What does a simply-drawn meme of a cartoon frog have in common with some of the most revolting hate speech in America? More than you might imagine. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced in a statement Tuesday that it was classifying Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol due to its connections with white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups. Also known as the "sad frog" meme, Pepe is an anthropomorphic green frog usually depicted smiling or staring morosely at the viewer, though in the many years since the meme first surfaced, he has been depicted with many different outfits, faces, and emotions.
The latest incarnation of Pepe, unfortunately, is a deeply racist one. The ADL's press release about the update to its hate symbols database notes that the once-benign meme has been used to harass Jewish Internet users:
Images of the frog, variously portrayed with a Hitler-like moustache, wearing a yarmulke or a Klan hood, have proliferated in recent weeks in hateful messages aimed at Jewish and other users on Twitter.
The Pepe meme hate symbol page includes images of the frog in a Klan uniform, dressed as Hitler, accompanied by racial slurs, and in front of the burning twin towers. Recently, Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., have both been criticized for posting the meme.
How did a cartoon frog become a symbol of the alt-right? According to Know Your Meme, Pepe originated in 2005 as part of the Boy's Club comics by artist Matt Furie, and originally gained prominence on 4Chan because of a frame depicting Pepe urinating with the caption, "Feels Good, Man." Pepe memes slowly proliferated. Created in 2012, Twitter account @ItsPepe has over 114,000 followers and now tweets links to videos often unrelated to Pepe. By 2015, Tumblr reported that Pepe the Frog was its single most reblogged meme.
Not all 4Chan users were pleased by the news. Some simply reacted to the mainstream popularity of the meme by creating "rare Pepes," similar memes ostensibly (and usually jokingly) traded like cards based on claims of rarity.
Another, more sinister, reaction to the mainstream popularity of Pepe the Frog was the effort by white nationalists to redefine the meme as a symbol for their movement. Alleged white supremacist Jared Taylor Swift (known as @JaredTSwift) told The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi that Pepe was a "reflection of [forum users'] souls," and that they would "make him toxic if we had to." Swift, whose Twitter account claims to be a parody, later told The Daily Caller that he had just been kidding, though he took to Twitter on Tuesday, apparently to claim credit for the meme's listing on the ADL database.
That Pepe has been co-opted by people spouting anti-Semitic and white supremacist rhetoric is undeniable. When Observer reporter Dana Schwartz wrote an open letter criticizing Donald Trump to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, anti-Semites flooded her Twitter mentions, urging her to kill herself and referencing Holocaust death camps. This harassment, which is documented in Schwartz's Observer post, frequently came from users who had various versions of Pepe the Frog as their avatars, and they sometimes incorporated versions of Pepe into their attacks.
Regardless of the muddled origins of Pepe's association with white supremacists, it is sadly clear now that many people who produce anti-Semitic speech and materials on Twitter and elsewhere are using him as a mascot.