The Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom loves to troll the West on Twitter. On Monday morning, it outdid itself — tweeting an image of a cartoon frog linked to Donald Trump’s white nationalist fans:
Even absent the image, the tweet would be pretty trolly. It’s a response to British pundits who are calling on UK Prime Minister Theresa May to disrupt President-elect Donald Trump’s attempts to cozy up to Putin’s Russia. The Russian Embassy is making fun of these UK pundits for seeming not to trust America, Britain’s closest ally — which is rather amusing, given how often the Russian government blasts the United States.
But it’s the appended image of the frog that elevates the Russian tweet from “a bit trolly” to “holy shit, this is actually happening.”
The frog is named Pepe, and it was originally a character in a web comic called Boy’s Club. But more recently, the frog has been appropriated by the “alt-right” — a racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic online subculture full of Trump devotees. It became so closely associated with the alt-right movement that the Anti-Defamation League, America’s premier anti-Semitism watchdog, declared Pepe a hate symbol akin to the swastika.
It’s possible that Russia’s UK embassy didn’t know this, and just reached for a popular meme to append to its tweet. But the odds are against it: Pepe is quite famous, with his white supremacist links exhaustively reported after Donald Trump Jr. posted a meme featuring Pepe this summer. It’s more likely that the exceptionally web-savvy embassy added Pepe to the tweet intentionally to ramp up the troll quotient.
Russian state media agencies such as RT and Sputnik have tailored their content to appeal to the alt-right, which the Kremlin sees as willing to parrot its line on foreign policy issues.
“They grew their audience hugely [recently] — and it’s mostly on the back of the alternative right,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of a recent report on Russian online propaganda, says.
More broadly, the Kremlin has aligned itself with far-right movements in Western countries. These organizations, deeply hostile to both Islam and European integration, see Russia as a friend — and the Russians, for their part, are more than happy to reciprocate by manipulating public opinion inside Western democracies.
Russia does this in a variety of ways, ranging from funding far-right parties to hacking their political enemies to, yes, rallying their supporters with tweets and online propaganda. The Pepe tweet is a kind of silly example of this campaign, but it’s not isolated. It underscores just how well Russia understands online media — and how it’s attempting to weaponize this understanding to weaken Western democracies from within.