A recent example of the power of memes is an analysis of the 2016 U.S presidential election, particularly the fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The presidential campaign saw both parties creating or re-appropriating various memes and using them in their campaigns. According to an article listed by the Guardian in the U.S, memes are “These shareable, sometimes pithy and often puerile units of culture that have emerged as the lingua franca of the 2016 election, and have given the American people an entirely new way of articulating their beliefs…potentially ‘ruining democracy”. Although political memes have always existed, as have memes generally, the major difference between past political memes and the digital image and video memes we see today is that there is a difference in the regularity of the meme and the way in which it is created and shared as stated by Ross and Rivers (2017, p. 2) Whereas before the internet, memes would have been limited to carefully scripted and manicured public relations and marking campaigns, today’s meme is created and distributed from the bottom up. The great unwashed masses of the internet message boards and forums gather together to create, modify and share memes, often with a political or social goal in mind. This operation of creating, sharing and modifying politically charged memes can be called ‘meme warfare’. These terms have arisen from the fact that during the 2016 U.S presidential election, memes seemed to wield a great deal of power in shaping public perceptions and opinions
Although limited, my knowledge of pepe as an internet meme did not include anything related to white supremacy or racism so the controversy surprised me. My first experience with pepe was several years ago on the anonymous message board ‘4chan’. Although I do not contribute to memes or discussion on 4chan, elements of its subculture and various memes from 4chan spread to other areas of the online world. To me, pepe was simply a cartoon frog that was adapted by many online communities as a humorous meme. How did pepe transform from a seemingly harmless meme frog, to the mascot of an apparently racist and possibly even neo-nazi group of subscribers to the ‘alt-right’ political movement.
On September 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton was interviewed on an Israeli news media program, where she said that Trump supporters are in “two big baskets,” one of which contains “deplorables” who are made up of “racists” and “haters.” The next day, Hillary Clinton spoke of the same topic while she was at a private fundraiser, where she said “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call ‘the basket of deplorables’.” On September 10th, Twitter user ‘Donald Trump Jr.’ posted a photoshopped movie poster on Instagram of the 2010 action film ‘The Expendables’, which featured various conservative politicians and media figures, media figures and Pepe the Frog with the title ‘The Deplorables’
On September 12 of 2016 the Hillary Clinton website released an explainer article titled ‘Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer’, with an equally terrifying subtitle ‘That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize’.
The article then follows on with a comprehensive description of the ‘cartoon frog’ that appears behind and to the right of Donald Trump’s digitally emplaced head. The focus centered on Pepe the frog, which had been previously accepted by trump when he tweeted an image of pepe drawing in his likeness;
‘Pepe’ as the green and somewhat crudely drawn frog is known, was described by the Hillary website staff as a mascot of white supremacists. The Clinton website explainer links to a news article that suggests pepe the frog has been entirely ‘co-opted’ by a group of white supremacists that adhere to an ‘alt-right’ theory of politics.
This view was expressed directly by Hillary Clinton during a speech addressed to the public on August 25th of 2016.