After a few long years, Pepe the Frog is finally beginning to fade from the racist internet. With the help of a team of intellectual property lawyers, cartoonist Matt Furie has successfully petitioned The Daily Stormer, a popular, Trump-loving, neo-Nazi website, to remove almost all references to or images of his long-appropriated character. “We had seen for a while that they had been using Pepe images in a few places,” one of Furie’s lawyers at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP (WCPHD) said, according to a Motherboard report. “The problem was that they would be up and then their entire site will be down and move somewhere else and reorganize. The reason it takes us longer on this and some of the others is the way their website moves around a bunch.” That movement is likely a result of the fallout from last year’s horrific Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of protester Heather Heyer. Many ISPs and web service platforms finally decided that The Daily Stormer was toxic enough to ban from their servers.
This takedown is the latest victory in the cartoonist’s ongoing campaign to divorce the openly white supremacist right from his most infamous creation; it’s an effort that began around 2015, just as America was beginning to descend into the hell of the 2016 presidential election. WCPHD is representing Furie pro bono, and, as Motherboard notes, they’ve previously managed to get the white nationalist Richard Spencer to stop using Pepe as the logo for his podcast. (Furie has also sued commentator Alex Jones’ site Infowars for similar infringements.) Along the same lines, Facebook also instituted a deletion policy for hateful Pepes earlier this year: in its training manual for mods, the company wrote, “Pepe the Frog has been endorsed by many hate groups to convey hateful messages.” The success of many of these campaigns are significant victories, given Pepe’s rough journey through the hall of racist mirrors that comprises the fascistic online right.
Pepe, a character Furie originally created in 2005 as a feel-good stoner in his comic series Boy’s Club, has had a hell of a time over the last couple years — in particular since the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. The frog’s lurid green face is best recognized thanks to his appearances around 2008 in the fetid swamps of 4chan (namely, /b/, the site’s most infamous board), where he became a meme qua meme, remixed and redrawn into a million different iterations, a million different uses and shapes. (Katy Perry even tweeted about him in 2014. At one point, dude was truly mainstream.)
As the forum gradually evolved from a nest of trolls into a breeding ground for out-and-out white supremacists, however, Pepe warped with them. By the time November 2016 rolled around, Donald Trump’s son had retweeted Pepe and Hillary’s campaign had denounced the character as hate speech. As Reply All’s PJ Vogt noted on a 2016 episode of the show:
[T]he way [people on 4chan] would, like, pull Pepe back to them would be to start associating Pepe with really gross stuff. So like, at first that was just like, you know, poop and pee, but then somehow that like migrated into like very racist Pepe drawings. Like, Pepe standing outside a gas chamber. Like really dark, horrible, horrible stuff.
As the 4chan right — the trolling, Gamergate right, if you will — morphed into the alt-right, Pepe the Frog became publicly associated with white nationalism. Hence Furie’s campaign.
It’s rare for anyone to even begin to slow down the proliferation of a meme, let alone one that has already reached total cultural saturation. That Furie has managed to do that despite only having been at it for two years is remarkable. If it’s not totally a sign that the tide is starting to turn against bigotry online, it’s at least a hopeful development for those engaged in that work.