How the Alt-Right is using the Pepe Symbol to undermine the media

English: A-OK Hand Gesture

English: A-OK Hand Gesture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have been watching social media during the presidential campaign, you will have seen the Pepe meme. Pepe is a cartoon green frog was initially created to signal a desire to relax or chill.[1] During the election, it was hijacked by the Alt Right to show membership in or sympathy to their movement. It also served as a weapon to attack those the movement and those sympathetic to it saw as enemies. As its use proliferated among racists, Pepe the Frog was declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.[2]

The symbol, though, only works well in the digital domain as it is difficult to translate it into the physical domain. To reach the physical domain where nonverbal communication is as important as verbal communication, a physical symbol or gesture was needed. A gesture or a symbol can reach a wider audience and provide a subtext to any situation where it is used. For some symbols or gestures, only one meaning is intended. One such example is the Quenelle gesture in France. It cannot be mistaken telling someone you love them.[3] In that sense, it is limited what you see is what is intended. A more sophisticated symbol or gesture is one that can have a variety of meanings depending on context, intent, and the person using it. The surface meaning would mask or reassure the audience of its conventional meaning, whereas the deeper, or intended, meaning would speak to a different audience.

Such a symbol is the “Ok” hand gesture that is now used by the Alt-Right as the physical symbol for Pepe. Normally, the “Ok” gesture is a way to communicate approval nonverbally. When it is used, it appears harmless to the uninitiated as if the person is simply showing a sign of approval. However, like any symbol or gesture, the context and user matters shapes the gesture’s intent and meaning. To understand the way the gesture is being used by the Alt-Right consider these two examples.

When Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich attended their first White House Press Conference, they tweeted a photograph that showed them making this gesture.[4] The pepe symbol had reached the highest pinnacle of political journalism the White House Press Centre.


Another Alt-Right figure who has used it is Mike Cernovich. He made the gesture in a photograph announcing he would be interviewed on 60-Minutes.

Perhaps it is way to show his continued disdain for mainstream media despite appearing on it. “Pepe has arrived on 60-Minutes and they don’t even know it.”

The next time you see someone make the “ok” gesture you may wish to consider the context, intent, and the person making it.[5] What is on the surface is not always what is intended.

[1] The cartoon was created in 2005 to represent someone chillaxing or taking a laid-back or relexed approach to the world.






About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to How the Alt-Right is using the Pepe Symbol to undermine the media

  1. superbadbeta says:

    All these hysterical articles about goofy “Alt Right” symbols and crypto-meanings are the 80’s Satanic Panic for libs.

    • I am not sure that follows. You are confusing an effect for a cause. If you want to compare causes you would say hand symbol is a faux satanic symbol.
      The point I was making was that it was a symbol to mark territory and membership much like a gang symbol.
      The deeper point though is whether such symbols should be tolerated by the media or allowed against the backdrop of the White House Press Room podium.

      Do you think it appropriate to flash a coded symbol in such a setting?

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