It started out as a way to troll the so-called liberal media, borne out of alt-right posts on message board 4chan. Now, according to Jewish civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League, the “OK” hand symbol has gone from prank to a hate symbol associated with white supremacy.
The gesture joins 35 other symbols added to the ADL’s “Hate on Display” database, announced on Thursday. Joining it are the logos for new and re-branded far-right and white supremacist groups, as well as Dylann Roof’s bowl-cut.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior fellow at ADL’s Center on Extremism, wrote in a statement (h/t Washington Post) that the added symbols “are the latest calling cards of hate.”
“While some hate symbols are short-lived, others take on a life of their own and become tools for online trolling,” Pitcavage added.
The “OK” hand gesture (which, to be fair, has always meant something else in other cultures) is perhaps the most noteworthy addition, for its origins. Its association with the alt-right and white supremacy began as a group prank—a way to bait the media and thus, show how easy it is to manipulate journalists (and by extension, the larger public).
But, as things tend to go on the internet, what began as an ironic in-joke calcified, morphing from a hoax to a convenient shield.
From The Washington Post:
As BuzzFeed has reported, /pol/ was gleeful when the “okay” hand sign started to get mainstream traction. As the campaign spread, however, the symbol was simultaneously adopted by the alt-right — an umbrella term for those on the far right who embrace white nationalist views — and supporters of President Trump on the Internet. Both seem to use the gesture primarily to “trigger” liberals who believe the hand sign serves as a decoder ring to detect secret Nazis.
“That was what the OK symbol was literally invented to do: Both serve at a white supremacist symbol and also one that is just ordinary-enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria,” Amanda Marcotte, a politics writer for Salon, wrote on Twitter in September 2018.
“What we decided was that enough white supremacists were now using it — some trolling, some sincerely — that it was justified including it in the database, albeit with all sorts of explanations,” Pitcavage said, according to the Post.
Among those examples is the white supremacist suspected of killing 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, noted to NPR that the suspected shooter flashed the “OK” hand gesture during an early court appearance.
Mother Emanuel shooter Roof’s haircut has taken a similar journey from ironic fandom to a marker of white supremacist identity and ideology.
Followers of Roof have incorporated the distinctive haircut into screen names such as “Bowltrash” or “The Final Bowlution” or collectively have referred to themselves as the “Bowl Gang,” according to the ADL.
Other new symbols, like the moon man, have similarly innocuous, even bland, origins as the “OK” hand gesture—but this is the point. Logos and symbols from far-right groups like American Identity (formerly Identity Evropa) and the Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.) also made the database.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement to NPR the database helps provide necessary context for symbols that may seem unremarkable to most people, but in fact have new, hateful associations.
“We believe law enforcement and the public needs to be fully informed about the meaning of these images, which can serve as a first warning sign to the presence of haters in a community or school,” said Greenblatt.