Russia Has Deployed the First State-Sponsored Pepe
"We know what you’re doing. And it’s not impressive.”
The Russian Embassy to the UK tweeted what would normally be a mundane message, if not for the addition of one controversial cartoon frog.
Pepe, a meme that I can't believe we're still talking about, is a slimy-lipped frog that went from Matt Furie's innocent comic character, to the darling of 4chan forums, to the Anti-Defamation League's watchlist for hate speech. When you give a gimmick a long leash and racism for fuel, this is what you get. This and our president-elect, but we're here to talk about Pepe's new role at the Russian Embassy.
As far as we can tell, this is the first incident of an openly state-sponsored Pepe. Very rare indeed.
When asked about this escalation in meme warfare, a spokesperson for Russian Affairs at the US Department of Defense said, "I don't even know what tweet you're talking about." We're following up and will update when they respond.
The tweet's gone viral, but it's not like this is off brand for the account. It frequently posts mockery of the US intelligence community and "liberal elites," tweeting about Syria in between posting gorgeous shots of snow-covered Russian landscapes.
But as a dog-whistle for Neo-Nazis, this one's a new low. Whenever someone shows up in the replies to point out that this is widely regarded as a white nationalist meme, a flood of other Pepe-avatar accounts chime in to scream that there's no proof of a cartoon frog serving as a dog whistle for Neo-Nazis.
It's really, really hard to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to assume that the social media person running @RussianEmbassy is ignorant of the white supremacist undertones of this frog. Especially when they're favoriting tweets from accounts defending the thing, and attacking reporters:
"I would be mighty surprised if whoever runs the Embassy's Twitter account doesn't know of the white nationalist double entendre that has come to be associated with Pepe over the last year," College of Charleston media communications professor Ryan Milner told Motherboard. "I'd imagine the Venn diagram of people who know Pepe and would use Pepe in that context and don't know that Pepe has been co-opted by white nationalists doesn't have much overlap. I could be wrong, but that's my inkling."
Milner says this was most likely meant to stir up the exact frenzy that it has, as a wink to the group it's intended for (alt-right white supremacists) and a provocation to those outside of the group. "This doesn't mean that we should 'just ignore it', but rather we should get meta and call out its antagonistic dimensions with every assessment of it. 'I know what you're doing,' in other words. 'And it's not impressive.'"
Meanwhile, back on 4chan, some Trump supporters are chalking up a victory to the frog itself: They believe that splatting this ugly frog all over the internet, in as many variations as possible, would work some kind of "meme magic" that they could ride straight to the White House.
Motherboard has contacted the Russian Embassy to the UK, the US State Department, and the Department of Defense for comment, and will update when they respond.
UPDATE: "We monitor various traditional and social media platforms, but I am not going to get into the specifics," Defense Spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle L. Baldanza told Motherboard in an email. "This particular tweet is not a Defense Department issue to address."