The controversial meme-famous green frog that went from friendly online fun to a symbol of hate is taking on new life in Hong Kong.
Months of protest arising from the city’s worst political crisis in decades have turned increasingly violent. Protesters have endured tear gas and rubber bullets, possible gang-tied attacks, and have brought the movement to the airport to avoid clashes with police.
On the streets, among the umbrellas and yellow hardhats, homemade signs and posters float above the commotion with messages of pro-democracy.
Recently, a new face has emerged on the signs in the crowds – Pepe the Frog.
Hong Kong protesters have adopted the widely known meme as part of their pro-democracy movement, but its ever-changing symbolism hasn’t been lost online.
It’s there that the cartoon meme has endured a rocky history of appropriation.
What is Pepe the Frog?
The cartoon frog was created in the early 2000s by Matt Furie in his comic strip Boy’s Club. It took on new life on 4chan where it spiraled into one of the biggest memes. The reactionary meme took on endless forms from Angry Pepe to Smug Pepe, and made its way to celebrity feeds like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry.
The internet-generated versions only continued to blossom, leading to a notable 2015 version of U.S. President Donald Trump as Pepe overlooking a fence at the U.S.-Mexico border, as two other characters stand behind it.
But the appropriation of the meme took a darker turn during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, becoming an online mascot for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists.
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The Anti-Defamation League branded the cartoon as a hate symbol in 2016: “Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users.”
Furie has fought to reclaim the character, including suing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars site for selling posters using Pepe’s image. He went as far as drawing Pepe’s funeral in 2017 in an attempt to put the meme to bed. Fans responded by drawing the frog back to life as Jesus.
Now, the frog is standing on new legs.
Reclaimed in embattled Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong, as millions of citizens are fighting a battle to protect its democracy, protesters have turned to the smug frog cartoon as a mascot.
His animated face has popped up on posters, been pinned to backpacks and spray-painted on the city’s walls. When protesters were shot in the eye by police last week, medical staff at one hospital showed support for an injured woman by drawing Pepe in a hardhat with blood dripping from his eye.
In true internet form, how Pepe is being drawn in Hong Kong is a new incarnation. On WhatsApp, a popular smartphone messaging app in Hong Kong, the meme can be found in dozens of downloadable stickers.
He appears as riot police swinging batons, as protesters with umbrellas and yellow hardhats and even as embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.
Some activists say Pepe has become a “resistance symbol” as they continue to push for expanded political rights following the tabling of the now-suspended extradition bill.
Gabriele de Seta, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, wrote that Pepe is known better as “sad frog” in China and had made it to Chinese social media with “surprising results… years before his mainstream popularity and politicized re-appropriations.”
“Just like in many other places and through many other media, Chinese users are taking Pepe and ‘doing their own thing with it’ — being it expressing their existential sadness through a QQ emotion, compiling sticker packs to share with friends, drawing a caricature of WeChat group members or mass-producing frog-shaped tissue dispensers,” he wrote.
Hongkongers may be familiar with the frog, but some wonder whether the pro-democracy protesters know what the meme means in the United States.
Some believe using what’s branded as a symbol of hate in the U.S. as part of a pro-democracy movement overseas has dangerous connotations.
“Leave it and find a better icon with no baggage,” one person posted on the Reddit thread Pepe! Take Back Pepe! “Pepe has a lot of baggage the movement doesn’t need.”
Just as some came to the meme’s defense when it became widely associated with the alt-right, others online are jumping to protect Pepe in Hong Kong.
One Redditor wrote Pepe’s symbolism in Hong Kong is an opportunity to reclaim the once-beloved meme.
“It’s a shame that so many Westerners here are shooting down this idea simply because it has connotations in their social groups that it probably doesn’t in others,” said one Redditor.
“Pepe is nothing but an icon, and icons only carry ideas you make them carry. There’s nothing that’s inherently good or bad about them. Please continue to use this, if it means something good to you, that’s all that matters.”
“Pepe was always the everyman meme,” said another.
The Redditor said it’s as if Pepe was “conceded to the Nazis.”
“Pepe is all of us, in all states. Pepe is whoever you want Pepe to be… Everyone should have just aimed to take back Pepe with their own anti-Nazi variations.”
“Nobody owns Pepe the frog,” said another.
“I could use it as a logo for lumber and used car tire depot.”