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Viral Slogan: “It’s OK To Be White”

By
Brian Friedberg and Joan Donovan
Media Manipulation Tactics Used

Overview

“It’s okay to be white” (IOTBW) is a viral slogan adopted and popularized by a variety of reactionary communities beginning in 2017. The campaign to promote the slogan exploited the wedge issue of white racial consciousness and identity, utilizing memes, flyering campaigns, and influencers, to trade the phrase up the chain to garner significant press attention. Campaign organizers have redeployed the viral slogan strategically multiple times over the years and it continues to be used.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

“It’s okay to be white” (IOTBW) is a viral slogan adopted and popularized by a variety of reactionary communities and networked factions. Designed to exploit the wedge issue of white racial consciousness and identity, IOTBW is deeply rooted in racial prejudice and extremist, white supremacist rhetoric that is opposed to all non-white identity groups. The phrase was used synonymously with “white pride” on 4chan’s right wing /pol/ board since at least 2014,1 and was mentioned there as a possible viral slogan in November 2016.2 A formal campaign to turn IOTBW into a viral slogan began October 24, 2017, when an anonymous author suggested printing the saying on flyers and placing them on high school and college campuses.3 Organizers hoped its dissemination would generate debate on social media and instigate mainstream press coverage. “Based on past media response to similar messaging, we expect the anti-white media to produce a shit-storm about these racist, hateful, bigoted fliers… with a completely innocuous message,” one 4chan user posted.4

To ensure that IOTBW was deployed uniformly by its proponents, campaign operators spread instructional images on 4chan. These images acted like a style guide, specifying that the memetic flyers be simple, with black letters on a white background, and must not contain any additional advertisements for white supremacist groups, websites, or communities, should not attribute authorship or include links to 4chan.5 “THIS IS NOT HATE,” an anonymous /pol/ user wrote. “We are doing this for the pure reaction from the left, to one simple statement. This will reveal them as hypocrites to all normies, in the boldest manner imaginable.”6

Screenshot of 4chan post about IOTBW.

This is a /pol/ post planning IOTBW. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

Style guide for It's Okay To Be White.

This is a style guide for IOTBW participants. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

After IOTBW campaign instructions were formalized on 4chan, campaign operators and participants spread the memes and other content on social media. Pranksters instructed followers not to engage in vandalism, alter the five word phrase in any way, or provide links to /pol/.1 The campaign spawned several dedicated threads on /pol/ over the next few days, in addition to a dedicated Discord server,2 which at the time was an active site of white supremacist organizing.3 As individuals began hanging up actual IOTBW posters in public spaces, campaign operators created threads on 4chan to document images, serving as motivational encouragement for other participants in the campaign.4 Campaign participants documented the anonymous placement of flyers in schools and universities with posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, using the hashtags #ItsOkayToBeWhite and #IOTBW.

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

In many cases, the flyers had their intended effect: members of the public decried the signs as racist. The meme war online was spread using the #ItsOkayToBeWhite hashtag. This reaction led to a number of civil society responses on college campuses and, eventually, media exposure.1 The coverage began at low-level student press and small regional journalism outlets; the participants of IOTBW then collected, archived, and amplified this low-level press, lauding it as further evidence of the campaign’s success.2 Online influencers stepped into the campaign and monetized it, such as when Milo Yiannopoulos sold IOTBW shirts on his website,3 before the mainstream press was paying attention to the slogan. More mainstream far-right and reactionary influencers like Lauren Southern and Paul Joseph Watson also adopted the statement.4

This trading up the chain strategy of attempting to draw press attention for the flyering in public spaces was successful in early November, 2017, when press coverage of the posters moved from alternate influencers on YouTube and local newspapers to larger outlets such as The Washington Post,5 The Boston Globe,6 and The Daily Caller.7 And in a seminal moment that delighted campaign participants,8 Tucker Carlson lambasted the “liberal outrage” against IOTBW posters in a Fox News segment on November 3, 2017.9 Crucially, Carlson never made the link to 4chan or the white supremacist rhetoric involved in the campaign’s origin when displaying the IOTBW flyer on screen. On 4chan itself, as the segment aired, anonymous users posted all-caps utterances like “HES SAYING IT, IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE, HES DOING IT” and “OH SHIT HE’S GONNA COVER IOTBW.”10

The media coverage even had legislative consequences: the Australian parliament was forced to address the slogan a year later, when a politician adopted the phrase in a motion to condemn “anti-white racism.”11 Though the resolution was narrowly voted down, the event showed that IOTBW had truly permeated international mainstream culture.

Screenshot of Tucker Carlson covering "It's Okay To Be White."

This is a screenshot Tucker Carlson covering IOTBW, November 3, 2017. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC, clip by Media Matters.

STAGE 4: Mitigation

Despite critical reporting that identified IOTBW as the product of online hate movements and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) qualifying it as a “hate slogan,”1 social media companies did not remove mentions of IOTBW or its related hashtags. The hashtags have since been co opted by people critical of the IOTBW campaign and reactionary pro-white politics in general. In December, 2019, K-Pop fans used the hashtag critically, resulting in it trending on Twitter.2 The interjection of commentary from outside the far-right communities that created it has expanded the use of the hashtag, and thus altered the conditions of the information ecosystem in which the campaign was organized. The meaning of the phrase has now been further complicated and can be used both as it was intended, and as a way of commenting and critiquing the white supremacist ideals it represents.

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

After the initial deployment in 2017 and the wave of subsequent press that followed, IOTBW has had multiple tactical redeployments since. More mainstream far-right and reactionary influencers like Lauren Southern1 and Paul Joseph Watson adopted the phrase.2 Campaign organizers have encouraged multiple flyering campaigns and hashtag blitzes on 4chan, coinciding with national holidays and breaking news events. The IOTBW usage has also been adapted to new opportunities dynamically, such as anti-Black Lives matter rallies,3 despite increased critical interventions from oppositional activists. The slogan can still be found today on social media platforms and physical flyers (as seen in Ipswich, England in February, 2020),4 though its domination by white supremacist organizers on social media has been significantly challenged.5

Cite this case study

Brian Friedberg and Joan Donovan, "Viral Slogan: “It’s OK To Be White”," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 26, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/viral-slogan-its-ok-be-white.