Amid ongoing and fruitless efforts to elect a U.S. House Speaker on January 5 2023, a photograph of embattled freshman Rep.-elect George Santos (R-New York) using the “OK sign,” a hand gesture appropriated for signaling by white supremacists, circulated on Twitter:
The tweet above was viewed more than a million times in a 24-hour span, and appeared to depict Santos raising his right hand to vote — while also gesturing with his left hand at the bottom of the photograph.
Who is George Santos?
That question is unusually loaded.
What we definitively know about George Santos at the time the image circulated is that he is an incoming Republican representing New York State’s 3rd Congressional district. Beyond that, his identity remains somewhat elusive.
Santos came to national attention on December 19 2022 via a bombshell New York Times article: “Who Is Rep.-Elect George Santos? His Résumé May Be Largely Fiction.” It began:
George Santos, whose election to Congress on Long Island [in November 2022] helped Republicans clinch a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, built his candidacy on the notion that he was the “full embodiment of the American dream” and was running to safeguard it for others.
His campaign biography amplified his storybook journey: He is the son of Brazilian immigrants, and the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent. By his account, he catapulted himself from a New York City public college to become a “seasoned Wall Street financier and investor” with a family-owned real estate portfolio of 13 properties and an animal rescue charity that saved more than 2,500 dogs and cats.
But a New York Times review of public documents and court filings from the United States and Brazil, as well as various attempts to verify claims that Mr. Santos, 34, made on the campaign trail, calls into question key parts of the résumé that he sold to voters.
Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, the marquee Wall Street firms on Mr. Santos’s campaign biography, told The Times they had no record of his ever working there. Officials at Baruch College, which Mr. Santos has said he graduated from in 2010, could find no record of anyone matching his name and date of birth graduating that year.
From there, his apparent fabrications were examined by other outlets. A January 3 2022 article about Santos’s first day in Congress recapped details that came to light after he was elected:
The fabrications came to light after a bombshell New York Times report alleged that a large portion of Santos’ biography could not be substantiated, alleging that he misled voters about his level of education, previous jobs and family ties to the Holocaust, earning bipartisan condemnation in recent days for misrepresenting himself.
Days later, Santos told the New York Post that he had “embellished” some portions of his resume, such as working at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, as he had previously asserted. Santos also revealed that he had also lied about his education, noting that he did not attend Baruch College or New York University, as he had earlier claimed.
“I didn’t graduate from any institution of higher learning,” he told the Post. “I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished my resume. I own up to that … we do stupid things in life.”
Santos — who spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting in November  — also denied that he had previously claimed he was Jewish.
“I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos told the New York Post. “I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background I said I was ‘Jew-ish.'”
A January 6 2023 CNN.com report indicated that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) had “flagged” problems related to the finances of his campaign.
A New York Times editorial published on the same posited that Santos “is stretching the tolerance for lies in U.S. politics”:
We’ve become accustomed in American politics to a certain level of truth stretching. Politicians contort facts to justify their plans. Some polish the rough edges of their résumés or inflate military credentials, hoping no one notices. Notoriously, Donald Trump’s falsehood-filled presidency ended with a massive lie about the 2020 election.
But even by the standards of this era of self-aggrandizement and alternative facts, it is hard to find a case quite like that of George Santos, the newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island. As a recent investigation by my colleagues Grace Ashford and Michael Gold found, Santos did not seem to so much embellish his biography as make it up: degrees, tragedy, religious faith, job credentials, even a charity.
“Politicians don’t tell the truth, sure. Nothing new. Everyone says that,” said Katie Sanders, the managing editor of PolitiFact, a widely respected nonpartisan fact-checking service. “But to be this brazen is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.”
The most vexing question, though, may be what happens to Santos now. He has refused to step down, and his own party has shown little appetite to force him out, particularly amid an ongoing House leadership fight. His activities may yet lead to criminal charges. But short of prosecution, the case is shaping up to be a test of voters’ tolerance for falsehoods in the post-Trump political environment. Sanders called it “a huge moment for truth and lies in politics.”
As of January 6 2023, it appeared the answer to the question of Santos’ identity was — to put it generously — not entirely resolved.
What Hand Gesture Did Santos Make?
Santos’ left hand appeared to form the “OK sign,” a gesture we described at length here.
Has the simple thumb-and-forefinger “OK” hand gesture become a common white supremacist hand sign? Not quite, but it has become a popular gesture used by people across several segments of the right and far right—including some actual white supremacists—who generally use it to trigger reactions, or what they would describe as “trolling the libs.”
This is thanks to a 2017 hoax campaign started by members of the notorious website 4chan that has since taken on a life of its own … The “OK” hand gesture originated as one of [4Chan’s] hoaxes in February 2017 when an anonymous 4channer announced “Operation O-KKK,” telling other members that “we must flood Twitter and other social media websites…claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.” The user even provided a helpful graphic showing how the letters WP (for “white power”) could be traced within an “OK” gesture. The originator and others also suggested useful hashtags to help spread the hoax, such as #PowerHandPrivilege and #NotOkay. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy,” wrote the poster, “We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s***.”
On our fact-check linked above, we quoted YouTube essayist and debunker Natalie Wynn’s analysis of covert signals and gestures:
Popular YouTube channel ContraPoints, whose host explains political and social issues, addressed the issue in a September 2017 video titled “Decrypting the Alt-Right: How to Recognize a F@scist.” At the 10:10 mark, host Natalie Wynn discusses “Secret Symbols” and “innocuous emoji.” Wynn addresses the trolling aspect at approximately 11 minutes in, noting here that the “OK sign” is not inherently racist, but notes how the normative nature of random symbols like the gesture are a jumping-off point for claims that opponents of racism find everything racist — “even the OK sign.” In a subsequent point, Wynn notes that the ambiguity is yet another functional strategy in muddying the waters around discourse about white nationalism.
You can read more about gaslighting as a disinformation tactic and how to fight it here.
January 5 2023 House Speaker Vote
In the photograph, Santos raised his right hand as House Republicans tried in vain to elect a House Speaker:
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California contorted himself on Thursday to try to win over right-wing holdouts as his battle to become speaker limped toward a fourth day, offering concessions that could substantially weaken his authority and empower a strident right flank.
After a humiliating three-day stretch of 11 consecutive defeats in an election that is now the most protracted such contest since 1859, Mr. McCarthy dispatched his emissaries to hammer out a deal with the ultraconservative rebels, including agreeing to conditions he had previously refused to countenance in a last-ditch effort to sway a critical mass of defectors.
They included allowing a single lawmaker to force a snap vote at any time to oust the speaker, a rule that would effectively codify a standing threat that Mr. McCarthy would be at the mercy of the right wing at all times, and could be removed instantly if he crossed them.
Santos and McCarthy were often mentioned together as lawmakers sharing an unpleasant kickoff week on Capitol Hill. On January 3 2023, the New York Times reported:
[Santos’] hard landing on Capitol Hill came on a chaotic opening day of the 118th Congress, when Republicans were preoccupied with the intraparty drama of who would be speaker and a revolt on the far right turned what should have been a triumphant first day of the G.O.P. majority into a spectacle of dysfunction on the House floor. Lawmakers and aides could be heard snickering about who was having a worse day — Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who lost three votes to become speaker — or the newcomer from New York.
A viral January 5 2022 image appeared to depict Rep.-elect George Santos (R-New York) voting with one hand, while using his left hand to make a gesture associated with white supremacists. The photograph matched videos of the vote, and Santos was visibly making the gesture in two clips; while we cannot make an authoritative statement about his motives for doing so, we can confirm that he made it.