by Sabrina Pischer
Since the presidential election in 2016 and the events in Charlottesville on August 14, 2017, the American alt-right seems to be more visible than ever. The online support for the current alt-right movement seems to have increased drastically. Within the rise of a new extremist and far right online movement, social media as well as imageboards now play a central role in the distribution of racist, hateful content promoting white supremacy among other things. Facebook, Reddit, 4chan and Co. have become major sites for online communication that help to express and promote one’s own political affiliation and worldview. The alt-right, a major group at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, uses this digital landscape to organize themselves among like-minded people and spread racist content under the guise of irony and satire expressed in memes.
One specific online phenomenon appears repeatedly in the context of alt-right discourses on the internet: meme culture. Although memes are ubiquitously used and shared daily, they did not receive so much media attention until Donald Trump’s retweet of a comic frog meme called “Pepe, the Frog.” This meme gained several headlines from major news outlets like the L.A. Times, Time, as well as the New Yorker, and is by now officially a hate-symbol associated with the American alt-right.
Originally created by Matt Furie, an artist and children’s book author, “Pepe” appeared first in 2005 for Furie’s Myspace series “Boy’s Club” and was later used on imageboards such as 4chan for expressing sad or happy emotions through a comic frog face. Yet, as 4chan is prominent for its alt-right community, users decided to re-appropriate the frog as “intellectual property” due to an increasing popularity of the meme and its wider use on the internet. Soon, they started to share “Pepe” in the context of racist and right-wing populist discourses all over social media.
“Pepe” exists currently in every possible racist iteration: as Donald Trump, as Hitler, waving Swastika flags, as European right-wing populist leaders like Le Pen or Orban, or as “Confederate Pepe.” Especially “Confederate Pepe” is a perfect visual expression of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and reveals fundamental aspects of the alt-right and the importance of digital culture in the revival of current racist and also Confederate discourses. The meme usually depicts “Pepe” standing in front of a Confederate flag, wearing a Confederate uniform and waving a white peace flag which is crossed out. As seen in the meme, it honors the American Confederacy, but also raises discourses of war, slavery, and southern nationalism in its visual representation.
“Confederate Pepe” is a meme that does not only remember the southern Confederacy, but praises it and proves how historical discourses of the American Confederacy are still present and adjusted to digital tools. It combines ideas of racism, Confederate values such as white supremacy and hate towards others while linking them to “Pepe” as a general hate symbol for the alt-right. By applying historical ideas of the Confederacy and taking up current debates on heritage and Confederate monuments, “Confederate Pepe” appeals to a demographically diverse, less digitally organized right movement, yet manages ultimately to “unite the right” through its easy, overreaching racist symbolism.
This easy, but historical, symbolism is also visible in the “Unite the Right” rally poster which has been posted online by the organizers of the rally. Referencing Benjamin Franklin’s famous cartoon “Join, or Die”, later re-appropriated by the Confederacy with the slogan “Unite, or Die”, the meme poster advertising the Charlottesville rally includes, again, references to “Pepe, the Frog.” Among different symbols of American right movements in the snake tails, the last tail entitled with a “K” refers to the flag of “Kekistan,” a fictional republic invented by 4chan users that worships the god “Pepe.” Kekistani supporters describe themselves as fighting against imperialist notions of liberalism and left ideology. Issues such as identity politics, gender, and race quality, as well as climate change, are portrayed as discourses that turn the U.S. into an oppressive regime with no room for conservatism or nationalism. In this way, the racist usage of “Pepe” is not obvious, but refers to historical discourses of the Confederacy and references a political cartoon that has been used in defense of southern slave states.
“Confederate Pepe” allows other non-political actors to participate through the usage of political memes. Due to the close connection and direct communication that memes offer to their users, individuals can easily voice their identification with racist ideologies and express white supremacist discourses such as those raised by the Confederacy through simple, technical formalized processes such as the political meme. Moreover, political memes such as “Pepe” benefit the alt-right not only through the creation of memes, but limits the level of expression to short slogans, sentences, and symbolism.
Using symbolism such as the Confederate flag, stereotypical depictions of Confederate soldiers as “Pepe,” or references to historical sources play into the mechanisms of memes. These allow users to express a “simplified ideological core” of racist discourses and organize themselves among people that that share and spread the same political agenda, as happened in Charlottesville. They make it easier for users to self-identify as white supremacists.
Sabrina Pischer is a graduate student in North American Studies with a focus on American History, Postcolonial Studies and Media Studies at the University of Bonn and works as research assistant at the Department of English, American and Celtic Studies, University of Bonn. Her research focuses on online movements and representations of the self in digital media. She completed her undergraduate degree in English Studies and Art History at the University of Bonn.
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 Elle Hunt, “Pepe the Frog creator kills off internet meme co-opted by white supremacists,” The Guardian, May 07, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/08/pepe-the-frog-creator-kills-off-internet-meme-co-opted-by-white-supremacists.
 Gabriel E. Hine et al., “Kek, Cucks, and God Emperor Trump: A Measurement Study of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect Forum and Its Effects on the Web,” Paper presented at ICWSM-17: 11th International Conference on Web and Social Media, Montreal, May 15-18, 2017
 Evan, Malmgren, “Don’t feed the Trolls,” Dissent 64, no. 2 (2017): 12.
 Karen L. Cox, “Why Confederate Monuments Must Fall,” The New York Times. August 15, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/opinion/confederate-monuments-white-supremacy-charlottesville.html?mcubz=3.
 The fictional “Republic of Kekistan” is currently gaining more and more supporters on digital platforms. Besides a wiki devoted to the “Kekistani Republic,” there are numerous Facebook pages as well as a YouTube channel with racist songs, news, and national anthems devoted to “Pepe, the Frog”.
 “Republic of Kekistan Wiki,” Republic of Kekistan Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://kekistan.wikia.com/wiki/Republic_of_Kekistan_Wiki.
 Benjamin Krämer, “Populist Online Practices: The Function of the Internet in Right-Wing Populism,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 9 (2017): 1297-99.
 Wodak, Ruth, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Ring Populist Discourses Mean (Los Angeles: Sage, 2015), 11.
 Benjamin Krämer, “Media Populism: A Conceptual Clarification and Some Theses on Its Effects,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 9 (2017): 42.
 Gabriel E. Hine et al., ibid.