Last week, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization headquartered in the United States, added 36 symbols to its “Hate on Display” database, including one highly visible symbol that has come to be associated with the Trump administration and its followers, the index finger-to-thumb “OK” sign.
Since the 2016 US general election, images associated with the alt-right and white nationalism have become more mainstream, often taking on more subtle imagery that is lost on outsiders (like Skittles). But as the movement is buoyed by powerful world leaders endorsing policies that were once seen as extremism, those images have gained renewed currency with right-wing supporters online.
In addition to the “OK” symbol, other images have been added, including Dylan Roof’s “bowlcut” haircut, which is being used by white supremacists to glorify the terrorist who killed nine black people in 2016; the “Happy Merchant” image, which depicts an extreme stereotype of a Jewish man rubbing his hands together; and the “Moon Man,” which is a play on a 1980s-era McDonald’s commercial and is used by white supremacists as a character to make videos using racist raps. Also added to the database are all burning Neo-Nazi symbols, the “Diversity = White Genocide” and “It’s Okay to be White” slogans, the phrase “Anudda Shoah,” which is used to mock Jews and the Holocaust, and the logos of white nationalist groups, including the Rise Above Movement, American Identity Movement, League of the South, Patriot Front, and the National Socialist Legion.
The news also demonstrates the shifting terrain for symbols of hate and how it has proven difficult to identify and categorize such imagery. In the case of the “OK” symbol, the ADL officially said it was not a hate symbol in 2017 before seeing new evidence and changing their official stance this year. What may have started as a troll of liberals and the left has since evolved into a legitimate symbol of the global white nationalist movement, suggesting the internet is complicating the dissemination and meaning of the image. The “OK” symbol was also added as an emoji by all platforms in 2015, before any of the controversy started, which raises questions about how the emoji is used by users today.
It’s worth mentioning that while the burning Neo-Nazi symbols clearly mimic the image of the Ku Klux Klan’s (KKK) burning cross, the original burning cross was first introduced into popular culture by DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and adopted by the KKK soon after the film debuted. In an age of social media and disinformation, that kind of adoption presumably happens faster than ever before.
Unfortunately, the identification of these symbols hasn’t slowed their prevalence in digital, shareable spaces. A July 2019 ADL survey found that nearly one-quarter (23%) of all online gamers have been exposed to white supremacist ideology while gaming.