Pepe the Frog joins swastika and Klan hood in Anti-Defamation League's hate symbol database

A popular internet meme has joined the ranks of the swastika and the burning cross in the Anti-Defamation League's hate symbol database. But how did a cartoon frog with humble origins as a lovable indie comic book character become an emblem of white supremacy?

How weird cartoon frog went from comic book character to innocent meme to white supremacist emblem

Pepe is an internet meme that has gone through many iterations and interpretations, but is most recently associated with the alt-right movement. (

A popular internet meme has joined the ranks of the swastika and the burning cross in the New York-based Anti-Defamation League's hate symbol database. 

Pepe the Frog, an odd-looking cartoon frog that has recently become associated with white supremacists, is the second online phenomenon to be archived on the civil right's group's Hate on Display database. In June, the ADL added the "(((echo)))" symbol, wherein people single out Jewish people on social media by putting their names inside three parentheses. 

"These days our lives are so intertwined with what's happening on the internet," Oren Segal, director of the ADL's anti-extremism, told CBC News. 

"More people are probably likely to come across hate symbols through social media, through their online activity, than even on the ground."So for us it was important to reflect, in terms of this being an educational tool, the reality of what we're seeing online."

But like many symbols that have been adopted by hate groups, Pepe wasn't originally associated with racist and anti-semitic iconography. And to this day, he means many things to many people. 

Is Pepe the Frog a hate symbol?

6 years ago
Duration 2:30
Internet-famous frog's creator says Anti-Defamation League jumped the gun when it added cartoon character to its online database of hate symbols

Pepe the lovable slacker 

Pepe made his debut in 2005 in the indie comic Boy's Club by artist Matt Furie. Described by publisher Fantagraphics as "a stoner classic for the Tumblr generation," the comic follows the misadventures of four pizza-loving, video game-playing, slacker roommates.

"Seeing a frog always takes my breath away and brings a genuine smile to my face," Furie told the Daily Dot in a 2015 interview.

Pepe originated in Boy's Club, a Matt Furie comic about four roommates getting up to hijinks. (Fantagraphics )

The Pepe character's emotive facial expressions, most notably the pompous grin known as "Smug Frog," made it a go-to reaction image, first on select forums like 4Chan, and later on mainstream platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. 

"Like all great art, Pepe was open to endless interpretation, but at the end of the day, he meant whatever you wanted him to mean," writes The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi in her article "How Pepe the Frog Became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right Symbol."

"All in good fun, teens made Batman Pepe, Supermarket Checkout Girl Pepe, Borat Pepe, Keith Haring Pepe, and carved Pepe pumpkins."

It blew up so big that pop superstars Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry made use of the ambiguous amphibian on their social media feeds. 

But Pepe's mainstream popularity didn't sit well with the 4Chan folks who first started using it. 

Pepe the Nazi 

Members of the so-called alt-right, online trolls who reject traditional conservatism and espouse anti-immigrant views, and white nationalists (people who consider themselves members of the "white nation,") started laying claim to the frog.

One self-described teenage white nationalist, identified only as @JaredTSwift, told Nuzzi there was an "actual campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies."

"We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc.," he said. "We built that association. "

Pepe later became co-opted by others using it for Nazi propaganda. (Tumblr)

And it took off.

While some still use Pepe for innocuous purposes, it's become increasingly common to see the frog used to disparage immigrants, Jews or people of colour, and it's often seen sporting a Hitler mustache or a Nazi uniform.

"One thing that's important to note is that there's a whole bunch of different memes using this frog and that not all of the uses by any means have been or hateful reasons," Segal said.

"But certainly the past several months and over a period of time, it's been so common in terms of the harassment that people are receiving online that we felt that we needed to add it."

Pepe the Trump supporter 

Pepe has also become popular among Donald Trump supporters — a fact Hillary Clinton's campaign has seized on when Trump adviser Roger Stone and son Donald Trump Jr. both shared an image featuring Pepe.

The mock movie poster of The Expendables with right-wing personalities' faces swapped in for the action flick's stars, refers to Clinton's controversial comment that Trump's supporters are a "basket of deplorables."

The posts prompted Clinton campaign to post an explainer about Pepe, with the warning: "That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize."

Ironically, Pepe's creator is a self-professed Clinton supporter.

Asked what he thinks of his frog's latest iteration, he told the Guardian newspaper earlier this month: "It's all very new and very strange and definitely not something that I support. I guess Pepe is kind of its own internet thing now. I'm hoping not to get any hate or threats or anything."

Pepe's future 

Still, there may be hope for Furie's brainchild. 

Already, some have tried to reclaim the meme from the alt-right — and Segal says a symbol's inclusion in the database is not set in stone. 

"I think there's still a possibility that a meme like this or a specific image could be reclaimed if we see people who, for whatever reason, want to re-appropriate or reclaim an image by using it in a positive context," he said.

"I think the story of Pepe the frog is not over."


Sheena Goodyear


Sheena Goodyear is a web journalist with CBC Radio's As It Happens in Toronto. She is equally comfortable tackling complex and emotionally difficult stories that hold truth to power, or spinning quirky yarns about the weird and wonderful things people get up to all over the world. She has a particular passion for highlighting stories from LGBTQ communities. Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, her work has appeared on CBC News, Sun Media, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, VICE News and more. You can reach her at