Pepe the green frog meme’s unprecedented rise into pop culture came 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 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 link Donald Trump, Jr. to 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. He told The Daily Caller News Foundation:
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. And my Italian ancestry means that even that is disputed!
Swift, this apparently prominent white supremacist, created his Twitter account in November 2015. His Twitter name is a tribute to Jared Taylor, a leading intellectual influence on the alt-right 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, which is a fairly common practice among various alt-right groups to gain in-group status.
For example, comedian Sam Hyde during a June interview with Forbes was able to slip in a reference to his “wife’s son,” which in context is a subtle reference to cuckoldry — again, another in-group joke used to mock people for some combination of either being in an open relationship or sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of some illusory, fake moral ideal.
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.” As Swift told TheDCNF:
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.
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. Now we have MSNBC and the Clinton campaign citing a troll story about a meme.
Nuzzi 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 Nuzzi 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 passed Nuzzi to Paul for him to pump 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.”
While Town agreed that the use of a Pepe indicates a non-zero chance that the person could be part of the alt-right, there’s also a near infinitely large sphere of the internet that uses Pepe with absolutely no hint of political connotation at all. Political journalists have come to view Pepe as inextricably tied to white nationalism, but that’s only because they’re often the target of pranksters and trolls. Matt Furie created Pepe in the early 2000s and told The Atlantic the link between Pepe and white nationalism is exaggerated and really not much more than a phase, one out of many evolutionary stages the frog has undergone.
“I think that’s it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase, obviously that political agenda is exactly the opposite of my own personal feelings, but in terms of meme culture, it’s people reappropriating things for their own agenda,” Furie said. “That’s just a product of the internet. And I think people in whatever dark corners of the internet are just trying to one up each other on how shocking they can make Pepe appear.”
For Furie, the Clinton campaign explainer is quite amusing.
“I read it, and I thought it was funny,” he said. “Like I said, I think it downplays the fact that Pepe is more than, whatever is happening in the news today, especially to younger people and to teenagers.”
Sandwich-maker Jimmy Johns, for example, had no aversion to tweeting out a Pepe, as opposed to a swastika – a symbol virtually inseparable from National Socialism. At least at first. Jimmy Johns quickly deleted the tweet after being trolled into believing Pepe was nothing more than a harbinger of white supremacy. Rappers Nikki Minaj and Chief Keef, too, have used the frog on Instagram. And Clinton campaign supporter Katy Perry sent out a Pepe tweet back in 2014.
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.” That’s insane,” Swift said.
This report, by Jonah Bennett, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.