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After Christchurch, It's Impossible To Separate The 'Okay Sign' From White Supremacy

When the alleged mosque shooter faced court in Christchurch last weekend, he made an okay sign with his right hand.

It was a bat signal to white supremacists around the globe. The alleged shooter was continuing the message laid out in his manifesto, a 74-page document brimming with internet radicalisation and memes. He was signalling his intentions behind the massacre, but he was also trolling the world.

The man charged in relation to the Christchurch massacre makes an okay sign to the camera.  Photo: Getty Images

The origins of the okay sign being linked to white supremacy can be traced back to 2015. It's a complex beast, and some outlets have mistakenly attributed it to a hoax perpetrated by notorious online forum 4chan in early 2017.

But the sign been linked to white supremacists, alt-right and neo-Nazi figures for a couple of years prior. People who have been documented making the okay sign include alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, openly white supremacist Richard Spencer, and Mike Cernovich, a social media commentator who was heavily involved in promoting a conspiracy that Democrats were running a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

The point is: it was already a white supremacist meme, similar to the co-option of Pepe the Frog or the idea that milk = white supremacy.

Pepe the Frog was an internet cartoon co-opted by Donald Trump fans, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

The fact that it's such an ordinary hand sign is part of its power, said Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and La Trobe University lecturer

"Its very purpose is to fly under the radar and send a message: 'There's more of us than you know'," Oboler told 10 daily.

"It's a message to empower and embolden the faithful while being just ordinary enough to make those calling it out jump at shadows."

It became part of a wider movement to 'trigger the libs' with the aforementioned 4chan hoax. In February 2017, an anonymous user launched Operation O-KKK to "flood Twitter" with claims the okay hand sign was a symbol of white supremacy.

"Make fake accounts with basic white girl names and type shit like: OMG that's so truuuuu," the anonymous post instructed.

"Leftists have dug so deep into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more until the rest of society ain't going anywhere near that shit."

The post from 4chan. There is no suggestion Mel Gibson is white supremacist. It would appear the Anonymous user wanted to capitalise on Gibson’s documented slurs against Jewish people.

The 4chan hoax was something of a turning point in the history of the sign. As the sign became more mainstream, it was wrongly attributed to being nothing more than a 4chan troll, dismissing the very real threads connecting it to white supremacy. It made it easier for credible journalists to appear foolish, as though they were overreacting to an innocent hand gesture.

In fact, it harks back to the adoption of symbols by the Nazis, notes philosophy scholar and YouTube star Natalie Wynn.

"Nazis have always taken an interest in occult symbols, like the black sun, or the swastika. But more obscure symbols can be useful as a kind of secret handshake that lets Nazis recognise each other without normies taking notice. The best symbols to use for this purpose are ones that are not primarily associated with fascism, or at least have some other meaning, such as the othala rune, or the iron cross. Better still are symbols that, until adoption by fascists, are completely innocuous."

For example, the okay sign, Pepe the frog, milk. It's the trifecta of neo-Nazis in the internet age.

Australia is seeing a surge in local alt-right and neo-Nazi activity, emboldened every time another alt-right figurehead like Lauren Southern, Stefan Molyneux or Yiannopoulos visits our shores for a speaking tour.

A photo of Lauren Southern in August 2018 with members of Australian group The Lads Society, a mens-only group established by far-right ‘activist’ Blair Cottrell, who was once convicted of inciting hatred towards Muslims. Photo: Andy Fleming / Twitter.

"It makes our local far-right activists feel they are part of a larger movement," Oboler said.

As the world grapples to understand how the Christchurch shooter, an Australian man from Grafton, became radicalised in online hate and white supremacy, he himself has unquestionably fused white supremacy and the okay sign together.

In his work tracking online hate speech, Oboler said he's rarely seen the okay sign amongst Australian posts.

"That Trump obsessed sub-culture is far smaller and less relevant here, but not entirely absent," Oboler said.

"The okay symbol, while present in Australia, is a fairly exotic imported product, but [the shooter's] use of it may well cause that to change."

In September 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Centre identified three uses of the okay sign:

  • a harmless, traditional meaning that all's well
  • an ironic attempt to troll (lower case) liberals
  • or a surreptitious way of signalling your presence to other white supremacists

At the time, it noted that context was crucial in determining how the okay sign should be interpreted. Does it signal adulation for Donald Trump? Or is it something darker?

"When someone flashes the 'okay sign' with that knowing smirk, it’s not just a harmless act that can be dismissed. It may or may not mean that they are a white nationalist attempting a sly signal. But the sign unquestionably identifies the user as one thing: a troll."

The okay sign is not just a troll anymore -- it's a label.

READ MORE: What We Know About The Christchurch Shooter

READ MORE: The Australian Nazi 2.0, And Why We Need To Take The Threat More Seriously

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au