This is how Pepe the frog arrived at the Congress of Deputies
On June 2, the daily session of the Cortes Generales included for the first time a mention of a frog named Pepe. During the appearance of the head of Facebook’s Public Policies, Guillermo Serrano, in the Mixed Commission of National Security of the Congress and the Senate, Manuel Mariscal Zabala, a Vox deputy, took the floor. In a 10-minute speech, Mariscal criticized how “social networks have gone from being a tool to democratize information to being a tool for controlling public opinion.” And when he had 30 seconds left, he showed a sticker that he carried on his mobile and explained: “This is Pepe the frog, a symbol of thousands of young people of this generation who are not going to allow the left to impose on them how to think and what to say” . Pepe, Pepe the Frog in English, he had jumped from the social networks of the American extreme right to Spanish politics.
Mariscal’s phrase may be inconsequential for those who have not followed the growing prominence of memes in the last decade. But in a single 42-second video from the Authentic Facha Hours account, with the biography “Neither left nor right, Spanish”, Mariscal’s message has been viewed more than 210,000 times and has more than 2,000 retweets. For comparison, between the Twitter accounts of PSOE and PP during the last year there are only five tweets with video that have reached these figures.
The Pepe frog is also an international claim in certain circles. This account that is pending the evolution of the “populist uprising” also tweeted the clip next to a video of a suspended account. It takes more than a thousand I like.
Why is the Pepe the frog meme important? First, if everything seems like a joke, it is because it is not that far from it. “The Pepe the frog is a symbol of white supremacism,” says Ben Pettis, a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA), who has written entire articles on the frog. “It is definitely strange to think how an absurd drawing can represent hateful ideologies. But that ridiculousness is part of why Pepe the frog has continued to be so popular with radical right-wing groups, ”he adds.
When the issue jumps to the media or provokes outrage, as has been the case for years, those responsible “can always say ‘but it’s just a joke’ or ‘it’s just a drawing,'” adds Pettis. This ambiguity allows radical messages to be introduced without saying anything irreverent and that in no other way could have entered a place like Congress without causing an earthquake of indignation. It is like whispering a message only to the ear of your followers or close ones. This is how thousands of voters see it, who know what Pepe’s context is while the rest of society continues to do its thing.
“Memes are increasingly used in political communication to strategically mask intolerant and problematic messages,” says Eleonora Benacchi, a researcher at the University of Italian Switzerland (Lugano, Switzerland) and co-author of a recent article about Pepe. “Politicians who share or use these controversial memes in public spaces should know the political implications of those acts. Pepe the frog is not an ordinary drawing or an element of humor that cannot be taken seriously ”, he adds.
In the fall of 2016, Pepe the frog rose to fame, although Trump had already retweeted it in 2015. Hillary Clinton’s campaign dedicated him an article a day after Donald Trump JR, the former president’s son, posted a photo of his team with a frog-headed member on Instagram. Four years later, Trump himself tweeted a cartoon of himself with the face of a frog with the message: “You cannot silence Trump.” “Pepe started his life on the internet as an innocent meme, but in recent years he has been captured by white supremacists who call themselves the ‘alt-right’. They have decided to keep Pepe adding swastikas and other anti-Semitic and supremacist symbols, ”explains the Clinton campaign article.
The organization of the Anti Defamation League, an organization whose purpose is to study the phenomenon of neofascism worldwide, declared the frog as a symbol of hatred in those days. But he was kind enough to admit that “since so many Pepe the frog memes are not intolerant, it is important to examine them in context.”
Mariscal has not responded to the messages that this newspaper has sent him to ask for more explanations. In his speech, he assured that Facebook, when it suppresses the frog Pepe, “daily eliminates many young people from its platform for defending conservative ideas, for proudly defending the national symbols of their country.” “They will be able to digitally kill Pepe the frog, but they will not be able to destroy the ideas of millions of young conservatives,” he added. Serrano did not answer anything about the meme. But from Facebook they admit that they suppress the frog when it appears linked to hate organizations, just as it happens with other fictional characters. A hate organization is, according to Facebook’s community standards, “three or more people organized under a name, sign or symbol who have an ideology, opinions or physical actions that attack individuals based on traits such as race, religion, nationality, gender”.
Who can be angry that Mariscal defends a drawing that represents “proud young men”? Someone who has gotten quite upset is the cartoonist of the frog, Matt Furie. In 2020, a documentary about his story even appeared. A year earlier he had won a complaint against Infowars, an extremist channel, for not selling material with the frog. Pepe was the protagonist between 2005 and 2012 in a Furie comic, which describes her as someone whose motto is “all good uncle”, which is also the title of the documentary.
Although Pepe has circulated through political networks, has been in demonstrations and rallies, his entry into Parliament is a leap in his popularity: “It seems a bit of an escalation,” Pettis assures EL PAÍS. “It represents a case where radical right ideologies and memes continue to enter mainstream politics,” he adds.
So far, alongside tweets from Trump in 2015 and from the Russian Embassy in London in 2017 in an apparent troleoFew of Pepe’s references had jumped from conversations on Reddit, Twitter or other forums to more official accounts. In Spain, the Marshal himself made a tweet with Pepe a year ago. The 29-year-old deputy has been in charge of training networks since before Vox achieved representation in the Andalusian Parliament in 2018 and is now the party’s deputy secretary of Communication. The MEP of his party Jorge Buxadé took the opportunity to also spread his passion for Pepe in a tweet.
“The power of memes is that they work well, especially in politics, simultaneously in different contexts,” Pettis explains. “Thus, while this deputy can use it to point out to extreme right-wing groups that ‘hey, I’m with you’, at the same time it gives him the ability to deny it if he needs to and say ‘oh no, I’m not a supremacist, I’m just sharing a drawing of a frog to show that Facebook is exaggerating. ‘ But the fact that he does not show a screenshot but a sticker on the mobile undermines his argument that he did not know what it means. Someone has had to make the effort to buy the sticker and put it on the mobile ”, he adds. And not just a sticker, as seen in this image.