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Chan Culture and Violent Extremism

Chan Culture and Violent Extremism
31st December 2019 Blyth Crawford
In Insights
Past, Present, and Future(?)

Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post.”

This was the ‘rallying-cry’ posted to 8chan’s ‘/pol/’ (politically incorrect) page by Brenton Tarrant on 15 March 2019 before he entered the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and initiated a firearms attack which would kill 51 people and inspire a wave of Far-Right terrorism in its wake. The 8chan imageboard was part of the wider online phenomenon of ‘chan culture’, comprised of a number of “fast-paced, interest-based, anonymous imageboards”, where edgy memes, conspiracy theories, and ironic counterculture are common, and which, to varying degrees, have promoted acts of mass violence.

Forums have long been a staple of the Far-Right’s online presence however, chan culture began as a movement entirely disconnected from extremism, stemming from the imageboard forum ‘2chan’– a niche Japanese anime site. The structure of 2chan served as the inspiration for then 13-year-old Christopher Pool to create 4chan in 2003, as an online gathering place where the – predominantly male – userbase could revel in countercultural irony, memes, and generalised semi-affectionate abuse of one-another. Yet, 4chan came under scrutiny in 2014 when it became the hub of the ‘Gamergate’ saga, catalysed by Zoe Quinn’s mediocre game ‘Depression Quest’ which sparked both debates over journalistic integrity, and virulent misogyny, culminating in “a level of sustained high emotion more fitting for a response to a genocide than a spat over videogames.”

At the height of Gamergate’s controversy Pool began to delete the more explicit posts made to 4chan, angering a subsection of the userbase. In particular, Frederick Brennan a member of various chans and, briefly, the owner of the ‘Wizardchan’ forum for male virgins, became frustrated by Pool’s censorship, and founded the sibling imageboard forum ‘8chan’ in retaliation. 8chan featured many of the same boards as its predecessor, yet its roots in Gamergate meant it quickly attracted “the most hard-line anti-feminists”. Furthermore, as Robert Evans observes, the /pol/ board soon became a gathering place for “extremely online Neo-Nazis” – although it should be stressed that disagreements on the board were too frequent for users to ever converge on any one ideology. Notably, in February 2019, the more virulent, alternative board ‘Neinchan’ was created, for those who found the explicit Nazism of 8chan too tame. However, at the time of its inception, the board failed to attract users in large numbers.

While chan boards have always flirted with the possibility of offline violence through doxing or swatting campaigns, in November 2014 these links to violence became explicit when David Kalac posted graphic pictures of his murdered girlfriend to the site, stating “turns out its way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks on the movies”.

However, violence found ideological justification on 8chan, where a wave of Far-Right terrorism was incited by the Christchurch attack. In its wake, users deemed Tarrant a “Saint”, quoting his manifesto and encouraging others to imitate his attack – a dynamic mirrored on Neinchan, where a board was dedicated to him. Soon after, on 27 April, John Earnest carried out a firearms attack at a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one person, after he too posted a manifesto to 8chan’s /pol/ page, praising its userbase. Finally, on 3 August 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius initiated a firearms attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people, again posting to 8chan beforehand and citing his “support” for Brenton Tarrant. This string of violence prompted the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare to withdraw its protection from the site, and 8chan’s subsequent removal from the Clearnet on 5 August.

In the final hours that 8chan remained online, users fervently posted links to lesser-known alternate chans, and to darknet ‘bunkers’ such as Endchan or Zeronet, where the site’s legacy could be continued. Soon after, on 10 August, Patrick Manshaus posted to Endchan before killing his (non-white) stepsister and attempting a firearms attack at a mosque in Bærum, Norway. The violence continued on 9 October, when Stephan Balliet attempted to conduct a mass shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, eventually killing two people. Balliet livestreamed his attack via Twitch, posting links to the stream alongside a file containing a manifesto and gun designs, to the obscure anime forum ‘Meguca’ which featured its own /pol/ board, and which notably, was included in a list of ‘bunkers’ recommended for 8chan users following the site’s closure.

While sites like Endchan reportedly increased their membership in the wake of 8chan’s closure, more recently the site has been described as “dead in general”, after failing to retain users following Manshaus’ attack. In September 2019, ‘16chan’ was created as a refuge for former 8chan users, and has remained somewhat active, while the encrypted messaging app ‘Telegram’ is also likely to have experienced a sustainable influx in usership.

The most notable attempt to continue 8chan’s legacy is the launch of ‘8kun’ on 25 November 2019 by 8chan’s former owner Jim Watkins, and his son Ron. However, it is not at all certain that 8kun will be embraced, for a number of reasons. Firstly, 8kun remains online only tenuously, shifting continuously from one top level domain to another, amidst a barrage of attempted DDOS attacks, and is often only reliably accessible via the darkweb. More problematic still, is that the forum does not feature the favoured ‘/pol/’ board, and in a question and answer session, Ron Watkins did not confirm that the board would ever be restored. Currently the most similar board on the forum is the ‘/pnd/’ (Politics, News, Debate) board, which already features a number of openly racist posts debating ‘racemixing’ and the ‘Holohoax’ and is littered with swastikas.

While this is an ominous development, it is also not clear that future attackers would incorporate imageboards into their attacks in the same way that 8chan was used. In the wake of previous attacks, 8chan users decried the perpetrators as “false-flags”, carrying out attacks to draw negative attention to the site, and force its closure. Thus, it is possible that future attackers may choose to announce their attacks on alternative platforms in an attempt to divert attention from, and therefore preserve, preferred online forums. In short, the future of chan culture is uncertain, however, the violent ideology which fuelled the most recent wave of terrorist attacks remains alive – if struggling – in increasingly dark corners of the web.