Many of the new symbols in the database are associated with the alt-right, and several are popular on anonymous message boards, including 4chan and 8chan, according to the ADL. Some of the images and slogans have spread to mainstream websites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“These are the latest calling cards of hate,” Mark Pitcavage, senior fellow at ADL’s Center on Extremism, said in a statement. “While some hate symbols are short-lived, others take on a life of their own and become tools for online trolling.”
The ADL resisted adding the “okay” symbol to its Hate on Display database, which also includes swastikas, the Aryan Brotherhood’s logo and the Nazi Party’s flag. The idea that the gesture, made by touching the thumb and forefinger, secretly symbolizes white supremacy began as a troll campaign by some segments of the political right and far-right to incite a reaction from liberals and the media.
In February 2017, 4chan’s /pol/ board discussed ongoing tactics to try to get the idea to go viral. “To any who haven’t seen the original thread, our goal is to convince people on twitter that the ‘ok’ hand sign has been co-opted by neo-Nazis,” the original poster of the thread wrote.
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.
The “okay” sign is among several objects and symbols that people on anonymous message sites such as 4chan have tried to falsely associate with white supremacy, Pitcavage told The Washington Post. In 2017, people on the alt-right falsely claimed that milk and the LGBTQ flag were signs of white nationalism.
Although the “okay” gesture is still used for trolling more frequently than it is employed as a genuine sign of racism, Pitcavage said the number of people who mean for it to signify hatred has hit a critical mass.
“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,” he said.
The description for the hand gesture in the database notes: “Caution must be used in evaluating instances of this symbol’s use.”
Prominent figures and private citizens alike have made headlines for making the “okay” gesture in public. Critics accused Republican operative Zina Bash of making the symbol for white power last year when she made the “okay” sign at Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. A spokesperson for the Senate Judiciary Committee said at the time that Bash was aiming the sign at a staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge — an explanation that aligned with video of the hearing in which Bash is visible.
The same month, a Coast Guard member was removed from Hurricane Florence relief efforts after he flashed the “okay” sign during a televised media briefing. A Chicago Cubs fan in May was banned from Wrigley Field when he made the gesture behind an NBC Sports Chicago analyst during a TV segment.
Longtime Republican political consultant Roger Stone and several members of the far-right group the Proud Boys flashed the “okay” sign last year in a photo taken at a bar. Stone denied the symbol was associated with white supremacy. He told Salon they made the gesture because Trump often uses it, and it has come to signify support for him.
The “okay” gesture also has been used as a clear symbol of racism. Avowed neo-Nazi Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who is accused of killing 51 people at two New Zealand mosques, made the “okay” sign at a court appearance in March.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, president of the white supremacist think tank the National Policy Institute, flashed the gesture in a photo taken outside Trump International Hotel in the District on the night of the 2016 presidential election.
To add yet another layer of nuance, some people use the “okay” sign as part of the “Circle Game,” in which a person makes a circle with their fingers and holds their hand below their waist. If someone looks at the circle, the first person punches their shoulder. The game was popularized by the TV series “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.