When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added a cartoon frog to our database of hate symbols, we saw it as a perfect illustration of how easily an innocuous image can become an emblem of hate.
In the weeks and months ahead, we hope Pepe the Frog will come to illustrate a very different point: that every instance of hateful speech is an opportunity to learn, and that even the most hapless amphibian can become a force for good.
As we announced last week, ADL is thrilled to be working with Pepe’s creator, artist Matt Furie, in an effort to reclaim the reputation of this once-mellow frog, whose appropriation by members of the racist, anti-Semitic alt-right has made him a symbol of intolerance and hatred. Pepe has appeared frequently on social media dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and Nazi uniforms, and in depictions of the cruelest and most egregious Jewish caricatures.
It’s not easy being mean. While it’s not uncommon for white supremacists to try to co-opt pop culture icons (including Bart Simpson and My Little Pony), it is rare for one of these characters to be perverted — as Pepe has been — to a hate symbol.
The usurpation of Pepe has been linked to two factors: his adoption by members of the rising alt-right movement, and that group’s exploitation of the 2016 presidential campaign to disseminate their messages of divisiveness and prejudice (usually on social media, and often accompanied by a wretched-looking racist and anti-Semitic versions of Pepe). These images are now entrenched in the online hate coming from the extreme right.
Earlier this month, Furie reached out to ADL to express his dismay that Pepe has been appropriated by hatemongers, calling the development “a nightmare,” and pledging to use it as an “opportunity to speak out against hate.” To that end, Furie, who is scheduled to speak at ADL’s first “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism in November, will craft a series of positive Pepe images and memes, which we will promote on Twitter and other social media platforms using the hashtag #SavePepe.
The goal is to overwhelm the negative Pepe messages with an avalanche of positivity, and to return the frog to his original, laid-back self, which Furie refers to as a “celebration of peace, togetherness and fun.”
While it is very unusual for a hate symbol to be successfully rehabilitated, there is a recent precedent for this kind of effort: Earlier this year, when anti-Semites targeted Twitter users with “Jewish” names with the (((echo))) symbols, Jews and non-Jews alike responded by usurping the symbol and applying it to their own Twitter handles.
We hope the #SavePepe campaign, with its subversively positive images and messages, will have a similar defusing effect on the cynicism and animosity currently associated with Pepe.
We know that some will question our attempts to #SavePepe. Why bother? After all, ADL just released a report detailing how Jewish journalists have been viciously targeted by anti-Semites during this election season.
We are bothering because we know the power of standing up to hate. We know that when good people use their collective voice to oppose those who would marginalize and demonize others, hate will not triumph. And we also know that hate left unanswered is a wound that will fester -- especially online, where adults and kids alike will inevitably cross paths with hate.
So, yes, when a cartoon frog is usurped and becomes the digital calling card for the worst elements of our society, we are not only proud to join with its creator in fighting back, we say it is something we all must do.
And now, in partnership with Matt Furie, we’re ready to #SavePepe. We hope that many good people will join us.
That is why we bother.
Segal is Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
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