The Anti-Defamation League has added "Pepe the Frog" to its online database of hate symbols, the organization announced in a press release issued today. The meme, featuring an anthropomorphic frog character originally from the comic Boy’s Club, has in recent months been co-opted by the alt-right movement, which has used the smiling frog in a number of hateful and offensive ways.
Pepe's descent into Nazi territory — the meme was, for years, a cheerful bipartisan one — has been one of the sadder and weirder turns of this already-bizarre election. It's a perfect example of the the aggressive and insular online tactics of the alt-right, a right-wing movement that has arose mostly online in recent years to promote nationalism and other fringe ideologies. The candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who himself is sympathetic to alt-right stances, has thrust many of these dark corners of the internet into the spotlight.
"Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes."
"Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users," writes Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO, in a statement. "These anti-Semites have no shame. They are abusing the image of a cartoon character, one that might at first seem appealing, to harass and spread hatred on social media." It's not uncommon to find replies to Trump's tweets filled to the brim with Pepe avatars, and the frog is a fixture in alt-right breeding grounds like 4chan and Trump's dedicated Reddit community, r/The_Donald. The ADL likens it to the use of the (((echo))) symbol, which the alt-right has used in the past to identify Jewish users for harassers to target.
Pepe's connection to white supremacy and other alt-right ideologies has been subject to scrutiny. The meme gained mainstream notoriety thanks to an article in The Daly Beast back in May detailing its connections to online hate groups. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton then linked to that article in her widely read explainer on the alt-right, which was itself a response to Trump's retweet of an image blending his likeness with Pepe's.
Alt-right members and pro-Trump online militants are eager to suggest that the connection is tenuous at best, and mostly the product of two online trolls who tricked The Daily Beast. Whatever its true connection to the alt-right is, Pepe is now a full-fledged hate symbol in the eyes of the ADL. So perhaps think twice before trying to fall back on the meme in casual conversation.