Weaponized memes: the case of Pepe the Frog

New article “Weaponizing Memes: The Journalistic Mediation of Visual Politicization” by Chris Peters from Roskilde University and Stuart Allan from Cardiff University develops the concept of “mimetic weaponization” for journalistic theory by focusing on the example case of Pepe the Frog, a meme widely used by alt-right.

The term meme originates from Richard Dawkins, who uses it as a parallel to gene in the realm of ideas. Contemporary use of meme refers to digital items sharing common characteristics that are used to make a point or a joke – often a picture with a text, or a series of images, a dialogue with shared elements making various points. 

Memes often have a ‘base form’ or template, which is then adapted by the maker. The process where a certain image becomes a meme is termed ‘memeification’. Not all become viral but many do and then occupy mainstream spaces like social media. 

Pepe the Frog was originally a character in Matt Furie’s webcomic Boys Club. The character and his catchphrase started developing memetic character when it was shared on internet platforms like 4chan often in association with alt-right ideology, much to the chagrin of the creator. When Pepe the Frog was becoming increasingly used for partisan political contexts, the meme was weaponized. 

The meme was particularly common in 2016 in conjunction with Pro-Trump messages and afterwards, with alt-right proponents claiming a victory in the ‘meme war’ and mainstream media Washington Post lamenting US having elected ‘a meme’ with Trump. 

The author cautions against dismissively viewing the Frog as ‘just a right-wing meme’ and hereby underestimating the strategic intent in its usage in the information warfare. It is pointed out that the worrying thing is not the meme itself, but the amount of posters who use it and espouse anti-’liberal media’ ideology. 

Since 2017, when Pepe the Frog was declared dead, he has nevertheless appeared as a face of the anonymous protester, such as with Hong Kong protesters. The meme has thus displayed polysemy or multi-accentuality, adapting to different contexts of use with different meanings. The less toxically political use has shown how a weaponized meme can be defanged .

Finally, the author concludes that digital journalism would benefit from a critical interrogation of mimetic weaponization by offering ways to identify and critique the ideological affiliations on social media platforms. 

Thus digital journalism can avoid complicity in perpetuating prejudices in the name of ‘just for fun’ – the plausible denial employed by political meme makers.

The article “Weaponizing Memes: The Journalistic Mediation of Visual Politicization” by Chris Peters and Stuart Allan is in Digital Journalism. (Free access).  

Kuva: Sparkpepe.jpg by theSpark.

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