How the “OK” Symbol Became a Popular Trolling Gesture
Has the simple thumb-and-forefinger “OK” hand gesture become a common white supremacist hand sign? Not quite, but it has become a popular gesture used by people across several segments of the right and far right—including some actual white supremacists—who generally use it to trigger reactions, or what they would describe as “trolling the libs.”
This is thanks to a 2017 hoax campaign started by members of the notorious website 4chan that has since taken on a life of its own.
The 4chan site is an anonymous discussion board with an outsized cultural impact on the internet. It has been responsible for everything from the “I can haz cheeseburger” cat meme to the concept of Rickrolling. There is little that 4channers like as much as a hoax, and in recent months, they have served up a number of fakeries with white supremacist themes to largely credulous online audiences.
The “OK” hand gesture originated as one of these hoaxes in February 2017 when an anonymous 4channer announced “Operation O-KKK,” telling other members that “we must flood Twitter and other social media websites…claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.” The user even provided a helpful graphic showing how the letters WP (for “white power”) could be traced within an “OK” gesture. The originator and others also suggested useful hashtags to help spread the hoax, such as #PowerHandPrivilege and #NotOkay. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy,” wrote the poster, “We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s***.”
Following the cues of the hoax’s originator, 4channers created fake e-mail and Twitter accounts and bombarded civil rights organizations, journalists, and others with messages furthering the “OK” hoax. It is possible that some of the hoaxers were racists or white supremacists themselves, as parts of 4chan are something of a haven for them, and the site itself has been a source of adherents of the alt right segment of the white supremacist movement.
The original launch of “Operation O-KKK” sputtered after a few days and it seemed that the hoax had run its course without spreading too far, but it picked up again in late April and this time was far more successful in spreading across social media—and beyond.
Reaction to the “OK” symbol hoax was so widespread in the spring and summer of 2017 that a number of people on the far right began deliberately to use the gesture—typically making the sign while posing for photographs uploaded to social media—in order to continue the trolling and spread it further.
Over the year and a half since the original hoax campaign began, ADL has tracked its usage by a variety of figures on the far right, including some well-known white supremacists, though it seems to be even more popular among the so-called alt lite
. Use of the “OK” gesture has spread beyond the far right and can now also be found within the broad community of mainstream Donald Trump supporters—some of whom seem to have no idea of its origins.
Even though its usage has expanded and evolved, it still seems primarily intended to trigger or troll people on the left and cause them to react, although some white supremacists have also used it—generally jokingly—among themselves.
It is important to realize that the “OK” gesture is a nearly universal hand gesture and most usage of it is completely innocuous. Even when used as described here, the fact that white supremacists, the alt lite and many Trump supporters all use the symbol means that one cannot assume that anyone who poses with such a gesture is intending or exhibiting an association with white supremacy. Only if the gesture occurs in context with other clear indicators of white supremacy can one draw that conclusion.
The “OK” hoax was actually just one in a series of hoaxes in which 4channers (and members of other, similar places on the Internet such as 8chan and Reddit) have tried to take innocuous items, symbols or gestures and falsely attribute white supremacist meanings to them in order to fool liberals and get them to spread such false messages.
One 2017 4chan thread devoted itself to brainstorming the next such hoax. “We need to make some pics that are warning parents about what the dab really means and spread it around,” wrote one 4channer (the “dab” is a popular dance move). Another 4channer suggested spreading the notion that clapping was “anti-feminist.”
One of the more successful of these recent 4chan hoaxes, also originating in February 2017, was the concept that white supremacists were drinking milk to show “the superiority of the white race” and the “purity of white milk.” One hoaxer trying to convince the Anti-Defamation League “explained” that “they are chugging milk in front of people of color, quoting racist books and phrases and supposed statistics about people of color being lactose intolerant.” A number of media websites bought into the milk hoax.
Another such hoax was the attempt by 4channers to convince people that white supremacists had adopted a popular polar bear emoji from the messenger app Kik as a white supremacist symbol. In recent days, ADL has received e-mails from other would-be hoaxers attempting to claim that white supremacists had adopted symbols ranging from the rainbow flag to the iFunny chef (the mascot of humor website iFunny) as new hate symbols.
The fact that all of these hoaxes have emerged in 2017-2018 is not a coincidence; they are a reaction to the surge of media attention given to white supremacy, especially the alt right, in the wake of the 2016 election campaign.
They are also a response to the willingness of many on the left in the United States to believe that the Trump administration is full of hardcore white supremacists, a belief so powerful that recently a photo of White House staffer Stephen Miller adjusting his suit and tie before an interview went viral with the claim that Miller was actually using his hands to form an obscure white supremacist hand sign for “white power” as a secret signal to white supremacists who might be watching. It is this willingness to believe that 4channers have been trying to exploit.
The reality is, though, that white supremacist symbols and signs do not form and become accepted overnight. “Leaving aside hate group logos, most hate symbols appear and spread organically, over time,” said Mark Pitcavage, Senior Research Fellow in ADL’s Center on Extremism. “The process of acceptance and growth in use typically takes months or even years, even for online symbols. If someone presents you with a symbol and says it is the big new white supremacist symbol, you should be appropriately skeptical.”