From Pepe the Frog to Pepe Le Pen: The Life and Times of a Political Meme
We hardly knew ye.
Pepe the Frog—the "chill frog-dude" cum alt-right symbol—was laid to rest by creator Matt Furie this weekend, hours before Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate behind one of the meme's latest incarnations as Pepe Le Pen, lost out to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in France's presidential election.
Did meme magic's failure to secure another populist send Pepe over the edge? Was the fate of its Gallic brethren too much to bear?
The straight answer circulating around the web is that Furie, unable to rescue his creation from the alt-right's clutches, "symbolically" killed off the frog. Furie has not spoken up since publishing the open-casket cartoon.
According to Whitney Phillips, a digital media folklorist at Mercer University, "what the outcome in France suggests is that [the alt-right] is able to wield [meme] influence only when piggybacking on media forces more powerful than themselves"—i.e. Breitbart and fake news.
France, however, "doesn't have an equivalent media apparatus supporting that influence," Phillips told Motherboard in an email.
Despite reports of some French far-right groups embracing Pepe Le Pen, a New York Times analysis of social media activity concluded that American alt-right efforts to influence the French electorate with a deluge of memes and other viral content ultimately fell flat, largely due to "cultural gaps"—and the fact that memes often weren't translated into French.
Moreover, Phillips maintains there is "absolutely no data supporting" meme magic—the idea that the "power of the meme" can be harnessed to shape politics and contributed to Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US elections—to begin with.
"What is clear, and is supported by data, is that far-right media outlets were able to significantly influence mainstream media discourse in the US election, which helped, at the very least, bolster the visibility of Breitbart-aligned antagonists, which was further bolstered by American journalists amplifying the alt-right's actions and chosen narrative," Phillips wrote.
She hopes that Pepe's death will bring about "more critical reflection about what exactly is powering alt-right antagonists' messaging."
What's the normal life cycle of a frog anyway? Maybe Pepe's time is up.
More practically, Brian McCullough, the creator of the Internet History Podcast, which chronicles the rise of the consumer internet, told Motherboard that "memes have a useful shelf-life, like fashion or slang."
"At first they're like a secret handshake shared among people privy to an inside joke. But after the sell-by date, a meme can only feel stale and make someone who invokes it seem woefully out of touch. Like a Dad trying to seem hip; or the last person to wear Cavaricci pants; or the last surfer to say 'tubular'," he said.
"What's the normal life cycle of a frog anyway? Maybe Pepe's time is up," McCullough added.
Born in 2005 as part of Furie's "Boys Club" comic, Pepe the Frog was slowly co-opted by nationalist fringe groups around 2015, who transformed the friendly stoner frog into a racist and anti-semitic symbol. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) classified the meme as a hate symbol in September 2016 for "suggest[ing] racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted notions."