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Pepe The Frog's Long, Strange Journey — From Internet Meme To Hate Symbol


The Anti-Defamation League keeps a database on its website. It's called Hate on Display. It tracks symbols used by hate groups. It includes symbols like the swastika, images of crosses burning. And now it has a new entry, an Internet meme named Pepe. NPR's Rose Friedman explains.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: Pepe doesn't look like the symbol of anything. He's green with buggy eyes, and he's a frog. He's the creation of a cartoonist named Matt Furie. And for about a decade, Pepe was just an internet character used to punctuate jokes. He had taglines like, feels good man. You'd use him like you'd use an emoji.

DON CALDWELL: This was all, like, really just silly, like, you know, joking images.

FRIEDMAN: That's Don Caldwell. He's a senior editor at knowyourmeme.com. He says Pepe was a cultural currency on sites like Reddit and 4chan. And then things started to change.

CALDWELL: People started getting really bent out of shape about him being adopted by the mainstream internet.

FRIEDMAN: Celebrities were tweeting Pepe. He was all over Tumblr, and that rubbed some folks the wrong way.

CALDWELL: People, like, decided to make these campaigns to try to make him distasteful so that people like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj wouldn't be tweeting him.

FRIEDMAN: The people behind the campaign were anonymous, but one of them was quoted in an article on The Daily Beast in May.

CALDWELL: He's - he claimed that people were working on a campaign to reclaim Pepe from the "normies," quote, unquote, by making anti-Semitic versions of him, right?

FRIEDMAN: So the theory is that Pepe started appearing in hateful memes so that celebrities and others would stop using him. The news media picked up on it. Hillary Clinton's campaign referred to Pepe as a symbol associated with white supremacy. It even popped up at a Clinton speech.


HILLARY CLINTON: The emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.


CLINTON: Now, alt-right is short for alternative right.

FRIEDMAN: Did you hear it? Someone interrupted her, shouting Pepe. At this point, views have diverged. Some still think of Pepe as an Internet joke. Others are gleeful that the joke has managed to ensnare the mainstream news and politicians. And a third group takes him seriously.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: This is important.

FRIEDMAN: Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

GREENBLATT: You cross the line when you use memes and images and order to threaten harm against a certain segment of society. And so in those cases, the, quote, unquote, you know, "trolls" may be laughing, but we think what's more important is to marginalize these ideas and ensure that they are pushed back into the corners and recess of society where they belong.

FRIEDMAN: Greenblatt says Pepe needs to be called out, even if that's what the creators of hateful memes want to see. Rose Friedman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.