NEW YORK — In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency I would foolishly engage with the trolls who surfaced online in his wake. One afternoon I got into an argument with an imbecile known as “Baked Alaska” (who has since been banned from Twitter for his abuses) and he sent his followers after me. I was not rattled (the mute button is handy) but amid the personal insults and anti-Semitic taunts, one thing was especially perplexing. Why were these idiots sending me pictures of a cartoon frog?
Pepe the Frog, as the creature is called, did not begin its life as a racist meme. (One image sent to me that fine afternoon had him laughing at piles of dead bodies at a Nazi crematorium.) Pepe was just a laid-back and likable character from the lo-fi, indie comic “Boys Club,” created by a mild cartoonist named Matt Furie. What happened next is too weird to be made up.
Furie, who worked in a California junk shop, uploaded his work to some of the early social networking sites (remember MySpace?) and something unexpected happened. One specific panel, in which the epicurean anthropomorphized frog urinates and says “feels good, man” started popping up as a “reaction image” on message boards. Initially it was just something people used instead of, say, a thumbs up. It caught on in the bodybuilding community of all places, then spread from there.
Initially this was great for Furie, but things got twisted. Pepe the Frog’s allure is the simplicity of his look. (Other Furie creations, like his children’s book “The Night Riders” are far more intricate.) People began making their own versions of Pepe and soon he was seized upon by the nihilistic denizens of 4chan.
4chan is a complicated corner of cyberspace, but to put it in brief terms, it is an anonymous message board where one’s commentary rises to the top depending on the amount of likes it receives. The primary currency is being edgy and the easiest path to said edginess, whether you really mean it or are just doing it “for lulz” (internet speak for, “for kicks”) is to be shockingly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and just plain gross. It is the darkest side of free speech.
Though some may still try to deny it, 4chan, memes, and the alt right are inexorably connected to Trump’s political success. As much as the red MAGA ball cap, Pepe the Frog, now listed by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol, is a visual stand-in for Trump to a great many people online.
“Feels Good Man” is a new documentary (streaming from September 4 on Video-on-Demand platforms) that gets into the nitty gritty of 4chan and how its trolls are far more powerful than many grown ups want to believe. Part of their power comes from their methods: if you feel a cartoon frog can do damage you are clearly “falling for it,” conventional wisdom goes. This documentary proves otherwise.
It is also the story of a journey one artist took when his creation was hijacked by others, and his long road to try and get it back. (It involved, among other things, suing InfoWars’s Alex Jones.)
I spoke with director Arthur Jones and producer Giorgio Angelini, whose film, which mixes interviews with animation, is essential viewing for anyone who still thinks online trolling is just kids stuff. The following is edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Your movie is great and eye opening. I have to admit I was really depressed after watching it.
Arthur Jones: It is depressing, I’ll grant you that. It was hard to create something that cut through the cultural chaos. But we didn’t want the film to end with the sci-fi trope of “the machines take over.” We, as artists, do not believe that. Matt concludes with the concept of “Hardcore Happy.” For him it isn’t all “California Woo,” it’s something that is hard earned.
Giorgio Angelini: From the beginning we knew we had to talk about dark subject matter, but we can’t let that control it. That’s what fascism depends on: despair and apathy.
I spend a lot of time online, so I know about 4chan and whatnot, but I’m thinking about my parents. They barely know how to text. If I told them that weirdos in basements with a cartoon frog radically changed the world they’d look at me like I had nine heads. Your film explains it all very, very well. When it showed at Sundance and elsewhere, what has been the reaction from this older generation?
AJ: We played three festivals before the coronavirus shutdown, and there were older crowds. Many had no idea about any of this. Then there would be a younger contingent that came because they wanted to see a movie about Pepe the Frog. For them, the film played totally differently; it was a youth culture film. Even for kids not immersed in 4chan, they are aware of this, from gaming chats and elsewhere. “We’re glad you told our story,” for the generation that has grown up “extremely online.”
The way that we communicate on social media is the biggest story of our generation
The way that we communicate on social media is the biggest story of our generation. We can see the realities of 4chan bearing fruit in all the candidates that are lining up this election cycle. There are 11 candidates on the Republican side that have entered races who are QAnon adherents. It is not something the GOP is pushing away.
I think it’s important that older people who aren’t as entrenched online should see it. It’s about media literacy, at the end of the day. My dad saw it. He’s a Trump voter and 80 years old. He gave it a B-plus. I think he was being nice.
GA: My parents are immigrants in their 70s. They are on the opposite end of the political spectrum, but are also clueless about online culture. I think the film examines the anxiety of not understanding the cultural moment. So a lot of the excited responses we got at festivals were from older people, because it gave them an “ah, I get it now! I still can’t explain it, but I get it.”
AJ: That’s the power of having Matt and his journey at the center of this. It’s not just another movie about the darkness of the internet. Matt’s relatable. He’s a family man.
It shows how we can’t keep our head in the sand. I would love nothing more than to never pay attention to this — to say “it’s meaningless, it’s twerps playing video games. Trolls looking to get a rise out of people.” Do you think the toothpaste can ever get put back in the tube on this one?
GA: I find it ironic, especially since these people traffic in irony, that when we posted the trailer on YouTube we got a bunch of troll comments saying “Matt is so dumb, he can never take Pepe back. Pepe belongs to us!”
First of all, that’s not really Matt’s perspective. The film is about him coming to terms with the character and kind of letting it go. But also, no one can control Pepe. Not even the trolls.
No one can control Pepe. Not even the trolls
AJ: We have to get used to memes becoming vocabulary in politics. As this generation and younger grows up, it will just take over. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang and even Michael Bloomberg used memes to campaign.
I forgot about Bloomberg. Remember the meatball thing? I guess they were like “hey, the kids like wacky shit, let’s put a meatball out there,” but… it didn’t work.
AJ: Bloomberg hired people who worked for FuckJerry, the meme think tank that also ran the Fyre Festival.
Of course. Wait, let’s get back to the trailer. I looked on YouTube and some guy with 150,000 followers, who had not seen the film, made a whole video about the trailer, making comments that were borderline racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and, in addition to that, was just plain factually incorrect. And the top comment underneath with the most likes simply said “when a cartoon frog scares normies and boomers.”
This feeds directly to what Adam Serwer in your film says, which is “when it gets too real, we can just say we’re kidding.” So the question is, how do you win against these people, who have this safety net of “oh, it’s just a frog, you idiot”?
AJ: Adam Serwer wrote an essay after the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre. The title was “Nazis Have Always Been Trolls.” So this is not ahistorical. In the 1920s the Nazis were distancing from anti-Semitism saying it wasn’t serious, it was just a way to appeal to a base. They’ve always used insincerity to obfuscate their true intentions. We must recognize this. And I think in the last four years people are starting, slowly, to recognize trolling.
Nazis always used insincerity to obfuscate their true intentions
It’s definitely good there’s increasing literacy, but to someone leafing through out-of-context, this bad faith sentiment still gets across, unchecked. “It’s just a cartoon frog.”
GA: That’s a common refrain. “I can’t believe you guys still think this is an issue!” Some people may be authentically obtuse about how it started as a joke, but, you know, professional racists took that joke and ran with it. David Duke perfected this: integrating your racist messages into pop culture icons, weaseling them into “normie culture.” It’s a typical thing.
The press just has to call it out. Even this week, Laura Loomer wins a primary, and several articles just casually mentioned that “activist Gavin McInnis” was with her. Well, he’s not an activist — he’s a white nationalist who leads a violent mob of lunatics. Some people in the press want to uphold this air of being unbiased, but here’s the thing: you are never going to get credit for that from the people you think you are getting credit for. So just call it what it is.
Your film shows that Matt was maybe a little slow on the uptake. He was happy to sell hats and T-shirts when Pepe first took off. Do you think he kicks himself for not trying to put a lid on this earlier?
AJ: He gets that question a lot, and I think he feels he could not have done anything. His original attitude about Pepe becoming a meme — before it was a hate symbol, but being widely used — was somewhat based on the Grateful Dead allowing fans to tape their concerts. He viewed it as out of his control, and if people liked it, well, that’s great.
I think if he was a little slow on the uptake it was because he was never on Reddit or 4chan. He’s not a very online person. He was busy with being a new father at that time, busy with an infant, not fighting the alt right. And his personality isn’t as an activist.
GA: That’s why we love him as a protagonist. Like his friend says, “this could only happen to you!”
AJ: Eventually he realized he had to deal with this. You can’t ignore a problem forever. He’s not the type who wants to find a lawyer and go to court. That’s very relatable, not wanting to address a terrible thing that’s happening to you, and then when you do — how do you do it?
Matt has a nuanced relationship with the Anti-Defamation League. Matt says “you having Pepe on the list of hate symbols absolutely sucks for me, please remove it,” and the ADL says “hey, our job is to help inform people about the mysterious stuff they encounter online.” That meeting scene ends with neither group all that happy. How is their relationship now?
AJ: We wanted people to understand they are both right. It is a situation without an easy answer. Matt has a complicated relationship to the ADL. They have basically said there could be a chance Pepe will be taken off the hate symbol list and, you know, we as filmmakers and artists, hope that someday this will be in the rearview mirror, and Pepe-as-a-hate-symbol is a blip in a much larger narrative.
GA: The conceit for the animated parts of our movie was to try to canonize Pepe. There was a vacuum about what Pepe actually meant. Matt created this thing that happened to connect with a huge number of people for mystical reasons we’ll never quite understand. And it happened without the help of hundreds of millions of marketing dollars from Disney or Nickelodeon. But when you see, say, SpongeBob with Hitler mustache, you know who SpongeBob is, and understand “this is a derivation.”
I take the ADL at their word that they would love to remove Pepe from the hate symbols database. Our hope in putting the broader context of Pepe out there is so that when people do see an altered version they say “oh, that’s bullshit, that’s not Pepe.”
Having been in the weeds on this film, are you aware of other cartoons that may become a hate symbol? What’s the next Pepe the Frog?
AJ: There are possibilities, but I would prefer not to signal boost that stuff.
Of course, it’s all so gray, and the ADL is dealing with this. The okay symbol or the bowl haircut to mimic Dylan Roof. When they get put on a watch list the “edgy internet” roasts them for that. The internet can be a horrible place, we need to figure out how to talk about it.
You interviewed a lot of these 4channers. One literally lives in his mother’s basement. They… seem normal and self-aware. But also without remorse. What were “Mills” and “Pizza” really like?
GA: Mills is an intensely frustrating person. He’s really smart and funny, and he knows he’s trapped by this horrible feedback loop, seeking the approval of bad people. He knows it is not helpful to his physical and mental constitution, but he wallows in the despair of the world. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s really tough. Pizza is … [sighs] … Arthur, you want to talk about her?
AJ: 4chan is a place for outsiders — people who are trying to find themselves, mostly as teenagers. Everyone’s anonymous. Often the people on 4chan will grow and change and move out of their phase, but some dig themselves deeper into the trench.
You can see these people doing this, even if they can be smart and even sweet. They don’t realize they actually do have a platform; they are just obsessed with being edgy, which just puts toxicity into the world and getting desensitized to it. It does not lead to happiness.
What better tool for brainwashing is there than a bright white screen for hours on end
GA: We interviewed someone named Lil Internet, who we actually ended up cutting out of the film. He’s an artist and filmmaker now, but when he was younger he spent time on 4chan, and he makes a great point: What better tool for brainwashing is there than a bright white screen for hours on end, engaging with people who destroy your preconceived notions about everything, and then fill your head back up with new information? It’s like kind of this perfect, brainwashing machine.
This is only somewhat related to your film, but you guys are smart guys, so I want to know what you think. When Trump bats away questions about QAnon and says he doesn’t know much about it, is he telling the truth? Is he playing dumb, or is he actually dumb?
AJ: QAnon is a unique thing. Like Pepe, it started on 4chan, but it didn’t stay there. The adherents are not the type who hang out there. QAnon is a way for evangelical Christians to use their 5D chess brains to argue that Trump is part of God’s master plan. Now, on the face of it, most of us recognize Trump is a narcissist and a liar and adulterer and most likely a sex offender. He’s certainly amoral. But QAnon allows them a way to rationalize that he still fits into God’s plan. My guess is that Trump does not know all the ins-and-outs, but he is aware it’s part of his coalition and he’s always happy for attention.
GA: What’s incredible is that there are numerous photos of Trump and Ghislaine Maxwell, yet QAnon is supposedly all about rooting out sex trafficking.
I believe his level of intellectual understanding is simply what he said. He knows they like him, and he’s never been one to shy from flattery.