It turns out you CAN make this shit up.
In an interview Friday with Donald Trump Jr, George Stephanopoulos claimed that he had shared a “well known symbol of the white supremacist movement,” when he shared a photoshopped image depicting his father next to Pepe the Frog.
“You had an Instagram post last week that included Pepe the Frog, which is now a well-known symbol of the white supremacist movement,” Stephanopoulos alleged in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Trump Jr responded by saying, “I’ve never even heard of Pepe the Frog. I bet 90% of your viewers haven’t heard of Pepe the Frog. I thought it was a frog in a wig — I thought it was funny, I had no idea that there was any connotation there.”
He added that the accusations against Pepe were a sign that journalists cannot credibly attack his father’s policy proposals. “They don’t even have answers for those things. So what do they do? They have to attack me.”
The row over Pepe the Frog, a popular Internet meme in use since 2008, was initiated by the Clinton campaign after Elizabeth Chan, one of Clinton’s senior strategists, wrote a blog post in which she claimed Pepe was a “symbol associated with white supremacy.”
It amazes me how quickly Pepe went from unknown to a “symbol associated with white supremacy” to a “well-known symbol of the white supremacist movement”.
But wait! There’s more!
Stephanopoulos did not disclose during this interview, and does not disclose during coverage of the 2016 election, that he worked in the White House as Senior Adviser to the President during Bill Clinton’s first term. ABC News has designated Stephanopoulos the lead anchor in its 2016 election coverage.
I personally have never cared for the way that people in Washington DC move back and forth from campaigns to administrations to the media to lobbying to highly paid jobs on Wall Street. That town is more incestuous than rural Arkansas.
But I digress.
How did Pepe become a well-known symbol of the white supremacist movement? Olivia Nuzzi goes for a Pulitzer with this investigative scoop:
The green frog was behind the United States side of the metal fence at the country’s southernmost border, smirking and holding a Donald Trump campaign button up to his chin.
A caricature of a Mexican couple—the man dressed in a sombrero and poncho, the woman with braided hair and an infant in her arms—looked out at him through the barricade and cried.
Then the frog was someplace else entirely, this time covered in Nazi insignia: above his smirk, the phrase “SKIN HEAD” and a swastika; over his left eyelid, “14,” the numeric shorthand for “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”; and over his right eyelid, “88,” which stands for “Heil Hitler.”
And there the frog was yet again, standing at a lectern stamped with the presidential seal, a red tie hanging from his green neck, Trump’s iconic hair arranged on his head and an American flag at his back.
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.)
@JaredTSwift is an anonymous white nationalist who claims to be 19 years old and in school someplace on the West Coast. He told me there is “an actual campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies.”
Normies are basics—agreeable, mainstream members of society who have no knowingly abhorrent political views or unsavory hobbies. They are Katy Perry, and when they latch onto a meme, the meme dies the way your favorite band dies when it sells out and licenses a song to Chevrolet. When mainstream culture gets in on the joke, in other words, the joke is ruined forever.
The campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies was an effort to prevent this sort of death, but it also had the effect of desensitizing swaths of the Internet to racist, but mostly anti-Semitic, ideas supported by the so-called alt-right movement.
It began in late 2015 on /r9k/, a controversial 4chan board where, as on any message board, it can be difficult to discern how serious commenters are being or if they’re just fucking around entirely. Nevertheless, /r9k/ has been tied to Elliot Rodger—the UC Santa Barbara shooter who killed six people in 2014—who found fans there, and GamerGate. There, Pepe transformed from harmless cartoon to big green monster.
“We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association,” @JaredTSwift said.
He sent me a “rare Pepe,” an ironic categorization for certain versions of the meme: Pepe, his eyes red and irises swastika-shaped, against a trippy rainbow backdrop. “Do with it what you will,” he said.
Building the Trump association came next, after which @JaredTSwift said the images got crossover appeal. They began to move from 4chan to Twitter, which is when “journalists were exposed to it via Trump memes.”
“Most memes are ephemeral by nature, but Pepe is not,” @JaredTSwift told me. “He’s a reflection of our souls, to most of us. It’s disgusting to see people (‘normies,’ if you will) use him so trivially. He belongs to us. And we’ll make him toxic if we have to.”
@JaredTSwift said some of the support for Trump was in jest, but for most of his cohorts, it’s sincere. He even claimed to have voted for Trump in the primary himself, wherever it is he lives, and said he’d vote for him in the general, too.
“In a sense, we’ve managed to push white nationalism into a very mainstream position,” he said. “Trump’s online support has been crucial to his success, I believe, and the fact is that his biggest and most devoted online supporters are white nationalists. Now, we’ve pushed the Overton window. People have adopted our rhetoric, sometimes without even realizing it. We’re setting up for a massive cultural shift.”
Another anonymous white nationalist, @PaulTown_, claimed to be “in my late 20s,” but declined to say where he exists geographically, other than to confirm that, every few months, he meets the members of his community in New York City. He estimated the broad #FrogTwitter movement to consist of about 30 people but said 10 core members helped plot it out over drinks in late 2015, before taking to /r9k/.
“We all do some weightlifting, so we met through friends involved in that scene,” he said. “Turning Pepe into a white nationalist icon was one of our original goals, although we’ve had our hands in many other things.”
One of those things has been helping to turn Taylor Swift into an “Aryan goddess.” When several publications (Broadly, Slate, and The Washington Post) this week reported on the alt-right’s fixation on the pop star, #FrogTwitter was somewhat triumphant. “I never thought that would work,” @JaredTSwift said, “but they finally noticed.”
@PaulTown_ characterized Pepe as “an experiment” the group used “as a test.”
“As you can see,” he said, “it went better than we could ever have imagined.”
I’m shocked and stunned. How is this possible?
Make the jump to find out.
Pepe the green frog meme’s unmitigated rise into pop culture comes amid hysteria that the internet cartoon is little more than a stand-in for white nationalism. But it turns out the original story that prompted the panic is more or less a complete troll job.
The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi wrote a piece in May striving to describe and trace the genesis of Pepe in the alt-right scene, a nascent, illiberal political movement focused on preserving white identity and Western civilization. In the process, Nuzzi just ended up repeating various made-up stories from the only two people she interviewed from “Frog Twitter”: Paul Town (@PaulTown_) and Jared Taylor Swift (@JaredTSwift).
Frog Twitter is an offshoot, alt-right subculture primarily interested in memes, aesthetics and trolling political figures.
Since then, Pepe as white nationalist has become a meme of its own sort, circulated through liberal circles, cable networks and think pieces. Rounding out this tidal wave of whinery, Pepe made an appearance on Hillary Clinton’s own campaign site as part of an effort by the campaign to try and associate Donald Trump Jr. with white supremacy.
The explainer on Clinton’s site features a direct quote from Jared Taylor Swift, one of the two accounts Nuzzi interview for her story.
“[I]n recent months, Pepe’s been almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists who call themselves the ‘alt-right.’ They’ve decided to take back Pepe by adding swastikas and other symbols of anti-Semitism and white supremacy,” Hillary Clinton’s explainer notes, quoting “prominent white supremacist” Swift from Nuzzi’s article: “We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association.”
Months after flippantly giving that quote to Nuzzi, Swift is still having a good laugh about it.
“I think the most ridiculous thing is that a random guy on the internet who trolled a journalist once is now a ‘prominent white supremacist.’ I mean, the only accurate part of that is the ‘white’ part,” Swift told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And my Italian ancestry means that even that is disputed!”
Swift created his Twitter account in November 2015. His Twitter name is a tribute to Jared Taylor, a white nationalist, alt-right leader and founder of the magazine American Renaissance. Paul Town created his account in January 2016.
The troll consisted of Town and Swift feeding an outrageous narrative to Nuzzi in the hopes she would scoop it up and feature as many quotes as possible– a fairly common practice among various alt-right groups to gain in-group status.
Private conversations between Frog Twitter and Olivia Nuzzi provided to The Daily Caller News Foundation show the extent of the troll, which started after she began the Swift interview with, “Can I ask you some stupid questions?”
Nuzzi quoted Paul Town describing how Frog Twitter met for drinks in 2015 to plot appropriating the Pepe meme for white nationalism. Frog Twitter then supposedly coordinated a group effort to seed the meme on various imageboards.
“There was no ‘plot’ to take a cartoon frog and make it a symbol of white supremacy,” Paul Town told TheDCNF. “That’s absurd on the face of it.”
It doesn’t get much better from there for Nuzzi’s narrative.
There was no Frog Twitter meetup — they did not meet for drinks to discuss green frogs. They did not plot in 2015. There was no group experiment. They did not coordinate efforts on /r9k/ or /pol/, two imageboards on 4chan and 8chan, where memes are born and subsequently end up in the public. Jared Taylor Swift says he isn’t actually 19. He doesn’t live on the West Coast. They didn’t turn Taylor Swift, the pop singer, into an “Aryan Goddess.”
And most importantly, it’s just not true that the biggest online supporters of Donald Trump are “white nationalists.”
“Basically, I interspersed various nuggets of truth and exaggerated a lot of things, and sometimes outright lied — in the interest of making a journalist believe that online Trump supporters are largely a group of meme-jihadis who use a cartoon frog to push Nazi propaganda. Because this was funny to me,” Swift told TheDCNF.
“The idea that every major Trump supporter online is secretly a neo-Nazi, for one. I mean, it’s just not true. But it’s the kind of thing that a journalist will readily believe.”
Paul Town agreed.
“The funny thing is that we were helping Olivia’s narrative, so we probably could have added in a bunch of insane stuff and she would have still run with the story,” he told TheDCNF. “Now we have MSNBC and the Clinton campaign citing a troll story about a meme.”
Olivia first started with Swift, who led her on with a hilarious, nonsensical and over-the-top description of Pepe, namely that “Most memes are ephemeral by nature, but Pepe is not. He’s a reflection of our souls, to most of us. It’s disgusting to see people (‘normies,’ if you will) use him so trivially. He belongs to us. And we’ll make him toxic if we have to.”
Swift provided the quote to Olivia just to see if she would print it. She did.
“I was talking like normies were infidels and I was a terrorist or something,” Swift told TheDCNF.
“I made my stuff a lot more tame than Paul,” Swift added. “I wanted her to think I was serious. Seems likely she’d have just run with anything I told her tho.”
After the interview, Swift sent Olivia to Paul for him to provide more inside details of the “plot” behind Pepe.
“More than anything, I wanted to set it up for Paul to sell her on something crazy,” Swift said. “That’s why I enlisted him.”
The stewards of this Twitter world are notoriously capricious and trolltastic. They could even retract this mea culpa of sorts. Either way, this is almost certainly the case: A journalist with a clear lack of healthy skepticism and an added dose of internet dopiness got duped.
“I mean, imagine, some unknown high school Twitter troll lying about the origins of a cartoon frog meme somehow made it onto a presidential campaign’s official website as a ‘prominent white supremacist,’” Swift said. “That’s insane.”
Nuzzi did not respond to a request for comment from TheDCNF.
They were pulling her leg and it came right off like a cheap prosthetic.