We certainly hope that the hand symbol displayed by some students from the U.S. Naval and West Point military academies during the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Saturday was nothing more than a juvenile gesture from the so-called “circle game,” in which one person shows the symbol — a circle made with the thumb and forefinger — and another gets a punch in the arm when caught viewing it.
It’s the kind of testosterone-friendly pastime you can imagine being popular among boys and young men in bootcamp, a frat house or a high school hallway. The game, supposedly developed by some guy in Ohio, has roots going back to the 1980s and has been the topic of a Reddit discussion, an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” and various online articles looking into its origin.
But we don’t know. When the gesture was made in the stands during the football game’s live telecast this weekend, many didn’t see innocent idiocy; they saw white supremacism. And officials at each institution have since announced separate investigations into the displays, with the Naval Academy vowing to hold those involved “appropriately accountable” depending upon the findings.
Both the reaction to the symbol — and the reason for it — underscore the poisonous role of social media and the levels of division and suspicion we face as a country.
What we all largely knew as the “OK” hand symbol growing up (and for some, the circle game symbol) was debased as part of a pathetic prank in 2017, when a group of online chat participants launched an experiment to see if they could get others to believe the gesture was a secret sign of white power.
Called “Operation O-KKK,” the goal, according to a screen grab of the post outlining the assignment, was to “flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand signal is a symbol of white supremacy.”
Use the hashtag “‘#PowerHandPrivilege’ in all of your tweets and whatnot related to this,” the directions said. “Bonus points if your profile pic is something related to supporting feminism. Leftists have dug so deep down in their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that [expletive].”
The phony claims about the symbol spread like wildfire online, and before too long, actual white supremacists reportedly adopted it as their own. And now, no one knows what to think when someone flashes the gesture — a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive. Are they saying “OK?” Or “I’m a white supremacist?"
That’s the backdrop for the football game hand signage. A broadcast showed students from each academy displaying the hand signal at least five times behind the back of ESPN anchor Rece Davis before the game, which was attended by President Donald Trump — a hero to the white supremacist set.
By Sunday, the investigations were underway, as they should be. There simply is no benefit of the doubt for the nation’s military academies. They wield too much power. And while the academies have made efforts to diversify in the past several decades, they, like many other American institutions, are still overwhelmingly white and haunted by long histories of overt racial discrimination.
Just last year, the Naval Academy expelled a white midshipman for using a racial slur to describe African Americans, and two white U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets were disciplined for harassing a black classmate by playing a racially offensive song and posting a flag with a Confederate symbol on his computer screen.
So yes, there must be a full and public accounting of what went on. If future military members are purposely flashing what they understand to be hate symbols, they should be swiftly and severely dealt with. Even if the actions were made in jest, the glaring lack of judgment they reveal should be enough to disqualify participants from serious service to our country.
And if it turns out this is a case of boys being boys by embracing an obnoxious game on camera, then the officers in training deserve to be cleared of the racism charges, which could otherwise brand them for life. Until the results are in, we’ll reserve judgment on whether their actions were sinister or simply immature.
But there’s a lesson and a warning in this incident for all of us: Check your sources, because it doesn’t take a Russian mastermind to manipulate reality on social media. Any fool with a few minutes to spare can do it.