How OK gesture suddenly became a right-wing extremist hate symbol

It once started as an internet joke: the ok gesture is a symbol of racists and white supremacists. After the gesture was used by, among others, the extreme right-wing terrorist Brenton Tarrant, it is now explicitly recognized as a symbol of hatred by the American Anti-Defamation League.

Thumb and index finger forming a circle, the other three fingers stretched: it looks like an innocent hand gesture, but in a particular context it becomes a confirmation of a racist and extremist ideology. This is undoubtedly the reasoning of the American Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish NGO that fights against anti-Semitism and racism. The latter placed the okay gesture on her list of well-known hate symbols on Thursday.

In a way, everything goes back to a big joke. During Donald Trump’s election campaign, some well-known figures from the American alt-right, such as the publicist Milo Yiannopoulos, shared photos of themselves as they made the gesture. That started to lead a life of its own, with the help of a group of users of the internet forum 4chan, also known as the sewer hole of the internet. They launched Operation OKKK – note the reference to the KKK: the intention was to flood social media with messages that claim that the gesture is a hidden reference to white supremacy. After all, the three upright fingers form a W, the circle and the wrist create a P: WP, short for ‘white power’.

It sounds too crazy for words, and that was precisely the idea. It was a trap for left-wing anti-racists and gut people. The 4chan users hoped that left-wing people would take the theory seriously and spread it themselves. In this way, they would show themselves that the left side is gradually losing its way: who sincerely believes that the okay gesture is racist?

How OK gesture suddenly became a right-wing extremist hate symbol
©4chan – Users of the 4chan forum spread the false theory that the OK gesture symbolizes ‘white power’.

Cow’s milk

It is a process that takes place more often in the internet circles of the alt-right: a symbol is given a new meaning that is so absurd that you can always claim that it is a joke. Even a glass of snow-white cow’s milk is therefore not automatically innocent on the internet. It is a statement of masculinity against green goat’s wool socks that drink soy milk. According to this theory, soy milk is full of female hormones.

The ok gesture was gradually taken more seriously by the alt-right itself. Journalists from right-wing publications were photographed on the pulpit in the press room of the White House while they made the gesture. The symbol finally lost its innocence in March 2019. In New Zealand, terrorist Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch. When Tarrant then had to appear in court, he made the offending symbol.

How OK gesture suddenly became a right-wing extremist hate symbol
©EPA – Brenton Tarrant makes the gesture in court.

The ADL has now included it in its database of known hate symbols. It also contains well-known neo-Nazi symbols such as the number 88. The eighth letter of the alphabet is ‘H’: 88, therefore, corresponds to HH, or Heil Hitler. The slogan ‘Diversity = White Genocide’ and the characteristic hairstyle of terrorist Dylann Roof also got a place on the list on Thursday. In 2015, Rob shot nine African Americans dead during a South Carolina church service.

“These are the latest business cards of hatred,” says the ADL. Everything is context, the organisation notes: the okay gesture is not always a reference to racist ideas, but it is in right-wing extremist circles. It is a self-confirmation for insiders. According to the ADL, it is striking that new symbols are increasingly emerging on internet forums such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit.

“Some hatred symbols are short-lived, others start to live their own lives and become resources for online trolling. We are vigilant for symbols that show potential for survival, and symbols that shift from online use to the real world,” it sounds.

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