How Conservative Trolls Turned the Rare Pepe Meme Into a Virulent Racist
On Monday night, Newsweek's executive editor Margarita Noriega was accused of racism. Her crime? Sharing a popular meme featuring a cartoon frog known as Pepe.
This led at least one follower to ask the obvious: Since when is a cartoon frog racist?
What's more, is tweeting a meme at Rubio inherently a racial attack? In this case, not likely. (Noriega, herself Mexican-American, declined to comment on the record.)
If you don't know about Pepe, he's a fairly simple meme. Pepe is a green cartoon frog once popular as a mascot on the online forum 4chan, a site often referred to as the "dark heart of the internet." Originally a comic strip character with the catchphrase "feels good man," Pepe's various iterations were collected in folders and traded like online baseball cards.
So how did he get so racist? Memes are as good as they are versatile and remixable — and since Pepe is so permutable, Pepe can be adapted to various causes. So over the past few years, as memes became a social currency of internet culture, you probably caught Pepe in news posts, on Black Twitter, Facebook comment sections and teenagers' Instagrams.
But the virulent trolls of 4chan have also spilled out into mainstream culture as well. Online conservative movements like Gamergate and the Donald Trump campaign have brought a troll constituency that uses dark humor, racist tropes, memes and the affectation of white supremacy. If you thought Pepe was hard to understand, have fun decoding the ethos of the emerging "alt-right."
And in the online media channels for these trolls, like 4chan, Twitter and Reddit's Trump hub /r/The_Donald, Pepe's been brutally reclaimed by his original masters:
Though journalists might be accused of killing a meme by over-explaining it in the media, this transformation has been underway for some time. Memes are a part of the way we have conversations online, and like any internet conversation, this one was bound to devolve into racism in the end — especially a meme originally championed by a hate mob.
In a cornucopia of rare Pepes that change faces like infinite masks, maybe Trump is the most common, archetypical Pepe of all.