Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema, Eleonora Benecchi, Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? A Visual Meme Caught Between Innocent Humor, Far-Right Ideology, and Fandom in:

Benjamin Krämer, Christina Holtz-Bacha (Ed.)

Perspectives on Populism and the Media, page 333 - 352

Avenues for Research

1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8487-5561-5, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-9739-2,

Series: International Studies on Populism, vol. 7

Bibliographic information
Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? A Visual Meme Caught Between Innocent Humor, Far-Right Ideology, and Fandom Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi In 2016, a frog became one of the most famous “faces” in the debate on right-wing, sexist and hate-inciting communication. “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon character created by Matt Furie in 2005 that later turned into a popular online meme, became a subject of heated debates when the Alt-Right and white supremacy movements began to increasingly use it for their purposes. The controversial meme received broad public attention during the 2016 US election campaign, a campaign that was characterized as the “most-memed election” so far (Heiskanen, 2017). Already, this brief introduction to Pepe’s “biography” underlines the complexity of the Pepe the Frog phenomenon, a challenging and polarizing digital object which, at the same time, is a rich resource for understanding how social media users engage with cultural products on different digital platforms. Pepe is a prototypical example of such a digital object, as it demonstrates the ambivalent nature of online participation, creativity, and fandom; it uses and transforms visual symbolism, and, most importantly in the present context, it has become politicized due to its association with right-wing ideologies. This political layer of a meme shows how right-wing ideologies with and without an emphasis on populism are expressed, overlap and cross-fertilize online. Pepe is just one example from a whole nexus of far-right memes that are often born in a non-political realm, inspired for instance by popular culture (such as the blue and red pill from the film The Matrix) or historical references (such as the battles of Thermopylae or Tours), but are occasionally appropriated for political purposes. In this chapter, we discuss the case of Pepe from various theoretical angles. Aiming to provide a multidimensional and differentiated perspective, we seek to bridge approaches from fan studies, online communication, visual communication, and political communication. Using the example of Pepe, we discuss selected aspects that we consider essential for furthering the understandings of the complex entanglement of current online popular (sub)cultures, politics and (right-wing) ideologies. These aspects in- 333 clude the contexts of circulation of memes among communities (which we conceptualize as fan communities), platforms and mainstream media, and the subversive strategies of demarcation and interpretation within user communities that refer to different varieties of right-wing ideologies. Particular emphasis is put on the visual form of memetic communication and its implications for meaning-making, criticizing, offending and defending. So far, definitions of hate speech (see, e.g., Herz & Molnar, 2012) have mainly focused on the textual level, in terms of written or spoken language. The example of Pepe the Frog, however, prototypically illustrates that degradation and inciting communication must also be discussed when occurring in visual form (see Lobinger, Venema, Krämer, & Benecchi, 2019, for a more detailed discussion of the problem of visual hate speech and related normative challenges concerning Pepe). When it comes to the classification of the “Nazi frog” and its supporters, we witnessed a lack of critical debate about who contributed to the transformation of Pepe for which reasons. In the media coverage, the corresponding users were generally put into a “basket of deplorables” (Hillary Clinton). However, the perspectives of fan studies and research on far-right ideologies—as different as these traditions may be—underscore the need for a more differentiated approach that is sensitive to the various and often subversive strategies of demarcation as well as to the ambivalent interpretations by different groups of users that contribute to the memetic diffusion of Pepe for different reasons. Engaging with Pepe the Frog in research is also linked to several, quite complicated (and also ambivalent) ethical considerations. In the following, our reflections and decisions, but also our struggles, are made transparent. Usually, reflections like these are to be found in the conclusion and discussion section of papers. However, we argue that ethical reflections regarding the analysis of divergent and bigoted visual communication are essential and should frame the whole theoretical and empirical work. First of all, reproducing problematic visual expressions (such as racist memes), even in critical research, risks amplifying and therefore contributing to the circulation of these visual symbols and arguments, potentially contributing to the normalization of these expressions (Phillips & Milner, 2017). One solution might be not to examine discourses of this kind at all. But this would make it basically impossible for researchers to engage in interventions and thus to actively participate in the public debate on controversial issues. In our view, ignoring them can thus not be the answer. Then, the problem of amplification is particularly challenging for qualitative visual analysis that needs to delve into the visual characteristics and aesthetics of visual discourses and usually needs to show the examined vi- Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 334 sual objects to guarantee transparency within the analytical process. For the aim of this paper, we decided to take a middle path. To avoid contributing to the circulation and amplification of single problematic memetic elements, we will not reproduce Nazi Pepe memes. We will instead just depict the “original Pepe” and provide a detailed critical verbal description of Pepe and its many uses instead. Second, a further ethical risk is to overlook the polyvocality of a memetic discourse (see e.g., Milner, 2013a). We want to underscore that—of course—we condemn racist, xenophobic and sexist utterances. But considering elements like Pepe problematic elements does not mean that they are all the same. Rather, a closer examination of the heterogeneous (visual) voices and the different uses of Nazi Pepe is needed to advance knowledge about these practices. We believe that this differentiation is necessary to identify counter-strategies and to allow for detailed criticism that addresses the various problematic and antagonistic issues instead of stigmatizing and stereotyping all users and usages. In the discussion of the case, we will thus pay particular attention to different voices and meanings within the memetic expressions related to Pepe the Frog. In order to achieve this, we will discuss the case from various theoretical angles. The paper starts with an overview of the development and transformation of Pepe from its creation in 2005, to its use in the 2016 US election campaign, its death in 2017 and to the tentative efforts to resurrect the frog and its positive image. Subsequently, we discuss why the visual features of Pepe made it a successful meme and how the visual mode at the same time helps to shield problematic uses from criticism. We then discuss the meme from the perspectives of political communication (in particular concerning far-right ideologies) and fan studies—two complementary perspectives that, taken together, allow for deepening the understanding of the different practices and strategies behind the use of symbols like Pepe. Meme History. How Pepe the Frog Became a Hate Symbol “Pepe the Frog” was created by Matt Furie in 2005 as an anthropomorphic “peaceful frog-dude” for the comic series “Boy’s Club.” In early 2008, a comic in which Pepe pulls his pants down to his ankles to urinate and his characteristic phrase “Feels good man” were popularized on the imageboard 4chan (see figure 1). It was this reaction image that started the memetic spread of Pepe. 1. Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 335   One of the most successful reaction memes to the original Pepe drawing in 2008. In 2014, Pepe was increasingly shared through profile pages on the main social media platforms; on June 13, the Tumblr blog “PepeTheFrogBlog” was created, followed by the “Pepe the Frog” Instagram profile on July 23, and a Facebook account on December 7. Pepe also got its own subreddit /r/pepethefrog for content featuring the frog character. In sum, Pepe circulated within diverse contexts, communities, and online groups, acquiring new and heterogeneous layers of meaning. Many variations of the meme became rather esoteric, resulting in the phenomenon of socalled “rare Pepes” (ADL, 2016). This variety of uses underscores the importance of situating examinations of the uses and meanings of the meme in its respective contexts. Pepe the Frog was gradually connected to a Nazi and white supremacy iconography on the controversial /r9k/ board on 4chan. Together with the association of Pepe with Trump, Pepe also found its way into mainstream media. And it is at this point that /r9K/ users started to spread Pepe memes on Twitter under the hashtag #FrogTwitter. The first association between Trump and racist Pepe is registered on July 22, 2015. The picture shows Pepe with a Trumpian hairstyle “overlooking a fence at the U.S.-Mexican border holding back sad Mexicans” (Know Your Meme, 2016). The Malaysian artist Maldraw published the image in the 4chan board /pol/ (Politically Incorrect). From the categorization itself, it is apparent that the artist was well aware of the political implications of the visual juxtaposition. Figure 1. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 336 “Pepe-Trump” reached its full popularity in October 2015, when Donald Trump tweeted the image with the slogan “you can’t stump the Trump” and connected it to the video parody “Can’t Stump the Trump (Volume 4)”. From this point on, the Alt-Right movement adopted Pepe as a symbol. The media corroborated this interpretation, which culminated in the publication of an article in The Daily Beast titled “How Pepe the Frog became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right symbol” (Nuzzi, 2016). The article included an interview with Twitter user @JaredTSwift, identified as an “anonymous white nationalist,” who asserted that there was a “campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies” by creating antisemitic illustrations of the frog character. However, the development and spread of “Nazi Pepe” are far more complex than it appears from this description. Indeed, on September 14, The Daily Caller published an interview with @PaulTown and @JaredTSwift in which they admitted that the claim that Pepe was intentionally transformed into a white supremacist symbol by the Alt-Right movement—an argumentation that was then taken up by mainstream media—was based on false information they had spread. This self-disclosure was accompanied by a mockery of the reaction. This mockery was particularly amplified on diverse subreddits (/r/cringe, /r/ politics, /r/OutOfTheLoop, /r/KotakuInAction, /r/4chan, and /r/ The_Donald). Redditors accused politicians, especially Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media, of failing to understand the Pepe meme and its dynamics. A brief intermediate summary of this criticism could read as follows: “no single group or ideology has ownership of the Pepe meme” (Klee, 2016). In September 2016, an article published on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website described Pepe as a symbol associated with white supremacy and antisemitism and denounced Trump’s campaign for its supposed promotion of the meme. Despite attempts to “save Pepe” from a right-wing political affiliation, Pepe’s path towards the Alt-Right and white supremacists’ roots and imaginary proved to be inevitable. So much that on September 19, one of the strongest public voices against the connection of Pepe and white supremacists, Louise Mensch, founder of the news and commentary website Heat Street wrote: “Hillary Clinton is absolutely right, ‘Pepe’ meme is antisemitic” (Mensch, 2016). Indeed, by September 26, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had added Pepe the Frog to its list of hate symbols even though they acknowledged that many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature (ADL, 2016). All controversy notwithstanding, it must not be forgotten that Pepe also continues to be an innocent and funny meme in many other places on the web. Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 337 There were many efforts to reclaim Pepe, such as the legal battle carried forward by Pepe’s creator Matt Furie, who, with the help of his publisher Fantagraphics, issued several takedown notices against Alt-Right commentators he accused of stealing his work (Furie, 2016). Furie also launched a #SavePepe hashtag campaign to create and share positive images of the frog. Despite the participation of the ADL, diverse media and parallel positive hashtag campaigns such as #RainOfFrogs, these efforts were unsuccessful. Indeed in 2017, Matt Furie decided to “kill Pepe,” publishing a comic strip on his Tumblr in which Pepe is shown lying in a casket at his funeral. Furie included a link to an article on Comic Book Resources that declared the character's demise (Manning, 2017, see figure 2) but later announced Pepe’s resurrection to counter the ongoing appropriation of Pepe by extremists.   Pepe the Frog is laid to rest. Image by Matt Furie / Tumblr Memes and Visual Creative Political Participation Pepe the Frog is a very successful meme in terms of circulation and adaption and needs to be discussed with respect to previous uses of memes for political participation or political and social critique (see the analyses of e.g., Milner, 2013a; Mina, 2014). Later on, memes have been defined as digital items that are not just passed on and shared, but that are remixed, altered and thus produced or co-produced by multiple users (e.g., Shifman 2013, 2014). Memes are an increasingly widespread form of “vernacular Figure 2. 2. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 338 creativity” (Burgess, 2006; Milner 2013b; Miltner, 2014) or “vernacular criticism” (Literat & van den Berg, 2017) that makes “ordinary voices” (see e.g., Burgess, 2006) visible. Indeed, they were discussed as emancipatory examples of political participation in the online sphere, in particular, related to issues of sexism (e.g., in #distractinglysexy) or opposition to capitalism (“We are the 99%” and “Occupy Wall Street”). But memes are also very popular for the expression of hate on the web, and several platforms like 4chan have become arenas for the creation, exchange, and spread of hate memes (Hine et al., 2017). Usually, the power of memes lies in the links that are created between the single element and the broader memetic narrative. Intertextuality is thus a key aspect of remix and meme culture (Miltner, 2014). To be identified as being a part of the same meme, the single elements need to share recognizable common features or aesthetic commonalities, which can be a certain visual style, a recurring motif or a topic expressed in similar manners or with similar keywords. By creating intertextual references to existing memes (Miltner, 2014) and the platforms on which they are disseminated, users can express and perform their belonging to these communities and their values. Memes represent a form of vernacular online communication that needs to be addressed from a perspective of visual communication research. Usually, memes are not only highly visual (Milner, 2013a) but also humorous (Shifman, 2012), and this combination might lead to the underestimation of memes. This is particularly relevant in the field of political participation online. Memes are wrongly or superficially described as just “nonsense” (Katz & Shifman, 2017), mere “internet funnies” or “something funny on the web” (Brantner, Lobinger, Stehling, 2017), which disregards the power and the capacity of communicating ideologies in a way that is at the same time highly efficient and difficult to grasp. This challenge is not a new one; it has just surfaced again in the recent wake of increasingly visual and humorous forms of online communication in the political context and in discourses about sexism and misogyny. For example, Shifman and Lemish (2011, p. 253) have shown that popular internet humor is a “powerful vehicle for naturalization of so-called ‘universal’ stereotypes about gender differences.” And particularly when presented in humorous ways, radical, aggressive or even brutal contents are partly masked and made (more) acceptable (Turton-Turner, 2013; Förster & Brantner, 2016; Potter & Warren, 1998). Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 339 The Challenges of the Visual Form The abovementioned problem is complicated when problematic worldviews are expressed in visual form. Due to the associative nature of the visual mode (see e.g., Müller & Özcan, 2007) and the “lack” of a propositional syntax, claims that are expressed in visual form are considered to be vague and ambiguous, and thus also open to various conflicting readings. This makes visual claims and arguments difficult to verbalize and to criticize. Hawhee and Messaris (2009) argue that the lack of an explicit propositional syntax might thus actually be one of the strengths of images when used for persuasion as the vagueness and polysemy of visual communication is also a challenge to criticism. This does not mean that arguments cannot be made visually and those visual arguments cannot be examined in detail. Rather, Richardson and Wodak (2009) suggest offering several interpretations that can be made based on visually presented claims and arguments. This also means focusing on how and with which strategies these positions are communicated visually. Moreover, they argue that contextual information is essential for understanding the different readings that can be created. Based on this analysis that acknowledges ambivalences, plausible interpretations might be differentiated from less plausible ones. In the case of Pepe, this means that not only the visual contents need to be examined to unveil the implicitly and associatively made visual arguments. This approach also requires a detailed examination of the contexts of circulation, intertextual references to other meme elements, the used platforms and also the accompanying verbal information. To challenge the classification of Pepe as hate speech, it has also been argued that images cannot constitute hate speech because they do not possess a propositional syntax and a sufficiently precise grammar that would allow for such a classification. This claim is based on the abovementioned problematic assumption that images cannot make arguments. We argue that expressions of racist or misogynist views should not be able to escape moral criticism by simply referring to a logocentric definition of hate speech. Just as the meaning of language ultimately lies in the practices of its use and the conventions of signification, a visual symbol also receives its meanings from the historically evolving usage. And Aikat (2006) argues that hate symbols are particularly powerful because of their ability to convey meaning, intent, and significance in a compact, immediately recognizable form. Paradoxically, part of the “power” of visuals thus lies in the fact that they are so difficult to grasp verbally and to make “explicit.” Research conducted by Mina (2014) illustrates how activists use multimodal memes to slip censorship. The activist messages were embedded and hidden with- 3. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 340 in representations of cute cats and in amateur media expressions. Similarly, the message of showing Pepe as a grinning Jew in front of the destroyed World Trade Center appears to be “softened” or masked when expressed in a visual and humorous way or when combined with pop-cultural elements. Pepe the Frog is thus an example that shows how racist ideology and conspiracy theories can be embedded and associatively integrated into funny memetic communication. The combination of visuals and humor has also been powerful in the context of offline media, and we can learn a lot from these examples. For example, Brantner and Lobinger (2014) have examined comic books that were used for strategic political communication during an election campaign in Vienna, Austria. In these comic books, political opponents were visually represented as drunken cowards, as cocaine-consuming Nazi zombies, and migration topics were put in context with the Turkish Siege of Vienna. Journalists, experts and scientists criticized the comics harshly. The main criticism was that the comics were inciting violence, that they were promoting xenophobia and that they were using negative campaigning strategies and depicting political opponents in unfairly offensive ways. A closer look at the arguments by the politicians responsible for the publication of the comic books reveals an important similarity with the case of Pepe: Their defense strategy was to portray the criticism as not valid or as exaggerated by denying the ideological power of innocent and funny comic portrayals and by arguing that it was just a form of “controversial humor” (Franks, 2011). Quite similar arguments can be found for countering criticism relating to Pepe (see below). Here, visual research is challenged and needs to better explain that visually expressed arguments can also be extracted and be subject to critique. Otherwise, there will be no remedy for masking ideological claims with visual elements and humor, and funny memes can continue to make hate lovable, to aestheticize racism by using and remixing seemingly innocent visual elements from pop culture with right-wing ideologies (Stanovsky, 2017). In the case of Pepe, the underlying discriminatory worldview can only be uncovered by analyzing the related contexts and practices that have contributed to establishing its conventional—albeit not exclusive—meaning. Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 341 Political Communication and Ideology From a political communication perspective, we may ask how we can understand the creation, modification, and sharing of a meme as a form of political practice that reveals a particular ideology. For the present purpose, we simply define ideologies as systems of belief concerning the current and ideal state of society and the practical implication of these diagnostic and utopian views (see e.g., Mannheim, 1929). White supremacy, the Alt-Right (Neiwert, 2017), the New Right (Nouvelle Droite, Neue Rechte, etc., Griffin, 2000; Weiß, 2017), and right-wing populism (Betz & Johnson, 2004; Wodak, 2015) are different, yet intersecting and historically partly interconnected ideologies and movements of the extreme right that have recently joined forces in their support of the presidency of Donald Trump. Equivalents, however, can also be found in other countries. The underlying ideology is based on the conception of “the people” as a culturally, ethnically, racially and/or religiously homogeneous community which is to be protected from hostile outgroups. In the populist varieties of right-wing ideologies, it is also assumed that “the people” is governed by a corrupt elite that has lost its representative legitimacy (see De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017 on the discursive construction and articulation of these two oppositions). Advocates of this worldview then demand the restoration of the people’s sovereignty and the forceful implementation of its will. Other representatives of right-wing movements hold a more elitist view of their role in society. They consider themselves a rightwing avant-garde whose function is to slowly shape discourses and persistently work towards a national awakening while, at present, the general population is deluded by the liberal and left-wing propaganda of the ruling elite. An understanding of these interpretational patterns associated with right-wing ideologies facilitates an interpretation of certain practices involving Pepe the Frog. In the following, we will show how they correspond to these worldviews, most particularly with those by the Alt-Right and by right-wing populists. These ideologies assume that free speech is no longer guaranteed due to the exaggerated political correctness that comes with a “censorship” of right-wing discourses by mainstream media and politicians, social media corporations, and other elite groups (Cammaerts, 2018). If right-wing discourses are categorized as “hate speech,” then combining and spreading memes such as Pepe the Frog with extremist symbols can be presented as an act of resistance, in particular by supporters of the Alt-Right. 4. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 342 Radical right-wing actors often make use of strategic ambiguity in their public communication (Wodak, 2015, pp. 12-13). Supporters can decode the message in a radical way, but this interpretation can also be denied, in particular, if the messages are based on polysemic visual symbolism, as discussed above. Representatives of the political mainstream or minorities are then criticized as being overly sensitive and unable to cope with criticism and contradictory opinions. Similarly, anxious and contemptuous reactions to Pepe are ridiculed and described as an overreaction, underlining this with the cynical argument that the frog is just an “ordinary” cartoon character or a humorous visual element that cannot be taken seriously. In what they consider to be a struggle for hegemony, some right-wing movements have not only appropriated some of the concepts and strategies of the left (such as the concept of hegemony itself) but also lifestyle elements and cultural symbols. Likewise, taking Pepe away from the “normies” and re-defining a seemingly random figure into a symbol of extreme ideologies (Neiwert, 2017) constitutes a demonstration of power and the success of such appropriation strategies. Thus, Pepe is both a “normal” cartoon character and an extremist symbol, a strategically or almost cunningly ambiguous icon. However, it may be argued that it has not been selected completely at random. Certainly, the extreme right has also tried to appropriate historical figures of “the West” (in particular those who can be constructed as fighting against enemies of the “Occident,” such as Charles Martel or the Spartans) and use more recent cultural symbolism to affirm their freedom and will toward truth (such as the abovementioned “red pill” from the film The Matrix). However, those who post images of Pepe seem to identify themselves with an ugly, male frog who pulls down his pants to urinate, saying, “feels good man.” We can interpret this as the expression of an internet subculture that celebrates the “loser” and the joy of provoking others. These two traits have partly merged with the Alt-Right movement and its anti-feminist, misogynic and anti-minority discourse and iconography. Just as some on the political right have adopted pejorative labels, such as “deplorables,” and transformed them into a source of pride, the identification with Pepe might be another way to paradoxically affirm and celebrate one’s social and political status as an outsider who is both superior and a (positively connoted) “loser.” At least, members of this subculture can feel empowered by the victory of Donald Trump and their momentary victories in the acts of trolling. Hine and colleagues (2017) particularly underscore the difficulties in distinguishing hate speech from sarcasm or forms of “trolling.” Internet “trolling” is a term that refers to “any form of abuse carried out online for Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 343 the pleasure of the person causing the abuse or the audience to which they are trying to appeal” (Bishop, 2013). Trolling prototypically underscores the ambivalence of online behavior (see e.g., Phillips & Milner, 2017). Often, trolling is used for the description of online behavior with “playful or at least performative intent” (Phillips & Milner, 2017, p. 8). This complicates attempts to criticize and contest divergent expression. Regarding Pepe, this means, first of all, to be careful not to put a label on certain cases of online behavior too fast. Instead, it is important to closely examine the single practices and address their “underlying tone, behavioral and aesthetic characteristics” (Phillips & Milner, 2017, p. 8). “Trolling” often has a connotation of provocation for its own sake without any real conviction that could be conveyed. However, in the case of Pepe, the distinction between authentic political messages and pure provocation partly breaks down: that this type of provocation works and should be possible is the political message. Fan Scholarship If we observe the media and public reaction to the neo-Nazi incarnation of Pepe the Frog, we are inevitably confronted with negative stereotypes of obsessive and radical behavior. In particular, people who transformed Pepe into a “Nazi Trump supporter and Alt-Right symbol” are labeled as “fans” of white supremacy and political figures perceived as an incarnation of radical and extremist ideas, such as Donald Trump (Nuzzi, 2016). The analysis of these communities of people usually stops once they are labeled by using a generic and negatively connotated version of the term “fan.” This labeling obscures the fact that even inside fan communities, behaviors and participatory practices are manifold and complex. Not all members of the fan community of Pepe are members of a far-right community, and the ethnic community that is constructed by far-right ideologies is not coextensive with the community that can understand and appreciate the meaning of Pepe as a meme and an object of fandom. The tendency of the media to portray mainly the “dark side” of fandom is well documented (Bennet & Booth, 2016, Van den Bulck et al., 2016), and it took quite some effort in the field of fan studies to dismantle the automatic association of fandom with pathology (Jenson, 1992). As summarized by Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington (2007), the second wave of fan studies specifically addressed this tendency to pathologize fans by focusing mainly on the pleasures and upsides of fandoms. Even though the third wave of research also addressed different or overlooked types of fans, such 5. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 344 as anti-fans and non-fans (Gray, 2003), there is still a certain degree of caution in giving attention to fans of challenging objects. While occasionally problematic fans have been subject to analyses, they are often framed as “excluded, bullied, murderous, and lost” (Hari, 2004). Pepe the Frog is an excellent example of a controversial object of fandom, and it helps to raise a series of crucial and overlooked questions about our role as both researchers of popular culture and participants in the same communities and cultures we are investigating. We cannot simply characterize all fans of problematic objects as problematic people because the online practices of these people do not necessarily translate or inform their identity. In his exploration of the Columbine massacre fandom, for instance, Rico (2015) discovered that problematic fandom was, in fact, comparable to other more conventional fandoms: they showed similar online behaviors, characterized by a high degree of productivity and a willingness to share materials connected to the fan object; their interactions inside the fan communities showed positive traits, such as a tendency to support one another and protect the community from external attacks. By observing the Reddit communities around Pepe, even in its more controversial incarnations, we can recognize the same traits described by Rico (2015) concerning the Columbine fandom. Indeed, Redditors often mocked politicians and media for failing to understand the Pepe meme and its uses within the online community. Chen (2012) also noted that “nothing brings a fandom together better than their weird passion being mocked by outsiders.” In his analysis, Rico (2015) also showed that the type of fan behavior that has been labeled as “controversial” or even “dark” may sometimes be rooted in attention-seeking rather than in genuine interest. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Nazi controversy around Pepe the Frog. As already discussed, the basis of The Daily Beast report responsible for launching the idea that Pepe had been transformed into a white supremacist symbol by fans and members of the Alt-Right movement was fabricated by two Twitter pranksters. This behavior resembles the one described in Phillips’ (2011) analysis of trolling Facebook memorial groups (RIP trolling); individuals may participate in the problematic Nazi Pepe fandom to be a part of something that incites reactions from the public. Fan studies have always attempted to avoid making moral judgments about why people behave in particular ways, aiming instead to understand the contexts of practices. This approach could help to understand how and by whom Nazi Pepe was created and spread, as it sensitizes for the perspective and motivations of those involved in the creation and circulation of controversial versions of Pepe the Frog. When talking about controversial Pepe – Just a Funny Frog? 345 fan objects, we should also take into account the existence of fans who enjoy problematic content, such as Nazi Pepe memes, but have a hard time reconciling it with their values. Moreover, we also need to acknowledge that there is a dark side of fandom. This has been established in the seminal studies by Chen (2012), who examined the fandom surrounding James Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter who killed 12 people, and by Rico (2015), who studied the fans of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. A thorough analysis of practices involving Pepe across platforms and political (or apolitical) contexts may reveal the activities in which it receives its specific meanings as well as the commonalities between “dark” and other forms of fandom: the time and effort spent with the object of fandom, including the collection of artifacts (more recently including digital ones such as “rare Pepes”) and the rejection of certain ways of appropriating and exploiting the object of fandom; the pride of being an expert of the (growing) popularity of the object; the sense of community among fans and the feeling of being misunderstood by the larger public. Studying problematic fan communities should not be interpreted as a defense of these fandoms. Rather it should be intended as a means to expand the analytical focus of studying participatory practices and as a fruitful approach towards a detailed analysis of extremist and other problematic groups. Pepe the Frog in its Nazi incarnation is a crucial expression of digital culture and online fan culture specifically because it obliges us to question our current selection of cases we are keen to explore. Conclusion In our attempt to understand the phenomenon of Pepe the Frog and its political and normative implications, we have discussed it as a particular entity—a meme—and as a part of corresponding practices of online visual political expression and as an expression of a specific group of ideologies. We argued that one cannot simply escape the criticism of communication acts as hate speech by referring to their visual character. As visual communication research and its long tradition have shown continuously, images acquire and convey meaning due to their own “visual logic” and in specific ways. However, we acknowledge that the openness and polysemy of the visual mode challenge nailing down problematic uses. We have demonstrated that Pepe is not a completely arbitrary symbol but that the original figure itself and the way it has been appropriated fit with certain right-wing 6. Katharina Lobinger, Benjamin Krämer, Rebecca Venema & Eleonora Benecchi 346 ideologies in which alleged “censorship” plays an important role and provocation for its own sake, and political statements tend to become indistinguishable. A political communication perspective demonstrates how, departing from a single symbol, whole worldviews can be unfolded, as varying and contradictory as they may be—populist or ultimately elitist, self-deprecating and supremacist, building a fan community while excluding many that are part of a constructed ethnic and political community. However, this brings the problems of how to decode the political meaning of non-verbal symbols and how to evaluate creative memetic practices (that often carry positive connotations in scholarly discussions) if they become subversive in a way that contradicts those norms and values that we as academics cherish. We also challenged the stereotypical media portrayal that automatically characterized users producing and circulating Nazi Pepe memes as fans of a white supremacist ideology. A fan study perspective, devoted to in-depth examinations of the communities in which the controversial incarnations of Pepe are produced and circulate, helped us put this simplistic media portrayal into question. This is highly important for the task of interpreting Pepe in the different contexts of its use. When studied through this perspective, controversial objects, such as Nazi Pepe, can be a rich resource of knowledge on the dynamics and terms of online fandom and digital culture in itself. Concluding, we can say that these are challenging times for communication studies, particularly for research in visual communication, if we consider that the visual form is increasingly used for strategically masking bigoted and problematic arguments and messages. As we have shown, the “vagueness” of the visual mode and its genuine meaning-making features are strategically used to convey problematic messages, and at the same time —and even more interestingly—the visual features are used for defending these messages by pointing to the seeming incapacity of visuals to make arguments in general. In our view, this is something the field of visual communication research and communication research in general needs to tackle and discuss to provide expertise in how to counter these defense strategies and to provide a visually informed lens on ethical and moral issues of current communication phenomena. Moreover, conceptual terms such as “hate speech” also need to be applied to and defined for the visual mode of communication. We are fully aware that the present analysis raised more questions than it answered. But we hope to have contributed to raising awareness of these subtle strategies and tactics. 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This volume assembles a wide range of perspectives on populism and the media, bringing together various disciplinary and theoretical approaches, authors and examples from different continents and a wide range of topical issues. The chapters discuss the contexts of populist communication, communication by populist actors, different types of populist messages (populist communication in traditional and new media, populist criticism of the media, populist discourses related to different topics, etc.), the effects and consequences of populist communication, populist media policy and anti-populist discourses. The contributions synthesise existing research on this subject, propose new approaches to it or present new findings on the relationship between populism and the media. With contibutions by Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz


Der Band vereint ein breites Spektrum von Perspektiven auf das Thema Populismus und Medien. Er bringt verschiedene fachliche und theoretische Ansätze, Beitragende und Beispiele von mehreren Kontinenten und ein breites Spektrum aktueller Themen und Herausforderungen zusammen. Die Kapitel behandeln den Kontext populistischer Kommunikation, Kommunikation durch populistische Akteure, verschiedene Typen populistischer Botschaften (populistische Kommunikation in traditionellen und neuen Medien, populistische Medienkritik, populistische Diskurse zu verschiedenen Themen), Wirkungen und Konsequenzen populistischer Kommunikation, populistische Medienpolitik, aber auch antipopulistische Diskurse. Die Beiträge systematisieren vorhandene Forschung, schlagen neue Ansätze vor oder präsentieren neue Befunde zum Verhältnis von Populismus und Medien. Mit Beiträgen von Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz