Not for the first time, the bleakest corners of the internet have apparently spawned real world tragedy. What is 4chan, and how does it foment so much hate?
Even as the nation was plunged into a whirlwind of shock, horror and grief, there were plenty of online communities that had an opposite, chilling reaction – and every one of them has users based here in New Zealand.
As has been widely noted, this was a crime of and for the internet. From references to Pewdiepie, the world’s most famous YouTuber and darling of anti-Semites, to the livestream, to the ridiculous pastiche of memes, alt-right talking points and idiotic jargon that made up the shooter’s press kit, this was an act designed for virality and thick with vicious irony. Many experts have warned against extended coverage of the manifesto, which is filled with a mixture of vitriol, intentionally ludicrous lies, and various traps for the uninformed journalist, though that has apparently not stopped credulous swallowing of the shooter’s shitposting.
It’s the exact mixture of hate, misinformation, meta-irony and plausible deniability that is the lifeblood of the online cesspits where hate found a home. In these communities, humour is used as a weapon, a shield, and a way out in much the same way an edgelord at high school will complain “it was just a joke” when they’re inevitably punched out.
It’s both an effective strategy and wholly unoriginal. In discussions on how to deal with the alt-right, commentators often refer to a passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay Anti-Semite and Jew.
“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” he writes.
“They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
Following the attacks, “Subscribe to Pewdiepie” was carved into the Holocaust Memorial in Brooklyn, and spray painted adjacent to a large red swastika at a school in Oxford – an absurdist meme, funny only to the internet-obsessed, weaponised into a statement of hate, with inbuilt plausible deniability: “it’s just a joke”. Swastikas were also sprayed on a sign by the rainbow walk in Wellington.
But despite the surface-level frivolity, both the anti-Semite and the extremely online radical (if they’re not in fact the exact same person) have the same end goal: violence. And while you’re increasingly unlikely to meet anyone offline who’s willing to put their face to such debate – another common trait is real-world cowardice – in the dark corners of the internet they meet each other.
Since the Christchurch mosque shootings there have been strong, well-argued calls to bring the tech giants to heel. The attacks were streamed to Facebook, and uploaded to Twitter, YouTube and Reddit. All are culpable, gargantuan and hard to pin down. But the forums where hate lives, the damp holes where the attack was fomented, announced, celebrated and dissected, have long been a home for the worst frothings of extremism. They are currently inaccessible in New Zealand after Spark and other ISPs blocked their domains, in an unprecedented moment of coordination and censorship. It remains unclear how long the ban will last, but anyone who has visited the sites knows what lurks within.
4chan: portal to hate
For a certain generation of internet users, 4chan was and is both a transgressive timesuck and an increasingly frightening portal to the worst of the internet. An image board designed after Japanese sites primarily used to discuss anime, in the early 00s, 4chan became a meme factory, pumping out ‘lolcats’, rage comics, and all the fodder that would one day end up on places like 9gag. But several of the boards, which are independent silos with their own cultures and taboos, soon developed a reputation for minimal moderation and a tolerance for extreme violence – most notoriously the ‘random’ board /b/.
Users, buoyed by their anonymity and encouraged by an increasingly rabid community, began encouraging and celebrating the suicide of their own members and others, harassing women, crippling businesses with targeted attacks and generally luxuriating in one-upping each other in feats of cruelty, ultimately culminating in the Gamergate controversy – a subject which was soon banned on the platform.
8chan: double the grim
For some, that meant 4chan was too heavily moderated, too hostile to ‘free speech’. These users migrated to 8chan, a direct copy with less moderation, created by an American computer programmer who boasts of having had the idea during a psychedelic trip.
8chan’s list of controversies is a chronicling of the past decade of sin on the internet: child porn, ‘swatting’, Trump, the alt-right, QAnon, incel extremism and now this, New Zealand’s darkest day. On Friday afternoon, minutes before the attack began, the Christchurch gunman informed 8chan users he’d be making an ‘effort post’ – as opposed to a low-effort ‘shitpost’. The announcement linked to his ravings, his Facebook account and the livestream. Users were rapturous, liveblogging the attack, commending the shooter and expressing glee and disbelief.
“The madman actually did it!” read comment, after comment, after comment.
It’s a phrase anyone who’s followed Trump and his rabid fanbase since the 2016 campaign will recognise. Over on The_Donald, the Reddit forum which refers to Trump as a ‘God Emperor’, the refrain is a common response to the edgier of Trump’s behaviours, as the ‘Troll in Chief’ fulfills their political aims, which could be summarised as hurting anyone outside the immediate community.
Kiwi Farms: scraping the barrel
Today the Herald reports Joshua Moon, a former 8Chan administrator allegedly sacked for promoting paedophilia, has refused police requests to hand over data relating to links and posts that appeared on his website Kiwi Farms during the attack. Kiwi Farms, the name of which is unrelated to New Zealand, is a hotbed of racism and bullying, generally targeted at Muslims, refugees, the trans community and the mentally disabled.
“You’re a small irrelevant island nation barely more recognisable than any other nameless pacific sovereignty. You do not have the clout to eradicate a video from the internet and you do not have the legal reach to imprison everyone who posted it,” he told police in an email.
“If anyone turns over to you the information they’re asking for they’re not only cowards but they’re f***ing idiots.”
Kiwi Farms is currently blocked by New Zealand ISPs.
Closer to home, an 18-year-old arrested for propagating livestreams during the police response to the Christchurch shootings has been remanded in custody, and court filings imply he may have had advance warning of the attack. The teenager, who is subject to name suppression, is alleged to have posted a picture of the mosque in Deans Ave with the phrase “target acquired”, some time between the 8th and the 15th of March.
His link if any to the attack is unknown, but he certainly views himself as a member of the same community, whose tendrils extend from site to site, platform to platform, and onwards into the real world.