This piece is part of an ongoing Motherboard series on Facebook's content moderation strategies. You can read the rest of the coverage here.
Pepe the frog has come to mean something totally different than what his original creator intended. Throughout 2016, the so-called alt-right adopted the lovable, chilled frog as their own mascot of intolerance, leading the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to label Pepe a hate symbol. Hillary Clinton even mentioned Pepe’s racist users in a presidential candidate speech.
Naturally, others followed suit in their own way. Breaking with its normal policy on allowing fictional characters to display hateful messages, Facebook internally decided to ban certain images of the Pepe the Frog, according to documents obtained by Motherboard. The documents highlight the constant shifting of social networks’ policies towards hate speech, as groups find new ways to communicate and push their agendas.
“Pepe the Frog has been endorsed by many hate groups to convey hateful messages,” a section of a training manual for Facebook moderators, entitled ‘Dangerous Organizations’ reads.
Typically Facebook allows users to post images of cartoon or video game characters, even in the context of hate without issue. The training material also includes an example of Homer Simpson with a swastika emblazoned on the side of his head. This is something that moderators would ignore and not remove if flagged by a user, according to the documents.
Pepe is different though, or at least particular uses of him. The training materials provide two Pepe examples; the first is just a standard image of the bulge-eyed frog staring at his hands. The second shows Pepe dressed in an SS uniform standing outside a concentration camp. Moderators should “delete” the latter, according to the slide. The document specifically says that this only applies to “Pepe the Frog when he is shown in the context of hate.”
“They are abusing the image of a cartoon character, one that might at first seem appealing, to harass and spread hatred on social media,” ADL’s chief executive Jonathan A Greenblatt said when the group marked Pepe as a hate symbol.
Of course Facebook isn’t the only platform to wrestle with Pepe. In June last year, Motherboard confirmed that Apple had flagged the meme frog as “objectionable content,” banning it from the iOS App Store.
Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, has also bitten back against the far-right’s adoption of his character. In August last year, Furie reached a settlement with Eric Hauser, the author of The Adventures of Pepe and Pede, a self-published children’s book that depicted Pepe as an Islamophobe. The settlement forced Hauser to donate all profits to a Muslim-American relations campaign group.
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