This is why we can’t have OK things.
It started out as a trolling tactic by the far right to discredit progressive figures and get a rise out of social media users, but has recently been used by actual white supremacists.
Know Your Meme reports that while the symbol’s origins are innocuous, it’s developed a double meaning over the last four years. In 2015, Viner Pizza Party Ben made a vine of himself making that gesture and captioned it: “White guys be like.” During the 2016 presidential election, he and far-right furry Milo Yiannopolous were spotted making the OK symbol at Trump rallies. Other conservative internet personalities began making the gesture in support of Donald Trump.
In February 2017, 4chan users started the hoax “Operation O-KKK,” a call to spread the sign around the internet and claim it as a symbol of white supremacy. The anonymous 4channer who started it added a graphic demonstrating how the gesture could spell out the letters WP for “white power.” The same month, Media Matters for America accused Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft, who made the gesture in a photograph in the White House press briefing room, of using a “hate symbol.”
“Leftists have dug so deep down in their lunacy, we must force [them] to dig more,” the 4channer wrote in their post. “Until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that shit.”
The 4channer also called for other users to email and tweet at civil rights organizations and journalists “warning” of the symbol’s meaning. The Anti-Defamation League notes that some of the 4chan users taking part in the bombardment may also be racists and white supremacists themselves, since the site is “something of a haven for them.”
But by promoting the gesture as a hate symbol, 4chan’s trolling has encouraged white supremacists to actually use it as a hate symbol. Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist charged with murdering 50 people in a mass shooting targeting mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, flashed an “OK” gesture during a court appearance in March 2019.
That doesn’t mean every use of the symbol is in support of white supremacy. Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, says “context is key.”
“More people than not will use the OK symbol as just ‘OK,'” he told NPR. “But in those cases where there’s more underlining meaning, I think it’s important for people to understand that it can be used, and is being used, for hate as well.”
Mark Pitcavage, Senior Research Fellow in the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, explained in a blog post that people must be skeptical when a new gesture is claimed as a “white power” or hate symbol.
“Leaving aside hate group logos, most hate symbols appear and spread organically, over time,” he said. “The process of acceptance and growth in use typically takes months or even years, even for online symbols.”
The willingness to believe that anything can be a hate symbol only feeds the trolls. Before jumping to condemn what could be a perfectly innocent gesture, check if 4chan is shitposting again.