This Election Has Devolved into a Battle Between Frog Memes

October 4th 2016

Over the weekend, a battle between meme frogs erupted on social media.

The social media trend caught wind after a prolonged debacle over Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's surrogates and alt-right supporters adopting the popular "Pepe" frog meme.

"Pepe" has recently been featured in various pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton memes, most notably the viral responses to Clinton's comment about Trump's "deplorable" racist supporters.

As the Huffington Post explains, the character was created by artist Matt Furie in 2005 and appeared in the zine “Boy’s Club" alongside other animals depicted smoking weed, eating snacks, and watching TV. The frog became widely popularized when a cartoon of him saying "Feels Good Man" made its way around the internet in 2008, according to Know Your Meme.

The sinister side of the frog was initially revealed in May, in a Daily Beast report, which described Pepe's spike in popularity among white supremacists on 4chan, Reddit, and elsewhere during Trump's presidential bid.

Since then, some Trump supporters have maintained that Daily Beast's sources were simply trolling the publication, according to the Verge.

Whether or not this is the case, Pepe's meaning has certainly shifted among the general public. The Anti-Defamation League even went so far as to classify the frog as an anti-Semitic hate symbol in late September, the Verge reports. The Hillary Clinton campaign also published an explainer on the frog in mid-September.

In response to the co-opting of "Pepe," Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall tweeted a cheeky endorsement of a different popular internet frog — Kermit — on Sunday.

Marshall's tweet quickly ignited a viral trend among Clinton supporters, who used the frog to express their allegiance to the Democratic candidate.

Memes have delivered controversial headlines at various points during the election dating back to Trump's habit of re-tweeting images from racially inflammatory Twitter feeds during the Republican primary race.

And Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., recently faced criticism for spreading a meme comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned skittles, referencing an analogy from a Nazi children's book, the Intercept reports.

But Marshall's tweet brings up a larger point than Trump, Clinton, or either of their respective tastes in viral content.

Each individual meme controversy, alongside the larger discussion around "Pepe," illustrates how the internet has turned political discourse into a very confusing game of telephone.

When we use memes and other symbols to convey our identities and political views on social media, their messages are frequently distorted as a meme spreads.

In response to Marshall, New Republic editor Jeet Heer unleashed a tweetstorm of his own reflecting on the way animals (particularly frogs) have been used to discuss race in American culture.

Frog characters also have a unique racial history in pop culture, Heer pointed out.

He also hypothesized that alt-right frog fans might use memes because they subconsciously feel ashamed to express racism in the open.

The idea of a meme actually pre-dates the internet, as the Conversation explains.

Memes reference the theoretical field of “memetics," a term coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' theory compared how we transmit cultural information to the way genetics are passed on from parents to children.

As the Conversation explains, memetic theory leans on an evolutionary frame work and "suggests that memes compete, reproduce and evolve just as genes do." In other words, in order for a meme to survive, it has to cut through the noise created by other memes and kinds of information. This may explain why popular memes tend to simplify otherwise complex ideas, but also can spread misinformation rapidly.

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