If you’re like me, dropping into Twitter can be a baffling and agonizing experience. You can get tidbits of information from corners of the Internet not often covered by the mainstream, but it’s also like taking a leisurely stroll through a roach-infested swamp. The anonymity the social network provides can generate truly disgusting behavior from adolescent trolls now freed from social norms and politeness and no group has capitalized on this feature like the Alt-Right.
I argued last year that the Alt-Right was having its moment and moving from its dark corners of the net and vying for some form of legitimacy. This loose collection of right-wing actors has gone from an odd fringe ideology to being knotted to a Republican presidential nominee (who happens to be pulling even with his competition in a few polls).
One of the ways this movement has gained exposure in circles outside of staunchly fascist web boards is by creating and disseminating dank memes that are then re-posted by contrarian types with little knowledge of the image’s origins. One of the most recognizable and popular of these memes has been Pepe the Frog.
Olivia Nuzzi provides some background on Pepe the Frog.
This is Pepe, a cartoon amphibian introduced to the world sans swastikas and Trump associations in 2005, on Myspace, in the artist Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club, and popularized on 4chan in the ensuing 11 years, culminating in 2015, when teens shared Pepe’s likeness so many times he became the biggest meme on Tumblr. (Furie did not respond to an interview request from The Daily Beast.)
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. All in good fun, teens made Batman Pepe, Supermarket Checkout Girl Pepe, Borat Pepe, Keith Haring Pepe, and carved Pepe pumpkins.
But he also embodied existential angst. Pepe, the grimiest but most versatile meme of all, was both hero and antihero—a symbol fit for all of life’s ups and downs and the full spectrum of human emotions, as they played out online.
While Pepe did not originate as a white nationalist tool, it has been modified and adopted by the Al-Right as an instrument to connect the movement’s ideas to individuals not versed in white nationalism. I didn’t realize how far the reach of these memes extended until I witnessed some of my students posting them on their computers. By the time these things trickle down to American middle schools, you know they have found a certain degree of legitimacy and acceptance in mainstream culture.
Rachel Maddow did an excellent piece last week detailing the way memes of this nature have been brought into the mainstream.
Apparently, if Twitter is too sanitized and wholesome for you, the Alt-Right has created its own social network (Gab) that has been described as “an artifact from a dystopian universe where the alt-right completely took over Twitter.” I don’t think I will be dipping my toe into that cesspool.
Gab’s creation does beg the question: how potent and newsworthy will the Alt-Right be when they are regulated to platforms made up entirely of their adherents? One of the ways this movement has generated exposure and momentum has been by committing deplorable cyber acts in “public” spaces like Twitter. If Twitter ends up banning many of the Alt-Right’s most aggressive sponsors, will these individuals find that screaming at like-minded adherents rarely produces the publicity they desire? The Alt-Right has used meme generation as a tool to challenge the mainstream, but if they now retreat to a “safe space” of their own creation, it will likely limit the exposure of their ideas. The Alt-Right already has its own websites free from brand censorship; 4Chan and Reddit have existed as incubators to the movement for nearly a decade. Having yet another forum that acts as an echo chamber is not likely to push the Alt-Right further into the mainstream.
That is, assuming Trump isn’t elected, catapulting this movement into positions of power and authority.