Know Your Meme editor-in-chief Brad Kim sees meme culture, to an extent, as having two distinct periods: pre- and post-Pepe the Frog.
That may not seem like enough time to encapsulate an entire history of internet shenanigans, but Kim suggests that Pepe the Frog — Matt Furie’s cartoon frog that was degraded from harmless meme to hate symbol — represents a cultural movement in memehood bigger than almost anything before it.
Pepe was co-opted and weaponized by alt-right groups — a radical movement that propagates racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and various other hateful ideologies — and used as a form of harassment toward those on an opposing side of the political spectrum and hit mainstream recognition during one of the most tumultuous political periods. Pepe represented the total power a character meme could yield.
Character memes like Pepe take off because those in on the joke “create a lore,” Kim said, giving it a meaning deeper than just a funny image. One of the most popular and widespread character memes on the internet right now is Ugandan Knuckles; a deformed version of Knuckles from Sonic the Hedgehog who speaks lines taken from a no-budget Ugandan action movie, Who Killed Captain Alex? The meme gained widespread popularity in VRChat, a Second Life-esque game where players inhabit 3D avatars. Many VRChat players took on the form of a 3D Ugandan Knuckles avatar and ran around, pestering other players.
Ugandan Knuckles has been described as problematic and racist since its emergence on VRChat, but like Pepe the Frog, its origins weren’t based on hateful content. The design for the character came from a one-second clip of a video created by YouTuber Gregzilla in early 2017, and was turned into a 3D avatar months later. The origin of the meme was innocent, but as critics began pointing out the gradual evolution of the joke into something more nefarious, the retaliation got stronger.
Just because the #doyouknowtheway meme has become a rather racist and offensive meme because of this portion of the internet does not mean that the mean is originally racist. There is a fine line, the deformed knuckles was not originally racist and the meme was not racist.— HarryKillsZombie - Dangnabit r e (@HarryKillsZombi) January 30, 2018
This is the problematic side of meme culture; when they balloon to a wider and wider audience, unaware of its origins, the context can shift and mutate.
“At some point when a meme reaches a certain level of visibility, of prominence, someone will get racist about it with the protection of being anonymous,” Kim said.
Then, when a meme is singled out or criticized, the conversation turns into a debate over free speech. As developers like Roblox Corporation ban the use of Ugandan Knuckles imagery in its game, and as brands like Razer are pressured to release apologetic statements over the widespread promotion of it on Twitter, the debate shifts to “Who gets to tell me what I can and can’t use online?”
“What’s fascinating is the mechanism behind what is driving people to participate in a meme that is so overtly racist,” Kim said. “Is it their beliefs that make them join in or is it a ‘no you’re wrong, we are defending our right’ stance? It’s a post-Pepe world, and these are questions we need to ask.”
Is Ugandan Knuckles the new Pepe?
There are big differences between Pepe the Frog and Ugandan Knuckles. Pepe the Frog was officially named a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, and became the face of alt-right movements. Ugandan Knuckles is still mostly contained within the digital borders of the internet, spreading from games to forums, Twitter and YouTube, eventually becoming the basis for a game on Steam.
That could change. Oren Segal, the director for the center on extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, told Polygon that most memes start out innocent, but can easily be exploited. That’s what happened to Pepe the Frog and, Segal said, could potentially happen to Ugandan Knuckles. The more that Ugandan Knuckles is seen as a central figure in the fight for free speech, the more likely its image will be used to promote ideals that some people could view as offensive.
“Like most memes, [Pepe] took on this cult status online after it appeared in the cartoon that was created by Matt Furie, and once it started hitting various online forums like 8chan and Reddit, people were able to add whatever sort of content or context they wanted, giving it additional meeting,” Segal said. “We saw the spreading of Pepe the Frog into various instances that people may find offensive, but maybe not hateful.”
Segal said there’s a fine line — a “murky grey area,” Kim calls it — when trying to determine whether a meme is hateful or offensive. A bunch of players in VRChat running around and yelling “ebola” at people, sporting fake Ugandan accents, making clicking sounds, and often times using racial epithets may be incredibly offensive, but is the character itself a symbol of hate?
It comes down to context. Pepe the Frog was deemed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League because of the “volume of the racist and anti-semitic, hateful uses of the meme,” Segal said. People were using Pepe as a way to signal a specific message; what was once a meme popular on subreddits, 4chan and Twitch chat became a physical lapel pin worn by white supremacist Richard Spencer’s during rallies. While Ugandan Knuckles has begun to make appearances at real life events, including Overwatch League games, the meme isn’t being used to signal a certain ideology. The proliferation of Ugandan Knuckles signs at gaming events is a classic case of a meme being used to signify understanding of online culture, more so than spreading a hateful message.
That wasn’t the case with Pepe the Frog. Spencer donning a Pepe pin at white supremacist rallies was an attempt to signal his ideologies. When the meme was first added to the list of hate symbols, it sparked waves of displeasure from people who were using the meme innocuously, or at least believed they were.
“Some people were upset, understandably, and we agree context is the key here,” Segal said. “When you label or identify hateful uses of an image or symbol or meme, for some, they will use it even more to make some sort of point about the fact that they’re allowed to use it. We never said people shouldn’t be allowed to use an image, that’s not what we’re about, what we do is provide the context for that image.”
Providing context for images floating around online is key to educating the general public about subcultures that can very quickly become mainstream. Segal said if the Anti-Defamation League begins to see a “similar embrace and a similar volume of hateful versions of any meme,” including Ugandan Knuckles, the group believes it to be worth including.
That doesn’t mean Ugandan Knuckles is a hate symbol — or that it will become one. Segal said a troubling trend the Anti-Defamation League has seen is attempts by trolls to turn innocent memes into something hateful. This allows groups to further their trolling efforts, gain attention and “expand their access to hate propaganda,” Segal said. It’s important that experts figure out what is an actual hate symbol and what isn’t; that means if Ugandan Knuckles is a joke that some people find offensive but isn’t being co-opted as a hate symbol, the Anti-Defamation League will try to ensure it remains that way.
“We saw this in a sense with users on 8chan and Reddit who were trying to create a campaign to make milk or the OK hand sign into being understood as hateful and link to the alt-right,” Segal said. “That was a concerted effort. There are going to be those who are going to try and use pop culture or memes or other popular imagery and try to appropriate it for a hateful cause. We need to be careful not to fall into their trap. It has to be something that’s a more widespread.
“I’ll be honest, what is that sweet spot when something goes from full-fledged meme into full on hate symbol? It’s something we’re still trying to figure out ourselves.”
Where does Ugandan Knuckles go?
It’s been declared a “dead meme” for weeks, with VRChat users and internet sleuths crying for the meme to disappear. Despite those rallying cries, the Ugandan Knuckles meme isn’t dying. People are making rap videos dedicated to it, while brands and people unaware of its origins have begun spreading it.
Kim believes the meme isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. Ugandan Knuckles will continue to rise in popularity until its creator, Gregzilla, essentially has to disown it and potentially kill it. Furie, the creator behind Pepe the Frog, did just that in a one-off comic, bringing Pepe to life just so he could officially kill him off for good. That said, however, Ugandan Knuckles may continue to mimic the trajectory of Pepe the Frog as it becomes rallying cry for certain groups’ claims to free speech.
“Moderation of the community that cause more reactionary detriments, and that will lead to attempting an effort at keeping this meme going,” Kim said. “Ugandan Knuckles will continue to rise until the makers of the meme put a kiss of death on it. We expect more of these, absolutely.”
Gregzilla, the original creator behind the 2D deformed Knuckles drawing, isn’t killing it off anytime soon. He designed shirts with the character, selling out of them quickly after launching the sales campaign. Gregzilla spoke about the controversy over the character who became co-opted as a meme many people see as offensive, saying that if he believed the drawing to be hateful, he wouldn’t have sold the t-shirt. Gregzilla also pointed out that if other people do find the meme offensive, they shouldn’t have their beliefs belittled.
And just to clear the air, my goal was to just sell a shirt with my Knuckles drawing on it. I didn't think much of any racist connotations. The VRChat meme itself (which I had nothing to do with other than the character design) is apparently mostly quoting a movie.— Gregzilla (@GregzillaGT) January 9, 2018
I wouldn't have agreed to sell it if I thought the meme was legitimately trying to hurt people, and I don't. It's mostly just a craze of people who play a game and put on an accent without any goals other than being goofy.— Gregzilla (@GregzillaGT) January 9, 2018
A few weeks later, Gregzilla tweeted that the meme has become too big to contain, and although he was upset other people were profiting off his designs, there was nothing he could to to stop it from growing. It’s this type of crowd behavior that gives Kim and his team pause. Kim said the pattern of behavior associated with Ugandan Knuckles, that he and his team also saw with Pepe over the past few years, is “almost pathological” and more inherent of sociological cultural tendencies than simple meme culture.
“Because of that, yes, I do think this character has a high likelihood of becoming the next Pepe,” Kim said. “The endurance of it, the long tail relevance of the meme, it is actually a combination of critique and reaction to the critique of the political correctness that exponentially amplifies that meme.”
Kim said the question over whether this becomes a Pepe the Frog moment in pop culture will be how the meme is exploited. If the meme remains in context of being a reference to a Ugandan action movie paired with a Sonic the Hedgehog character, it’ll remain mostly benign; offensive to some, hilarious to others.
“When I first looked at the videos, people saying those words in forced Ugandan accents was a new level in terms of offensive content because voice chat was enabled,” Kim said. “You see racism in memes when the meme reaches a certain level, but this is especially the case with character memes and character memes in online video game settings, and that’s why Ugandan Knuckles is so explosive.”
Both Kim and Segal said it’s a matter of waiting to see how Ugandan Knuckles develops.
“So much hateful iconography is online where more people are likely to come across a hate symbol on their phone than they are in their neighborhood even,” Segal said, “but for us, it was the volume of offensive, nasty, hateful, racist, anti-Semitic versions of the frog that we saw. It was also because we saw these hateful versions being used in the harassment of other users online.
“If we begin to see that with Ugandan Knuckles, we’ll re-examine the situation.”