New Zealand shooting suspect Brenton Tarrant appeared in court after allegedly killing 49 people at two New Zealand mosques, holding his thumb and forefinger into the “OK” symbol that has been adopted by white supremacists as a sign to mean “white power.”
Tarrant’s appearance sparked renewed interest in the hoax-turned-racist-symbol, which has origins in a website notorious for its racist messages and attempted trolling of the rest of the internet. As the New York Post noted, Tarrant flashed the symbol as he appeared before a judge, flanked by police officer. Images showed the suspect holding his thumb and finger together, his face blurred out after a judge ruled that it could not be shown.
The symbol itself has a controversial history since bursting onto the national scene nearly two years ago. The Anti-Defamation League detailed how the “white power” symbol originated first as a prank among the far-right users of the image-sharing board 4chan. Users of the board, who in the past have tried to create fake viral movements for their own amusement, tried to launch a campaign claiming that the thumb-and-forefinger “OK” symbol was actually a white supremacist signal.
The user who first launched the idea told other members to “flood Twitter and other social media websites…claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy” in an attempt to fool “leftists” and make them look foolish. Users created fake email addresses and Twitter accounts and spread the disinformation to journalists and civil rights organizations, though the Anti-Defamation League noted that the hoax later took a life of its own as actual white supremacists began adopting it and flashing it.
“It is possible that some of the hoaxers were racists or white supremacists themselves, as parts of 4chan are something of a haven for them, and the site itself has been a source of adherents of the alt right segment of the white supremacist movement,” the report noted, adding, “Reaction to the ‘OK’ symbol hoax was so widespread in the spring and summer of 2017 that a number of people on the far right began deliberately to use the gesture—typically making the sign while posing for photographs uploaded to social media—in order to continue the trolling and spread it further.”
Suspect in New Zealand mosque massacres appears in court, flashes 'white power' hand gesture— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) March 16, 2019
Brenton Tarrant, 28, came out in handcuffs flashing an 'OK' sign, a gesture associated with white nationalists. https://t.co/KPxlbeFdal
The organization tracked use of the symbol and found that it has been adopted by a number of figures on the far-right, and later spread into the mainstream of Trump supporters.
But the Anti-Defamation League also noted that the “OK” symbol is still widely used for its original purpose, and that some Trump supporters who have adopted it remain largely unaware of its origins among white supremacists.