RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A cartoon frog died on the Internet a few days ago. His name was Pepe. You might remember him over the course of the 2016 election. He became one of the most recognizable symbols of the alt-right. NPR's Sam Sanders tells us how Pepe lived and why he had to die.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Let us begin with Pepe's birth. The year - 2005. Pepe's creator - an Internet artist named Matt Furie.
MATT FURIE: So he's a frog. He's an anthropomorphic frog that lives with, like, a party wolf, a bear-like creature and then kind of a muppety (ph), dog-like creature.
SANDERS: These were all characters in a comic Furie created. It was called "Boys Club".
FURIE: Pepe the Frog is more just kind of like the Everyman. He likes to take naps and smoke weed and, you know, play video games - that kind of thing.
SANDERS: There's this one scene that made Pepe. One of his roommates was making fun of the way he uses the bathroom. And instead of being ashamed, Pepe replies...
FURIE: Feels good, man.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Feels good, man. A star was born. For years, Pepe thrived in the quirkier corners of the Internet. You could make him whatever you wanted - Pepe as "Mona Lisa," Pepe as a unicorn, Pepe in jail, whatever. He was then all that is right with the Internet - fun, communal, malleable, weird. But then Pepe was stolen by the alt-right.
MATTHEW SCHIMKOWITZ: He eventually kind of got co-opted by 4chan message boards.
SANDERS: This is Matthew Schimkowitz. He's an editor at a website called Know Your Meme. Oh, and 4chan is an online bulletin board.
SCHIMKOWITZ: And they would just kind of put him into various kind of either racist or anti-Semitic images under a different variation of the meme called Smug Frog.
SANDERS: These alt-right right folks and white nationalists, they eventually got their racist Pepe variations into the presidential election.
SCHIMKOWITZ: Eventually, a popular meme of the Smug Frog with Donald Trump's hair started circulating online and then, eventually, got retweeted by the Donald Trump campaign.
SANDERS: That made Pepe as hate symbol even bigger. And then Hillary Clinton called Pepe out. There's this moment in a speech she gave last September where she's denouncing the alt-right. And, well, you got to hear it.
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HILLARY CLINTON: The emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pepe!
CLINTON: Now, alt-right is short for...
SANDERS: Did you hear that guy who screamed Pepe? Well, Hillary Clinton's speech kind of did the same thing. It gave the alt-right, and Pepe, a big boost.
FURIE: You know, I didn't notice anything until there was a Hillary explainer that was issued about Pepe the Frog and the alt-right and all that stuff.
SANDERS: That's right. Matt Furie, Pepe's creator, did not realize his frog had turned racist until Hillary Clinton said so. The subtitle of that Clinton explainer, quote, "that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize." Furie tried to take the frog back. He launched a Save Pepe campaign. He even partnered with the Anti-Defamation League to rescue his frog - didn't work. So over the weekend, in a comic strip published online, Pepe croaked. The strip had images of Pepe in a casket, with his roommates pouring liquor over his face and drinking the rest. Furie says he actually wrote that months ago. And he told me over Skype that he had thought about offing Pepe long before the alt-right stole him.
FURIE: Honestly, I thought about killing off Pepe just simply when he became a meme. When an artist loses control of their creation like that, it's never that great.
SANDERS: But Pepe is still all over the Internet.
So then, is Pepe dead or not? He's never really dead, huh?
FURIE: It's a cartoon character.
SANDERS: Just a cartoon character - or maybe a whole lot more. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOTDAY AND THE DREAMTEAM'S "ITS REAL")
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