When Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog in a 2005 comic, he didn’t realize his art would be weaponized by internet trolls in an effort to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
He also didn’t know it would be the first internet meme to be added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols.
But it was.
Stolen by internet trolls with detestable ideologies, Pepe the Frog became a symbol of hate before his creator had to kill him.
The 2016 election was won by a person who, over the course of his campaign, attracted the support of internet trolls, many of whom promoted alt-right ideas.
The trolls, who typically hang out around the dark web, 4chan, Reddit, and other such spaces, use memes as a primary tool of their trolling. They have for years. This is nothing new.
Before Pepe, there was trollface, and after Pepe there will be something else.
The internet hate and bigotry that gained mainstream attention in the 2016 presidential has existed for years in the deep, dark corners of the internet. But its newfound fame has drawn attention toward the matter of free speech and the internet. What is permissible, what is not, and how do we proceed into the future?
The Future of Free Speech Online
The creator of Pepe the Frog never imagined his creation would become a hate symbol, nor did he intend for this to be a case.
Yet, in the end, he was the loser. His art, his “free speech,” was hindered because of how others chose to use their free speech.
What is the future of free speech on the internet?
A few months ago, the Pew Research Center released some data and helpful insight into the future of free speech online.
Based on the data the collected and the insight of digital communications professionals with whom they spoke, they were able to pinpoint the following four themes regarding the future of speech online.
Let me simplify each of them for you:
1. Online communication will stay bad because people are bad.
The human condition is broken, even non-Christians recognize this. People can be disgusting, vile creatures. Christians recognize this as the infestation and pervasiveness of sin in the world, and non-Christians recognize it as simply one of the two choices humans have: to be good or evil.
One possibility for the future of online communication is that it will stay as bad as it is with no improvement.
While I believe in the sinful depravity of humans, I don’t think trolling will stay as bad in the near future as it is today. More on that later.
2. Online communication will stay bad because there is economic and social benefit to trolling.
We saw in the 2016 election cycle that being a troll can lead to great fame and power—online trolls rightly see themselves as having influenced the election and having helped win the White House for their candidate.
This shows us that, no matter the political ideologies of internet trolls, trolling can be a means to grasp the power people so desperately want, however unethical and sickening it may be.
Some people believe this power motivation will make trolling worse in the future. I definitely think this is a possibility, but I’m not sure.
3. Online communication will improve because we will further segment ourselves online.
I think this is the most likely scenario out of the four options presented here. I think trolling will always exist because of sin, but I think it will become less pervasive because I think we will further segment ourselves online and keep people who don’t like us as far away as possible.
I definitely envision social media platforms and other online experiences that protect the sensibilities of their users by restricting others from joining.
Online communication will improve because we will do everything we can to distance ourselves from mean people.
4. Online communication will improve because we will embrace a surveillance state that prevents it.
The final option is perhaps the most ominous. It is possible, in the future, that online communication will improve because we will create an environment that institutes strict penalties for trolling or other online misbehavior.
For those who have been trolled online before, this may sound like a good option. When you are the focus of an online attack, you quickly begin to think such attacks should be illegal and punishable by the court system.
But is that a world in which we want to live? Should people do jail time for calling other people names on social media?
While strict, government-provided restrictions on free speech would improve online communication, this construct could have serious negative side effects.
I could write 12 blog posts on this report done by Pew regarding the future of free speech online, and I will likely do some more beyond this one.
What do you think about the future of free speech online? Should Pepe the Frog be allowed to be used to promote hateful ideologies? Should such actions be punishable by law or simply ignored?