At 08:28 (NZDT) on 15 March 2019, a post was made to 8chan’s /pol board stating “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post” before going on to declare that “I will carry out and attack against the invaders.” Moments later, Brenton Tarrant began his attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which resulted in the deaths of fifty-one people. Tarrant’s 8chan/pol post contained links to a Facebook live stream of his attack and his manifesto; which itself contained numerous references to the chan subculture, a clear sign that he had been an active participant on the forum. This incident also inspired other acts of far-right terrorism during the following months.
It was within this context of links to Right-Wing Extremism (RWE) that the ever-changing and expanding family of anonymous image-board forums known as “the chans”, consisting of 4chan, 8kun (8chan/pol’s direct successor), Endchan, etc., gained public notoriety and came to the attention of security practitioners. While the chan subculture was not originally aligned with far-right ideology, the lack of moderation advertised as being a feature of 8chan following the #gamergate controversy quickly resulted in boards on this site, and other chan iterations, becoming hubs for right-wing extremists. Most chans have their own version of the /pol board, which claim to be places where users can discuss matters pertaining to politics and society while being “free from political correctness,” but this is little more than a euphemism for racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic conversations.
Significantly, the chans are but one aspect of what has become known as the far-right online ecosystem. Drawing upon the ecosystem concept from the biosciences allows us to conceptualise the far-right’s ever-expanding and evolving online presence in relation to four elements, each of which represents a different level of analysis for researchers. The first level corresponds to entities, which are individual domains; i.e. a Facebook group page or specific chan iteration. The second level of analysis focuses on user migrations and content flow between different entities, and are known as communities. These are formed through hyperlinks between entities. The third element of this conceptualisation are biotypes, referring to how second level communities are categorised into a limited number of groups based upon shared ideological, thematic, or cultural sub-identity within the wider far-right ecosystem. Finally, there is the whole network, the macro-level of analysis, bringing together the previous three elements to form the vast and ever-evolving far-right online ecosystem.
This analytical framework has proven to be useful in allowing researchers to develop an understanding of the dynamics of online far-right communities and their patterns of interaction. In the case of the chans, utilising this framework has offered two unique insights into the role that these forums play in the broader far-right ecosystem. First, while all /pol boards are homes of online RWE communities, they are not all equal in terms of their content and pace. Instead, the /pol boards exist in a three-tier hierarchy, as characterised by their popularity and extremity of conversations. Here, 4chan/pol constitutes the first tier, and is the most popular as defined by the average number of posts per day and also hosts the least extreme content, through to iterations such as Neinchan/pol in the third tier, which hosts the most extreme content, often concerning neo-Nazi ideas and discussions about the manifestos of different RWE attackers.
Using this analytical framework has also demonstrated that /pol boards constitute not only far-right online communities, but also gateways to the broader RWE Internet space. Indeed many of the posts on /pol boards link to external websites, and analysing these external domains and the communities of entities that they form offer valuable insight into both the content of discussions on /pol boards and the chan’s place within the wider far-right online ecosystem. These domains are also characterised by the same three-tier architecture, in that the material posted ranges from more frequented, but less extreme, to the more contentious or even illegal.
This gateway role played by the chans is crucial when conceptualising the role they play in the broader online far-right ecosystem for two reasons. First, a number of lone wolf far-right attacks in recent years, such as those in Christchurch, Poway, El Paso, Bærum, Halle, and Hanau, have been perpetrated by individuals who are known to have been chan users, particularly of the /pol boards. This is indicative of the interplay between online discussions on these forums and offline action. Second, a number of contemporary RWE organisations and social movements first appeared on chan boards before moving on to more mainstream platforms, such as Facebook. Examples include the QAnon conspiracy, which began on the /pol boards before getting its own dedicated boards on some chan iterations, and the Boogaloo Bois, which originated from the chan’s /k (weapons) board.
The chans do not only constitute an active online community for far-right discussions, but also act as a gateway to external far-right content. Given the rise in far-right terrorism, the ever-evolving and diversifying nature of far-right online activity, and the interplay between online discussions and offline actions, it is crucial to understand the role that the chans play in the wider far-right ecosystem.
Dr. Lewys Brace is a Lecturer in Data Analysis at the University of Exeter, UK, where he is part of the Q-Step centre. His research focuses on online extremism and radicalisation, as well as the application of computational methods to social science research and policing. His research has previously appeared in Terrorism & Political Violence, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Perspectives on Terrorism, and Artificial Life.