NZ First leader Winston Peters says he knew the controversy surrounding an image when he signed a poster featuring it - but says what others have deemed a hate symbol is "essentially meaningless".
Peters signed a poster featuring the online cartoon character Pepe the Frog, after speaking to a packed lecture theatre at Victoria University last night.
The political veteran - who had just warned students to think twice what they put on social media - soon found a photograph of him holding up the poster circulating on Twitter and Reddit.
Winston Peters signs a pepe of himself
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Pepe the Frog is an online cartoon character that was created by Matt Furie in 2005, and subsequently became a meme, sometimes called the "sad frog meme" and shared in social media posts by the likes of pop star Katy Perry.
But last year the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said Pepe the Frog was being used "by haters on social media to suggest racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted notions, as a hate symbol".
"Images of the frog, variously portrayed with a Hitler-like moustache, wearing a yarmulke or a Klan hood, have proliferated in recent weeks in hateful messages aimed at Jewish and other users on Twitter," the ADL wrote in a statement.
Photos posted to Reddit show Peters signing a poster showing a Pepe modelled on Peters and holding up a Gold Card.
Asked about signing the poster today, Peters confirmed he knew about Pepe the Frog.
"Pepe started off as a pretty innocuous cartoon character and like most modern things they can be distorted and twisted and what have you," Peters said.
"And a guy asked me to [sign it]. And I know you are going to say he's racist, well if he is racist ... why would he want Winston Peters to sign his document?
"That is an image that has been used by Trump, anti-Trumpytes, a whole lot of people. It's actually meaningless. For you to say some catastrophic social disaster has occurred because I signed someone's paper being a nice guy, wished him all the best, is beyond me."
During his talk to the university students Peters questioned the media's role in pressure that led to a European Students Association at the University of Auckland to disband.
Peters said the Auckland University Students Association had made no comments supporting fascism or the Nazis, yet was effectively condemned by the Herald and others for not speaking out against fascism.
That showed the mainstream media's desire to suppress dissenting voices, he said.
The European club's withdrew its application to affiliate with the University of Auckland after criticism and fears it was a thinly veiled white nationalist group.
In a Facebook post the president of the fledgling club wrote it had become dangerous to continue in the face of "appalling rhetoric" and unfounded accusations of racism and racism.
Peters fielded questions on the South China Sea, TPP, the Middle East, West Papua, the housing crisis and what the weirdest Photoshop Peters had seen of himself on the internet.
"Maybe I'm too embarrassed to tell you," was the answer to the Photoshop query, before Peters warned the young audience to think twice what they put on social media.
"Whether they say it's a matter of privacy or not, if I was hiring you I'd like to know what you were like back then, and I'd just trawl through."