Though political internet groups co-opt mainstream symbols, their varying meanings still exist in a larger cultural context.
With the rise of the internet and the spreading of social media, common symbols have a variety of different meanings due to their use by different groups. Because of this, symbols may gain negative connotations due to the group they are associated with. A modern example of this is the OK gesture. It is now believed to be a white power sign in some circles.
The gesture’s stigma has been around since the 2016 election. However, it was brought back into the public spotlight due to the supreme court hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. At the event, Zina Bash, a former clerk for Kavanaugh, was photographed behind Kavanaugh making the now infamous gesture. While Bash argued against this perception, many people came away with the impression that she was signing her support for the white power mantra.
The gesture’s negative origin, however, does not stem from its use by white nationalists but rather trolls on the internet, especially on the website 4chan. Their goal behind the spread of this false information was to weaken the credibility of news organizations and groups who they hoped would look ridiculous coming out against a common gesture. However, while a racially-charged meaning of a symbol, such as the OK gesture, may be based on nothing, the group falsely involved may become the primary user of the gesture therefore giving it a new nature.
An older example of this same phenomenon was the creation of Pepe the Frog by artist Matt Furie. Pepe the Frog originally started in a comic strip known as “Boys’ Club,” in which he and other animal friends lived together. The image of the frog in soon grew in popularity in certain online circles. In an attempt to save the frog from the perceived popular take-over, the original users of Pepe as a meme began twisting the image into being a proponent of awful issues, such as Holocaust denial and white supremacy. He then was pronounced as a hateful symbol of the Alt-Right by the Anti-Defamation League and became the symbol he is known as today. Pepe never started out as a racially-charged picture; it was given a false identity by people online. The OK gesture may follow a similar trajectory.
Pepe was soon adopted by members of the Alt-Right who had similar views to the ones shown in the negative Pepe memes. For example, Pepe’s image was used in an Alt-Right children book titled “The Adventures of Pepe and Pede.” It was also used by the Alt-Right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in a poster he sold on his online store. While Matt Furie has filed copyright claims against both works, it is apparent that the gesture has been co-opted by the group who were falsely assigned its creation.
Symbols or other forms of media are changed and influenced by the user. Images and gestures, such as the OK gesture and Pepe the Frog, are not intentionally racist or ill-meaning, but they may gain that meaning through their use by hate-mongering groups. Therefore, the best answer to the question concerning the meaning behind these types of symbols is to look at the user of the image. It is difficult to determine the thoughts of each individual by the use of such wide-sweeping images.
Through public experience with such controversies, internet users can learn two important things: before making a judgment, think about the exterior causes of a new image’s rise to fame. Additionally, most images alone are not problematic but rather the intent of the image is the important part.