No technological development has had a greater impact on the connection of people around the world than the internet. Allowing us to share thoughts, images, videos, hopes, and dreams, in near real time; the internet is a powerful and dangerous tool for the propagation of political ideologies. Anyone who has spent any considerable time on the internet is familiar with the unique form of postmodern artistic expression born from the anonymity and instantaneous communication afforded users by the internet, known as the internet Meme. After the use of Memes in the 2016 US presidential election it became clear that internet memes were no longer a niche expression of a technologically literate subculture. They had finally broken into the mainstream in a big way, and sometimes with devastating results.
The word “meme” was originally coined by Richard Dawkins before the cultural domination of widespread internet use. In the original sense, a meme was any idea or concept that spreads evolutionarily, through natural selection; essentially mutating and either changing or becoming extinct as interest in it wanes. A classic example of this early definition is the concept of a higher power, which has propagated in the minds of humans for presumably longer than there has been recorded history; changing and dying out, only to be revived or reemerge in a different form and/or in a different cultural context.
In the context of the internet meme, the basic principles of Dawkin’s initial neologism hold true. Most of the time, modern internet memes take the form of humorous analogies, although the evolutionary history of memes can be traced all the way back to the dawn of the public internet, when people shared basic quotes and images back and forth. Early memes, or proto-memes such as the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” cat pictures or “advice animals” image macros evolved over nearly two decades into the memes of today.
2016 was the year that internet memes really came into their own, both ideologically and artistically. This is directly related to two essential factors: the first being that the first generation of digital natives came of age — those who have never known a world without, and grew up fluently using digital devices. Modern adults without knowledge of internet memes lack an important cultural capital that their peers exchange often without a second thought. The second factor is the 2016 presidential election, in which a campaign platform using the internet, and catering to the newly emancipated digital natives, was implemented aggressively for the first time. In order to understand the importance of internet memes we will track the “career” of Pepe the Frog, one of the most infamous and easily recognizable internet memes.
Pepe the Frog, also known by other monikers denoting its varied use including: “ Feels Good Man, Sad Frog, Angry Pepe, Smug Frog and Well Meme'd,” is a reaction image based on the comic Boy’s Club, published by Matt Furie in 2005. In 2008, a depiction of the character with the caption “feels good man” became a virulent reaction image, originating on 4chan and quickly spreading throughout the internet to the point of ubiquity. Due to the easily recognizable features of the character, the image was easily manipulated while maintaining recognizability. This allowed it to be retooled for practically any caption or niche application, without which it would have never been able to generate and maintain the staying power to remain relevant on the internet for over a decade. (knowyourmeme.com)
In 2014 Pepe hit critical mass. Celebrities including Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry posted on Instagram and Twitter respectively with Pepe variations meant to relate to their experiences. At this point there was heavy circulation of Pepes on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter, in addition to 4chan, where it is believed to have originated. In epidemiological terms, if Pepe were a disease it would have an R0 (basic reproduction number) value significantly higher than 1 — highly infectious. The same year, the /r9k/ board on 4chan began creating and spreading photoshopped images of the character, shared like trading cards, dubbed “rare Pepes.”
“On March 31st, a /r9k/ user posted an imgur gallery with over 1,200 pictures of Pepe. In the first week, the gallery received more than 260,000 views. In early April, the collection of Pepe images were listed on eBay, which reached a price of $99,166 before being removed from the site.” (knowyourmeme.com)
The power of memes to reach a wide and diverse group, as well as to have significant influence on them was now apparent. In 2015, Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, hopped on the trend by tweeting an image of himself as Pepe standing at a lecturn bearing the seal of the President of the United States of America. This post went viral, receiving tens of thousands of likes and thousands of retweets. In September of 2016, a photoshopped image of Trump and his cronies as members of “The Expendables,” but with the title edited to read “The Deplorables” was posted online as a response to Hillary Clinton publically referring to them as such. From here, several big names entered the fray, condemning Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol, including CNN, NBC, Vanity Fair, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
At this point it is important to remember that any popular meme format is likely to be picked up by hateful and reactionary groups to promote their ideology, this is true of many popular memes, and was certainly true of Pepe from its inception (especially considering that 4chan is widely regarded to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy). Emboldened by Donald Trump and his contemporaries, like David Duke and the ghost of Adolf Hitler, members of the American alt-right embraced a national culture permissive of a more and more vocal expression of their bigotry. Following Trump’s lead, there was a strong uptick in politicized, hateful Pepe memes. While the Anti-Defamation League makes it clear in their analysis of Pepe the Frog that the overwhelming majority of Pepe memes “have been, and continue to be, non-bigoted,” the unfortunate truth is that the damage has been done, and the meme is now tainted. Despite a joint campaign between the ADL and Pepe’s creator Matt Furie, the ADL also notes that alt-right uses of the meme continue to grow.
While this is a specific example of the potential of an internet meme taken to the extreme, it is a powerful reminder of the power and presence of the internet in modern life, specifically politics. The internet can be used for great good and evil, it's up to us, citizens of the world wide web, to decide how we are going to harness this power to create a better world and influence voters. The internet is no longer separate from the issues of "real life." The future of politics on the internet is going to be fascinating and scary, but the most dangerous thing we could do is pretend that it doesn't exist or isn't worth following.
Wanna know more? Check out the Anti-Defamation League's webpage on the subject, and Know Your Meme’s in-depth breakdown of this meme (and practically any other meme under the sun):
CW; racist words and imagery. https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog
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