists.
Right. Over many years, and especially in recent months, we’ve realized that people are more likely to come across a hate symbol online rather than on the ground. Earlier this year, we added the echo to the database, but more recently, in terms of our own content and complaints that we’ve received, the Pepe the frog memes just kept coming up over and over again.
What led the ADL to Pepe? Is there a specific team that digs through social platforms looking for hateful memes? Or was this mostly from complaints from people outside the ADL?
It’s all the above. We have been studying the harassment of journalists by bigots and anti-Semites, and we saw that this meme was being used a lot. We saw it on our social-media channel repeatedly. And we actively do monitor what extremists talk about and what they’re posting online. It was one of these things where Pepe the frog kept coming up in racist contexts, so we thought maybe it’s time to add the meme to our list of symbols, and that way we can start a discussion about the hateful underbelly of the internet.
Absolutely, it can definitely get ugly down there. Has your team been in touch with Matt Furie, the artist who created Pepe all those years back?
We are planning to get in touch with him. I think one of the things we’ve tried to focus on, especially with memes, is whether or not there is a way to reclaim this. I know based on interviews he’s given, this cartoon is something that’s close to him and that he rejects the extremist and anti-Semitic use of this image. We would love to talk to him about ways to re-appropriate Pepe the frog, if at all possible.
Pepe seems like the perfect example of Godwin’s law.
Absolutely. The truth is whenever something gains popularity on social media it’s likely that at some point someone will try to co-opt that image for nasty or hateful purposes. However, not all of those things catch on. If I knew which ones would catch on, which ones would be viral, I probably wouldn’t be working here. We’d have solved the issue by now.
Are there any other memes on the ADL’s hate-speech radar?
We’ll see. Obviously this isn’t the only anti-Semitic meme out there. Like many other hate symbols that are, let’s say, “more traditional,” many of those are not used solely in a hateful context. We underscore that the context is key. If somebody has an iron cross or a spiderweb tattooed on their elbow, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are some kind of hater of extremist. We see a lot of memes and not all of them are as popular [as Pepe has become]. We’ll make those decisions as we come across them and when things increase enough to need attention.
Where does your team look for this kind of content? Are there specific message boards or sites you frequent?
You can look for places online where hateful people gather, but if they’re sharing hateful memes among their own community, that may not be enough to constitute a hate symbol. It’s when it starts becoming a little bit more public. When people who have nothing to do with that subculture start coming across or feeling impacted by a hateful meme. That’s when it rises to the level that we’ll start considering it. In that way, memes are different from your more standard tattoos and symbols used by white-supremacist groups.
What happens to Pepe now?
Unlike types of really blatant anti-Semitic and racist symbols, with this particular case, with Pepe the frog, because there is still a large amount of people who are not using it for hateful purposes, I believe that Pepe the frog’s final destination does not have to be the hate-symbol list.
So there’s hope for the frog.
I think we can save Pepe. I’d like to figure out ways — and maybe that’s working with Matt Furie or others — but I think this is an opportunity for people to push back against hatred and extremism by trying to save this frog.
I think Katy Perry will be glad to hear that. She’s a known Pepe fan.
A lot of people are.