Southern Poverty Law Center Says Pepe the Frog Meme Was 'Hijacked' by Racists

PHOTO: Pepe the Frog has been declared a hate symbol by the ADL after alt-right memes.Twitter
Pepe the Frog has been declared a hate symbol by the ADL after alt-right memes.

Pepe the Frog, a ubiquitous internet meme, has been "hijacked by the racist right," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center -- backing up the Anti-Defamation League's decision to add Pepe to its list of hate symbols.

Mark Potok, a spokesman for the SPLC, told ABC News in a phone interview that while the SPLC doesn't formally track hate symbols, the group is aware of Pepe the Frog. He acknowledged that while the cartoon was not designed as a hate symbol, it has been re-purposed as one by white supremacist groups.

By adding Pepe to its list of hate symbols, the ADL has placed the frog in some bad company -- the cartoon now shares space with the swastika and the Confederate flag.

Pepe, as has been widely noted in the press, has evolved considerably in usage as a meme from its inception in the mid 2000s. Matt Furie, the artist who first drew the green frog and introduced him on his MySpace page in 2005, said that “Pepe is beyond my control" in an interview with New York Magazine this year.

These days, it is not entirely uncommon to see the frog wearing Nazi garb, although its usage does not appear limited to promoting hate.

The conservative website Breitbart News has used Pepe in its articles in the past, as it did in an explainer on the alt-right that shows Pepe leading a battle-worn GOP elephant to its grave.

Some supporters of GOP nominee Donald Trump's campaign, as a well as other political movements that have become popular with the alt-right -- a right-wing ideology presented as an alternative to mainstream conservatism that is highlighted by an opposition to multiculturalism, immigration and feminism -- embraced Pepe as an online symbol early on in his campaign.

As a result, the frog has surfaced -- sometimes awkwardly -- in the cycle of mainstream election news.

Trump himself quote-tweeted an image of Pepe the Frog in October 2015. Hillary Clinton, while giving a speech warning about the dangers of the alt-right earlier this year, was greeted by a heckler who yelled "Pepe!" at her from the crowd. The Clinton campaign published an explainer on its website earlier this month in which they declared that Pepe had been "co-opted by white supremacists."

Donald Trump Jr., while taking aim Clinton's description of some Trump supporters as "deplorables," posted an image on Instagram taken from the promotional material from the film "The Expendables" in which each of the characters' heads was replaced with the head of a prominent Trump supporter. Among the group of heads was Pepe, side-by-side with Mike Pence and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars, among others.

"I've never even heard of Pepe the Frog," Trump Jr. told ABC News on "This Week" when asked about his usage of the symbol. "I mean, bet you 90 percent of your viewers have never heard of Pepe the Frog. I thought it was a frog in a wig. I thought it was funny. I had no idea there was any connotation there."

Some Trump supporters have expressed anger online about the designation of Pepe as a hate symbol. In the Reddit group The_Donald, someone posted an image today of Pepe's face on a "Don't Tread on Me" flag under a headline that said "NOT HATE." Within the thread, some Trump supporters commiserated about Pepe's new designation. One user threatened to have Clinton's "H" symbol reported as a symbol of hate in an act of retaliation.

Reddit has been a popular hangout for some Trump supporters online, and the candidate answered questions from some of that group in July in an Ask Me Anything forum.

Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart News writer and prominent supporter of Trump who drew criticism for his involvement in the trolling of "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones, receiving a permanent ban from Twitter as a result, mocked the designation of Pepe as a hate symbol in a comment to ABC News.

"Great news! We can rest easy now that the [ADL] has identified the real source of racial tension in the United States. It's not bad policing, it's not crappy schools and it's not the war on drugs-- it's frog memes!" he said in an email.