Twitch streamers declare war on Pepe The Frog in bid to kick white supremacy off the platform

Popularly known as the ‘sad frog meme’, Pepe The Frog has become a cultural milestone of the internet – but not for positive reasons.

You don’t have to search far online to find images of the green frog with his bulging eyes and wide grin. He was never meant to be a political figure, but over time he’s morphed into an emblem of hateful meme culture and the darkest reaches of the internet.

By extension, the use of Pepe imagery has seeped deep into Twitch culture. The frog is unavoidable, but now Twitch streamers are taking a stance and banning Pepe emotes on their channel.

What went wrong for Pepe The Frog?

The 2020 documentary Feels Good, Man, named after the frog’s catchphrase, has shed light on the history of the meme.

Created by cartoonist Matt Furie, the character was part of his Boy’s Club stoner humour comic about four chill anthropomorphised characters first published in 2006. Pepe was named as such because it reminded Furie of “pee pee” – reflective of the artist’s silly, childlike sense of humour.

It’s a world away from what Pepe came to symbolise.

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Boy's Club
Boy’s Club. (Matt Furie)

The radicalisation of the image came a few years later. Pepe The Frog was increasingly used in memes, with images of the character used consistently across the messageboard site 4chan well into the 2010s.

In the documentary, the site is described as a “Darwinian competition for attention” that led to a culture of highly offensive and inflammatory posts. Pepe memes melt into this culture, symbolising hate and bigotry particularly against Black and Jewish people. 

As the “sad frog”, Pepe represents the most anxious and isolated corners of the internet  – loners who found a home on 4chan. Over time, the site became a hotbed for the alt-right and, in the 2016 US election, Trump supporters as images of Trump and Pepe soon surfaced. Not only was the meme recognised by Hilary Clinton in her campaign, it was shared on Instagram by Donald Trump Jr

Racist and bigoted memes of Pepe The Frog became so pervasive that leading anti-hate organisation the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) list the meme on their website, alongside hateful symbols like the swastika, the Confederate flag and the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross. 

Pepe in gaming culture

With this less than stellar history, it’s inevitable that Pepe The Frog memes would crop up in gaming culture. Blizzard has banned Pepe emotes from the Overwatch League, with a spokesperson telling Dot Esports “The Overwatch League discourages the use of symbols and imagery which are associated with or used by hate groups, including Pepe The Frog.” Both fans and competitors are asked to comply.  

Valve has also banned the emote from their Steam platform after a DMCA takedown notice from Furie. The artist has tried to remove or reclaim his character, but Pepe is entrenched so deeply into internet subcultures that it seems an impossible feat.

On Twitch, Pepe lives on as an emote. And just like the memes before, there are countless variations.

Emotes are popular on Twitch as a key form of interaction. As the text chat is the only way for viewers to respond to a stream, emotes are widely used as shorthand for reactions that bring their own in-jokes and subcultures.

Twitch partners are able to upload their own emotes for use by subscribers, further representing their stream brand. Twitch then takes a cut of that subscription fee.

Pepe The Frog
Pepe The Frog.

It’s important to note that Pepe is not an official emote on Twitch, which provides a basic set for all users. But Pepe persists through the wide use of third-party plugins like Better TTV that allow for a huge array of animated emotes only visible to those with the plugin. A quick look at the top emotes on the platform shows an abundance of Pepe The Frog, who crops up again and again across Twitch.

So what can be done?

Twitch, arguably, should ban the emote from the platform. But at this point, is Pepe the Frog too ingrained in internet and gaming culture?

Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr, streamer and Twitch safety advisory council member, summarises the issue: “The crux of the issue to me is that not everyone who uses Pepe is toxic, but every alt-right or intolerant space uses Pepe. This dynamic means that we can’t judge people who use Pepe as bad or intolerant, but by banning Pepe from our spaces, we can make them a lot safer.”

That’s why many streamers are choosing to ban Pepe emotes from their individual streams. At the least, streamers have a responsibility to protect and curate their own community.

“I was honestly appalled when I first started using the platform as I had no idea that it wasn’t just used by the alt-right,” says elliejoypanic.

“It makes me deeply uncomfortable to see streamers and teams creating their entire brands around the emotes, and genuinely sickens me when I load up BTTV and see so many in the top emotes.

“As a creator, it’s my responsibility to keep my community safe and have a welcoming attitude, and Pepe goes against that…I honestly can’t comprehend how an image of a frog can mean more than peoples’ genuine fear about their safety.”

Says FrazleyS: “I chose to ban it from my stream because I want to show we are inclusive. That we see it’s a hate symbol. That we don’t stand for racism or white supremacy in my stream.”

Perhaps most important is streamers’ ability to educate themselves and grow. It’s easy to see a funny frog emote and think nothing of it, but understanding the context has led streamers to change their minds.

“Regrettably I didn’t do the proper research on how it was used as a symbol of hate,” says ctrlaltquin.

“Having an inclusive, safe community is extremely important to me especially as someone who is Black and is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s not up for debate in my community: if something makes folks uncomfortable and has such a public history of hate why should we have it around?”

“When I got on the platform I noticed that a lot of people used them just as silly emotes and even added them to my channel,” says heyselenatv, who has since removed the emotes from her stream after speaking with members of her community. 

“I’ve been working hard to foster a safe environment, and learning to be a better ally to all marginalised groups and having a frog emote, as much as some of my community members may feel sad that it’s gone, is not worth the discomfort of new people coming to my community.”

Pepe remains in abundance in some of the biggest streams on Twitch, with streamers more scared to alienate their audience than to educate them. Yet removing the emote is the simplest way that streamers can take a stance against hate on the platform.

“Honestly, it’s a green frog. I feel no need to “fight to take back Pepe”. It’s an emote. It can be replaced,” says SkullKidNico.

And if you’re thinking of using the emote in a Twitch chat, consider the potential impact both of others in that community and how you may be perceived.

“You’re really trying to convince me that there is no other imagery or emojis out there whatsoever that can convey the message you’re trying to make?” says PleasantlyTwstd.

“It’s a dead meme, team. You gotta get over it.”