The previously innocuous, and widely used, "OK" hand signal became the focus of an internet furor over what constitutes a hate symbol after two conservative figures were photographed making it behind the White House briefing room podium on Friday.
The controversy kicked up when Fusion reporter Emma Roller tweeted a photo of Cassandra Fairbanks and Mike Cernovich “doing a white power hand gesture in the White House.” Both Fairbanks and Cernovich strenuously deny the accusation.
But were they? And who gets to decide? The hand sign (long among the least offensive gestures one can even make with a few fingers) was adopted by pro-Trump figures in an attempt to essentially troll and hoax the media, which they seem to have successfully done. But if they're making it as a joke meant to trick people into thinking that it's a symbol of white power — and know that people will interpret it that way — is it in fact a symbol?
The Independent followed Roller’s tweet with a story headlined “Two members of alt-right accused of making white supremacist hand signs in White House after receiving press passes.”
The article points to an entry in the Anti-Defamation League's hate symbols database as proof that the “OK” sign is linked to white supremacy. The photo in the entry depicts an elaborate two-handed gesture in which an upside-down “OK” sign forms the “P” in “W.P.”: White Power. The gesture Cernovich and Fairbanks made is the simple and widely-recognized one-handed “OK” gesture.
Semantics aside, both Roller’s tweet and the Independent piece fail to place the “OK” sign in the broader context of internet-generated “hate symbols”, which are often attempts by online communities to troll the media into reporting that unobjectionable or obscure symbols have deep-seated white supremacist connotations. The reporting itself is then taken as proof by pro-Trump troll communities that the media will believe anything when it comes to Trump supporters and racism.
A February 28 thread on 4chan’s /pol/ board, a hub of alt-right trolling and discussion, entitled “Operation O-KKK has gained quite a bit of progress,” stated that “Our goal is to convince people on twitter that the “ok” hand sign has been co-opted by neo-nazis.” A thread on the same board from Saturday entitled “We successfully false flagged,” with an image of The Independent's story, reads: “HAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAH THESE FUCKING RETARDS FALL FOR IT EVERY TIME.”
“There was a troll meme going around saying that it meant white power,” Fairbanks told BuzzFeed News. “But it was a joke because Trump supporters are always being called Nazis even when it isn't true.”
Cernovich, meanwhile, told BuzzFeed News that the “OK” sign began as a reference to another popular internet conspiracy theory. "Jay-Z would do it... illuminati...," Cernovich said, referencing a conspiracy theory that grew partially around a hand gesture oft-used by Jay Z. "[S]o we fucked around and started doing it and it just became this huge thing."
This pattern — which has also included attempts by /pol/ and similar internet communities to turn milk (the dairy cow-produced beverage) and a cartoon dove made popular on Thai Facebook into white power symbols — most likely started with Pepe, the notorious cartoon frog. A kind of mascot for the meme-savvy Trump internet, Pepe was designated a hate symbol by the ADL in September, and the Clinton campaign subsequently added a Pepe “explainer” to its website. The move angered Pepe’s creator, the comic book artist Matt Furie, who told PRI at the time “its swift inclusion into the database is an attempt to add legitimacy to Hillary Clinton's false claim that Pepe's image is 'almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists'".
Indeed, outside legitimization is almost always the point of these campaigns; the “milk” trolling campaign received a boost when, in March, PETA declared that milk is “a symbol of white supremacy.”
The flareup also reflects the difficulty of reporting about online communities like /pol/, which often navigate the borderlands between irony, pranksterdom, and out-and-out hate speech. Especially because the White House press credentialing of Fairbanks and Cernovich, two pro-Trump internet notables, means the Trump administration is comfortable allowing writers who play the same winking games as /pol/ and its ilk to cover it, which is another form of validation for these symbols' usage entirely.
Indeed, while 4chan continues to try to trick the press into declaring fake hate signals, traditional white power groups have been emboldened since the Trump administration took office. And New York magazine reported that members of Keystone United — classified as a white-supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — attended President Trump’s rally in Pennsylvania Saturday night.
Where it gets really fuzzy, however, is trying to determine when and if these symbols cross over from ironic usage. Take milk. While milk as a supremacist symbol may have started as a sneering troll, it has now become an oft-used prop to publicly signal support for white nationalist politics at rallies, protests, and brawls. Even if it's being used ironically, it has taken on additional context when people are using it knowing how it will be interpreted. Does that make the millions of American children adding milk to their cereal every morning neo-Nazis? Of course not. Nor do white sheets in the closet make one racist. The meaning for all of these things — OK hand symbol possibly included — depend entirely on how they are employed.
Meanwhile, perhaps encouraged by the "OK" fiasco, 4Chan has already rolled out their latest hate symbol: The peace sign.
Additional reporting by Charlie Warzel