- 1 4CHAN
- 1.1 DOGWHISTLING THE DOGWHISTLE
- 1.2 From Gentlemen to Robots
- 1.3 Gamergate: 4chan’s Depression Quest
- 1.4 Musical Chairs of Chan Owners
- 1.5 Cottage Industry of Conservative YouTube Dads
- 1.6 To Become “an Hero”
- 1.7 Gamergateway Drug
- 1.8 Vloggers and Massacres
- 1.9 Is YouTube to Blame?
- 1.10 Approach and De-radicalize
- 2 QANON
DOGWHISTLING THE DOGWHISTLE
This past week, we experienced the third mass shooting to emerge from 8chan, an infamously vile message board, known most recently as an epicenter for the alt-right.
The shooting that took place in El Paso killed at least twenty. It was a copycat of the Christchurch massacre in March which was livestreamed on 8chan by a user who coated his weapons in 8chan memes. In June, a teenager on 8chan attempted to replicate the Christchurch killings at a Synagogue in Poway, California. He killed one worshiper and wounded many before his gun jammed.
These shootings are part of a larger pattern of alt-right killings, generally young men, motivated by fascist ideology they absorb online, or their imagined status as superfluous human beings on the bottom of society as so called “incels” (“involuntary celibates”), or both. These include the killer of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, a man who rammed a rental van into pedestrians in Toronto in 2017 “to speak to Sgt. 4chan,” (the site which 8chan copied), the perpetrator of the 2015 Charleston massacre, the Parkland shooter, and the 2014 Isla Vista “virgin” killer. But the list is far longer and stretches back a decade.
When the Christchurch shooting occurred, I had just finished a book on 4chan and 8chan and how they have spawned mass shootings and the alt-right. For the work, I spoke at length to Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan. When I first encountered him in 2018, I was surprised to discover he denounced the culture he helped create as “toxic.” “I want nothing to do with the chans” he told me. Yesterday, he was pleading on Twitter for 8chan to be shut down.
In 2014, when 8chan was just a year old and Brennan twenty, he made a series of very wrong choices: he chose to allow his site to become the epicenter of a misogynistic harassment campaign known as gamergate, which had been banned on 8chan’s predecessor, 4chan. He then chose to keep 8chan alive in exchange for a job. He is still being punished for these choices, just like the rest of us. But the story of how and why he made these decisions, stayed with me. It seemed like something out of fiction, for all the misery involved in the making of it, and then the catastrophes that followed.
I think of it every time there is a new alt-right shooting. I don’t want to elevate Brennan for his mistakes or make excuses for them. But to understand what is happening, this part of the story needs to be told.
4chan: From Nightmare Otakus to Radicals
The anime message board 4chan.org (originally 4chan.net) was created in 2003, by a fifteen-year-old kid in upstate New York, named Christopher “moot” Poole. At the time, Poole was a withdrawn teen who spent most of his time online. He created the site as a joke, to share cartoons and porn with his online friends. To his surprise, it blew up, attracting millions of users.
In the next few years, 4chan’s userbase of young men largely invented what still defines all youth culture today: the internet meme, a gag reflex in which remixed snippets drawn from the sea of garbage marketing and pop culture are vomited back up.
When 4chan popularized memes in the mid-2000s, it became the hub world for a related youth counterculture, trolling. Trolling involved breaking apart corporate co-optation of online spaces, the first proto-social media companies who were profiting off enticing even younger children into mirrored chambers of self-fascination, followers, and micro-transactions.
“Anonymous” as 4chan users called themselves at the time (since most posts on the site were anonymous) made it habit of “raiding,” message boards, social media, and video games. Practically, this meant sabotaging game-ifed corporate kids forums. The accidental result of this was that 4chan’s ranks swelled even more. The raids became recruitment campaigns, where tweens fell into the forbidden world of teenager rebellion that was 4chan.
This was how Fredrick Brennan discovered 4chan in 2006 when he was twelve years old. He was browsing a Sonic the Hedgehog forum when it was invaded by a horde of trolls from 4chan. 4chan, with its bizarre spate of dark confessions and anonymous content, quickly became his favorite site.
At the time, Brennan was living in upstate New York and spent a lot of time at the computer already. He had been born with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta. As a result, he is bound to a wheelchair and has broken hundreds of bones in his life. He is about three feet tall, with bright blond hair, and a raspy voice. His father didn’t limit his time at the device, hoping programming might provide a path to independence.
His mother was also born with the same genetic condition, and according to Brennan, his father sired him and his siblings to collect the benefit checks. During high school, Brennan was placed in foster care when his father began a relationship with his state appointed caregiver. Eventually, his mother who had moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, gained custody of him.
Brennan came to 4chan only a few years after its founding, but during a wild period of change. Between 2008–2012, the trolling collective known as Anonymous mutated into “Anonymous,” an anti-authoritarian, libertarian-leftist hacktivist movement, which switched its targets from kids’ forums to the Church of Scientology, governments, and corporations.
Brennan recalled to me the soaring feeling of joining the IRC networks (the chat rooms) associated with Anonymous and 4chan, as they coordinated online attacks against Paypal and Mastercard in retaliation for confiscating funds from Julian Assange in 2011. But the Anonymous movement crashed and burned in 2012 when many of its principal members were arrested and jailed.
The Anonymous rallying “banner” had included a crowd-sourced self-improvement campaign. Not only would young men finally emerge from indifference to political action, but their new sense of agency would extend to themselves. But when Anonymous collapsed, so did this hope. The result was a retreat back to where 4chan began, into a philosophy of nihilism, dropping out, and living your life in the screen.
All of this had been inherited from the 90s “slacker” generation. Except two things had changed: First, the screen worlds (video games, anime, the internet) were growing vastly larger and more enthralling. And second, the real world, after the 2008 stock crash, was drastically reducing prospects for young people, miring them in student debt, and shuffling them, more than ever, behind cash registers and cubicles into dead end jobs.
In short, society was getting worse at providing young people with real needs: independence, adequate housing, fulfilling jobs, education, and meaningful political participation. But much better at providing everything they didn’t need: fantasy products, escapist video games, and screen worlds. And so the once unthinkable occurred: the next generation became even more cynical and divorced from reality than the last.
From Gentlemen to Robots
As a teen in 2009–2010, Brennan’s favorite board to hang out on 4chan was /r9k/, (“robot 9000”). “9000” was a joke that meant the highest number possible, the summit of achievement. The “robot” in /r9k/ was a reference to an automated moderator that would delete repeated text or images, that is to say, memes. The idea was that /r9k/ would spearhead a new better, self-improved, creative, 4chan. And to signal this, users began to call themselves “gentlemen,” as opposed to their previous nickname for themselves, “/b/tards” (after the “random” /b/ board).
Instead, the exact opposite happened. The rollicking lightheartedness of the 2006–2008 troll culture melted away. “We would write in the high Elizabethan style, hence the ‘gentlemen’.” Brennan told me.
Instead of saying “lol” we would write, “this gave me such exquisite laughter”. But over time… it started to evolve into stories, then personal stories. Then people starting writing about their own lives [because that was original content the robot moderator wouldn’t delete]. And we were all on 4chan so all our lives sucked! If our lives hadn’t sucked we would have been on Myspace or Facebook. The kind of person an image board attracts… it lead /r9k/ into a lot of depressive stories. What’s the common link between these stories? Well, we’re all ugly. We’re all alone.
The easiest way to get past the [original content] image filter was to just take your own picture. So people started posting photos they took. Their own face. Their own room. And what did they have in common? They were all sad. The internet “echo chamber” effect set in. In the wake of the collapsed euphoria that came from political action, a new generation of young men “alone together” on the internet convinced themselves they were doomed to spend their entire life in the mother’s basements, as kissless virgins, living a life of frustrated simulated pleasures.
The “robots” of /r9k/ soon adopted a variety of names for themselves that all meant the same thing. They were not just “incels” but “neets” (not in education or employment), or “beta males” as opposed healthy “alpha males” or “chads”. By his late teens, Brennan was totally locked into this way of thinking, which was defined by a sense of helplessness.
Then in 2011, 4chan’s founder Christopher “moot” Poole, by then a successful tech entrepreneur, closed down /r9k/. In response, Brennan and the robots created their own home-brewed chans. And things got worse, “It became a depression Olympics…” he told me. “The most depressed people started to gang together and accuse anyone that had a single friend or went outside of just faking it.”
The burgeoning incel community moved to a copycat chan Brennan helped administer called, Wizardchan. The name was based on a Japanese joke that if you were a still a virgin at the age of thirty you, “became a wizard”. Eventually, Poole re-instated /r9k/ on 4chan at the end of 2012. But the decision was a disaster.
When 4chan trolls weren’t raiding children’s sites, they spent a lot of time harassing neo-Nazi boards from 2005–2011. And the same thing that had occurred with the 12-year-olds, happened with the neo-Nazis. They came to 4chan, saw an anarchic board with no rules, loved it, and settled down. Poole had also tried deleting boards that neo-Nazis used, but to no avail. Eventually, he let them stay. Content restriction, roughly short of a what was forbidden by law, was against the philosophical rules Poole and his friends had settled on when they founded 4chan as teenagers.
Presently, the fascists took over 4chan’s /pol/ (“politically incorrect”) board where they began to rapidly convert the reality challenged denizens of /r9k/. But the real tipping point came during gamergate.
Gamergate: 4chan’s Depression Quest
In 2013, the “wizards” on Wizardchan began harassing a female game developer named Zoe Quinn. Then in 2014, Quinn’s jilted ex posted a long whiny blog post about her fanning the flames to 4chan.
The campaign was similar to 4chan’s collective trolling projects against neo-Nazis, the Church of Scientology, teenagers they didn’t like, and minor celebrities. Except this time something was different. The kart-wheeling, disingenuous, irony had dissolved. The effort was sullen and full of earnest, delusional, hatred. And larger than any personal harassment campaign in the past. A screenshot taken by the author in 2018 of one of the many active successors to Brennan’s Wizardchan. “How did you live your life?” one “Anonymage” confesses, “I didn’t.”
Why? 4chan was upset that Quinn and others were threatening to introduce “feminism,” that is to say, fair depictions of women, into misogynistic video games. The defeated young men, the incels, wizards, and robots, no longer lived in the real world. All they felt they possessed was a passport into fake ones, where they could live their cramped life roaming boundless virtual glades, as powerful studs, seducing pliant women. They imagined their perceived enemies were cutting off this last line of retreat by sanitizing video games.
And in the end, this meant a new crop of marginalized young men were pushed further to the right. In 2014, Poole soon banned all discussion of gamergate on 4chan for violating the site’s rules against personal harassment. In response, much of the userbase turned on him. And soon after, Poole quit the site for good. The result was a power vacuum. Men who were around thirty-five, the first generation defined by 4chan’s new culture, the internet, video games, and the 2008 economic collapse, began to fill the void, and profit it off using YouTube.
A cottage industry of vloggers and bloggers sprung up around gamergate, attempting to generate ad clicks and raise money for vague anti-feminist campaigns. Many of these strange men faded into obscurity, like Davis Aurini, known as “weird skull guy” because he alway seemed to vlog behind a shelf that contained a human skull. Others became the cornerstones of what coalesced into the alt-right and “alt-lite”. There was Milo Yiannopoulos, a Cambridge drop out who prior to gamergate, had been blogging about “tech gossip”. And Mike Cernovich, known as “Based Lawyer” to gamergaters, though he had failed to be admitted to the bar as attorney after being accused of date rape in law school. And “Sargon of Akkad,” (Carl Benjamin) a British vlogger who spent (and still spends) his days railing against the evils of feminism and the virtues of being a “classic liberal”.
Another result of gamergate was the ascension of 8chan. When Poole banned gamergate on 4chan, angry users looked for another chan to use. A year earlier, Brennan had coded an experimental copy of 4chan called 8chan or “infinity chan”. The idea was, that unlike 4chan, where Poole determined all the boards, on 8chan anyone could start their own board, just like on Reddit. When gamergate was banned on 4chan, 8chan swelled to thousands of posts an hour.
At the time, Brennan was twenty. And despite his disability, his family’s domestic issues, and his obsession with the chans, he had succeeded against incredible odds. He had moved out on his own, to Midwood, Brooklyn, clawing his way to economic security in a miserable “gig” economy. Before gamergate, Brennan had been known as someone who advised other wizards and how to get small one-time jobs using Amazon’s “mechanical Turk” feature, generally for pennies on the dollar (except for what Brennan did, highly specialized coding). Now he worked for a business owner. But he was still just barely scraping by.
He had recently been the feature of two news stories. Not about gamergate, but how as a disabled person, he struggled to have his public services met. In an Al Jazeera piece “The Other America” he is shown in Super Mario Brothers pajamas, striving to live independently, waiting for state provided rides that don’t show up. A New York Times article reported on how Brennan was robbed when he took the subway into Manhattan to purchase a new wheelchair.
When I asked Brennan in 2018 if he regretted harboring gamergate on 8chan, he hesitated to use the word regret, which surprised me. After he had denounced the chans, I had expected him to simply say yes. Instead he told me that he never really cared about gamergate. But he desperately needed an escape route. He needed to use it to get out of where he was. “My life wasn’t going anywhere… In the U.S. you basically have two choices [for someone with my condition] you stop working completely, or you pay your own private full time caregiver [which was unaffordable].”
Despite its millions of new users, 8chan didn’t provide Brennan with any income. In fact, the opposite. He rapidly lost thousands of dollars on server costs. This is a strange fact about chans. They lose money. For many years, Poole went tens of thousands of dollars in the red running 4chan.
When 8chan swelled after gamergate, it became even worse than 4chan. The ability to make your own board generated a labyrinthine rats nest of mini-sites with little or no oversight. The criminal activity that Poole had worked hard to scour from 4chan, things like personal harassment and child pornography, found purchase in all the neglected corners of 8chan. This created the same problems for Brennan as it had for Poole. He had difficulty collecting donations, finding advertisers, or a way to host his site. But Brennan did manage to work the boost gamergate gave his site into a way out.
Musical Chairs of Chan Owners
When the fifteen-year-old Poole created 4chan in 2003, he simply copied the code from another very successful Japanese site called 2channel (or more precisely, another copy of 2channel called 2chan).
By 2014, 2channel had become one of the most successful sites in Japan because like 4chan, it was a mix of seedy underground nerds and new inventive pop culture. But by that point, it too was full of aging, dropped out, otaku who were also radicalizing to the far right. As a result, the owner, Hiro Nishimura, lost control of the site when it was revealed he made a series of secret deals with Japanese conservative party, the LDP, to delete radical messages. In the wake of the scandal, 2channel was seized by an eccentric businessman who ran its servers, a right-wing army veteran living in the Philippines named Jim Watkins. When Poole left 4chan, Nishimura, having just lost 2channel, took over 4chan.
And Watkins, having just successfully snatched up 2channel, noticed the rise of 8chan and approached Brennan about buying it. Unlike 4chan and 8chan, 2channel was very profitable because it did not host images and so kept server costs low. Brennan told me Watkins wanted 8chan, not to make money, but for his son, who was a passionate 8chan user. “You know how a rich man will own a boat? Just for kicks? It’s sort of like that. 8chan is alive because it’s a toy. It loses money, but it’s fun, I think, for him to have it.”
Brennan quickly sold 8chan to Watkins. The price: Watkins promised Brennan a full-time programming job working for his company, NT Technologies. With his new job, and the low cost of labor in the Philippines, Brennan could easily afford the full-time caregiver his condition required. In 2015 Brennan announces the sale of 8chan to Jim Watkins
At the time, Brennan dipped very close to the alt-right. When reporters came to interview him, he had a message: people with his condition should undergo mandatory genetic testing. What he said his father did, producing children with a disability for the benefit checks, should be prevented. Frustrated that no journalist would report this, he wrote an op-ed on this subject on the only outlet he said would accept the piece, a neo-Nazi site co-founded by an infamous 4chan troll, Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer, the Daily Stormer (the same site, that would later radicalize Dylann Roof, the Charleston church killer). In the piece, Brennan called himself, a “disabled supporter of eugenics.”
But over the next few years, Brennan began to slowly disconnect from the chans. He liked living in the Philippines. He had long ago been kicked out Wizardchan for “no longer being a wizard”. When I first spoke to him, he emphasized how he was trying to live in the real world. He was engaged and attends church regularly, where, using social conservatism as guide, he has found a community of real-life people.
Cottage Industry of Conservative YouTube Dads
Though Brennan emerged from the web of the chans, the shape of the alt-right laid down by gamergate is the one still with us today. It is defined by YouTube which is still full of opinionated older men advising younger men in the same position on how to get their life together. Some are left over from gamergate, some new.
Why, of all things, do they preach social conservatism? Because their audience are young men lost in the hazy sea of consumerist pleasures, boys who have been trained by marketers to play video games all day and seek gratification in buying fantasy products.
As the socialist philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out in his book Trouble in Paradise, conservatism generates a “protective bubble” around the individual from capitalism. The constant invitations to a nihilistic lifestyle of empty materialism can be rebuffed by holding fast to set of religious values, which offer a fuller, more optimistic conception for the point of existence. And the inherently isolating way capitalism tears apart social bonds is similarly inured by clinging to traditional modes of behavior.
To isolated people adrift in a despairing consumerist nihilism, the easy fix of tradition was a lifeline. It was to the shipwrecked, at last firm ground. For the generation that followed Brennan, ersatz YouTube father figures provide an off-the rack suit of conservative values to supply an otherwise lost sense of self. When Yiannopoulos fell from favor, he was replaced by conservative YouTube self-help star Jordan Peterson, who peddles literal instruction books, entitled “Rules for Life” (or as Brennan called them “another commodity in a commodity market”) to guide these boys out of where they are now, unconnected to society in their mother’s basements.
After gamergate, the center of chan culture became /pol/ and /r9k/. The new chan philosophy was mix of conservatism “red-pilling” (e.g. adherence to a strict Peterson-style rule book of traditional values) and the classic ultra-nihilistic Yiannopoulos “black pilling” (e.g. stay in your mom’s basement and keep consuming fantasy and pornography).
To Become “an Hero”
Lastly, the post-gamergate chans solidified the mass shooting trend which grew out of /r9k/. Since its inception, 4chan had nihilistically idolized the gory power fantasy of mass killings that were sold to them in entertainment products. In 2005, they memed Nevada-tan, a young girl in Japan who had stabbed several classmates with a knife wearing a sweatshirt that read “Nevada”
Why? She resembled the “schoolgirl assassin” character archetype popular in Hollywood films and Japanese anime, a mixture of the male gaze and violent power fantasies of the powerless. When the Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech in 2007, 4chan memed that “no one could beat Cho’s high score”.
Then Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in 2014 in Isla Vista California because he claimed to be condemned to a life as a hopeless virgin. Rodger, as far as we know, did not frequent 4chan, but the Reddit board, based on the 4chan meme, “forever alone”, and the related incel and “Pick Up Artist” community. After the Rodger killings, /r9k/ and /pol/ were delighted, and began to meme a “beta uprising” where “beta males” would rise out of their mother’s basements and go to war with “normies”.
And as 4chan got darker, the fantasy, in the dim glow of the screen, become all that more real. The suicides on the boards, which were always worshiped and encouraged, increased. In November of 2013, a young man posted in /b/, that he would “an hero” [4chan slang for ‘kill yourself’] on cam” by setting his room on fire, “to give back to the community in the best way possible.”
4chan users enthusiastically piled into the chatroom. The video feed filled with fire and smoke, until fifteen minutes later, rescue workers emerged at the last minute to drag him to safety. Soon, the entire culture began to orbit around depression and suicide. “There are more image board suicides than I can count.” Brennan told me. “I can think of just four or five that I personally saw the note or the livestream. Imagine how many did it with no note.”
However, strangely all of this would take an other unexpected turn, toward Donald Trump.
Gamergate had petered out by the end of 2014, but the coalition hadn’t dissolved, and the vloggers preaching to marginalized young men who deeply resented women needed a new subject. They found it in Trump, who spoke to losers of winning and losing, of reclaiming a lifetime of loss (for mostly white males), so they could “win again”. However, it was not all a grassroots campaign.
Steve Bannon had become acquainted with the chans in 2014 through Breitbart employee Milo Yiannopoulos. As Bannon described, “Milo could connect with these kids right away. You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
To do this, Bannon sent Yiannopoulos to college campuses to preach memes and ideas he had culled from 4chan and 8chan. The result was a series of stabbings, shootings, and violent fiery riots in 2016 and 2017. Emboldened by Trump, the men on the chans organized into fantasy inflected posses, replete with swords, shields, and medieval banners to brawl with Antifa, first at Yiannopoulos speeches, then all over the country. This all ended with Charlottesville in August of 2017 with the now infamous murder of Heather Heyer.
Charlottesville was a deep embarrassment for the alt-right. It had imagined that its manifestations in real life would rally more to its cause. But how it appeared was ridiculous (recall, the tiki torches) and monstrous. As a result, the alt-right retreated back on to online spaces, 8chan, Discord, and YouTube. There they attempted to rebrand as a lighter version of themselves.
Vloggers and Massacres
A month after Charlottesville, I interviewed a boy in his early 20s, at one the last pro-Trump rallies on the D.C. mall. He was waving a large 4chan flag, adapted from a Neo-Nazi flag. Though he was not a Neo-Nazi he insisted, rather protesting, “identity politics”. When I asked him about 4chan, he gave me a reply that surprised me. He didn’t really go to 4chan he admitted. The site confused him.
“But,” I objected. “Why are you waving an enormous 4chan flag around?” Well, he said, because Sargon of Akkad, his favorite vlogger had invented it (he hadn’t). I must have looked incredibly perplexed, because he tried to help me out. “He’s really funny,” he told me. “Like, you know. It’s not just politics. Like he has a lot of other videos on others stuff. He has a lot of fun, goofs around.” Similarly, the New York Times recently profiled a young man named Caleb Cain from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. In 2014, Cain found himself living with grandparents, unable to return to community college because he couldn’t afford it, and so isolating himself on the internet. Hoping to better himself, he got pulled into a web of conservative YouTube self-help gurus, who acted as pseudo-authority figures for him. Cain had visited 4chan since 2008, but it was mostly YouTube that radicalized him.
A little before the New York Times story ran, I had also spoken to Caleb about his experience falling in and out of the alt-right. As Cain described it to me, A lot of people start out on YouTube, they stumble on a content page because of the algorithm it recommends so much to you. From there people get pulled into Discord groups [or kids] get pulled in on Minecraft servers. And they’ll be eighteen or nineteen dudes that will attempt to redpill the guys the kids turn into little Nazi kids… They’ll do ‘lovebombing…’ There’s a lot of people [in the alt-right] with self-esteem issues, economically [their situation is often bad] working at taco bell, working some shitty job. All of them are in bad family situations.
The new generation, like the last batch, are raising themselves online. Groping for community, self-definition, and just plain company, they gravitate to virtual versions of these things. It’s what the red-haired boy holding the flag was telling me, that Sargon of Akkad was not just about political insight, he was “fun” to hang out with.
Another source I spoke to, who is two years younger than Brennan, found 4chan when he was eleven years old, in 2008. By 2012, as he entered high school and became more isolated, his resentment towards women pushed him toward the right. He recalled finding a Men’s Rights’ Activist’s video entitled, “Feminism and the Disposable Male,” then he told me, “the YouTube algorithm did the rest”.
As he explained in a Reddit post, the incel groupthink soon, “convinced [me] that my only options were suicide, or to die as a martyr in a terrorist attack against nobody in particular. This murderous hate against everything that the incels teach you to nurture, every day, has no real target — your misery is supposed to be caused by the impersonal and unstoppable laws of nature — but in some way is has to come out, because you were born a monster, and your destiny is to hurt people.”
Is YouTube to Blame?
As I traced the history of counterculture on the internet as it spawned 4chan, 8chan, gamergate, then then alt-right, it was framed in the context of a larger story: how an open source internet designed to de-centralize power became totally inverted.
The majority of internet traffic now flows through a few massive corporations. They accomplished this by figuring out the techniques that kept people returning to websites and then exploiting them to maximum effect. Slot machine blips and chimes are calibrated to give you a jolt of Pavlovian pleasure and so keep you glued to your device. Other things like memes, upvoting posts, and streams of content were partially ripped from 4chan. Mature, happy, and educated adults can often resist this.
The people most susceptible are poor children. My generation watched with idle curiosity as corporations muscled in on the homebrewed internet to build up what was essentially a labyrinth of profit and addiction. That’s why trolling, destroying these fantasy worlds, was its own youth culture, also born on 4chan in the mid-2000s.
But the next generations were not so lucky. They did not see the labyrinth being built for them. They were simply born in the center. In my account of the musical chairs of chan-switching that occurred after gamergate, I neglected one: Where did the founder of 4chan, Christopher “moot” Poole, go after he fled his site?
He was hired by Google, the parent company of YouTube. Why? I don’t know. I asked Google to tell me and their answer was simple: no, they wouldn’t. Poole, if he ever got my messages, refused to speak to me at all. But I can hazard a guess: Poole was great at making fun addicting sites for young people, that is to say, 4chan.
The anti-corporate 4chan habit of “raids” are now incorporated into the billion-dollar social media gaming site, Twitch (owned by Amazon). 4chan’s invention of “ephemerality” (auto-deleting content), promising teens entree into a forbidden world of risqué behavior has been folded into Wall Street darling, Snapchat. And in this way, memes, the original gag reflex 4chan gave the world against marketing and corporate co-optation are being sold back to teens at a premium. Recently, the discussion around the alt-right has moved to what YouTube could do to tweak its algorithm. YouTube is not blameless, but to seek to fix the alt-right by tweaking algorithms is deeply naive.
“De-platforming” (kicking alt-righters off of social media platforms) as it is called, works in the short term, just as antifa punching Nazis in the face did in fact scare the Nazis off the streets. But the movement didn’t go away when it retreated from the streets, just elsewhere. So what is the solution to the alt-right? If it’s more than asking big corporations to tweak their algorithms?
Caleb Cain described how whenever he was mocked or angrily dismissed during his radicalization, he fell further down the rabbit hole. It took another vlogger, who understood 4chan’s culture and the path to radicalization to pull him out of it. As he said on his own vlog, “I think that empathy is an important tool here… I believe people can change, obviously, I did.” He now runs his own de-radicalization project, FaradaySpeaks, on Discord. Caleb’s insight presents a solution to the alt-right that at least in my experience, people hate to hear, for obvious reasons:
Approach and De-radicalize
Addressing the systemic causes of fascism rather than hoping to purge it from the internet, may seem like a tall order. But in fact, this brand-new fascist coalition has proved to be, like the men who compose it, intensely fragile and mercurial. Charlottesville and Trump’s buffoonery have already sent it into a spiral of fragmentation.
Similarly, a new internet community has recently sprung up, “left-tube” or “breadtube,” dedicated to young people who realize radical leftist thought provides far better answers to their personal and political problems.
Brennan describes himself as a social conservative. But, like so many other young people I spoke to orbiting the chans, he wanted radical change away from what he called “raw unadulterated Neo-Gilded Age Capitalism… UBI, wealth taxes, 50% income taxes on the 0.1%, all that stuff I see no reason not to try, given how unequal the United States is, and how inequality often leads to strife followed by collapse.”
Last year, Brennan quit working for Jim Watkins. He described enduring “increasingly erratic” behavior and racist “temper tantrums”. The last straw came in October of 2018. After Brennan said he was taking some time off, Watkins “barged into my apartment and yelled at me for a half hour. I was completely naked at the time, only had a blanket and was in bed. He was so angry I thought he might punch something or someone so I stayed completely silent and just nodded along.”
As Brennan tells it, 8chan, font of killers, endures as a vanity project for a businessman whose only real source of income is the Japanese 2channel. “8chan is unprofitable.” he explained. “8chan will never be profitable. Just on that reason alone it should be shut down. But the Jim Watkinses of the world say, yes, but a yacht is also unprofitable. Trump’s helicopter was unprofitable. These things are toys. So that can’t be enough.”
Shutting down 8chan risks driving users to more radicalized places, repeating the story of /r9k/ to Wizardchan or 4chan to 8chan. This time it will likely be private Discord servers, or as Brennan believes, peer to peer networks on the darknet. Addressing the underlying economic and cultural causes will be more effective at combating the alt-right.
Record inequality spawned fascism in the beer halls and neighborhood corner crews of the 1920s and 30s. Times have changed. Today, record inequality is respawning a neo-fascism on the message boards and video game servers.
GOD OF THE GAPS
EARLIER THIS SUMMER, I noticed this alarming shift in my Facebook feed. Childhood friends and old high school acquaintances began plastering my timeline with posts referring to a satanic cabal of pedophile elites, including hysterical, unfounded claims about the proliferation of child sex trafficking and cultural or political efforts to “normalize” pedophilia.
During the pandemic, some of the people I grew up with in Colorado had gotten sucked into QAnon, the sprawling and baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory that is deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI. I remembered them as perfectly reasonable people: some liberal, some conservative, but all frozen in my memory as intellectually curious. Now, online and from a distance, I was watching them change. Young, white suburban women, in particular, were falling for a Q-adjacent movement, “Save the Children,” which raises false fears about child sex trafficking through fabricated stories, pastel infographics, and hashtag campaigns.
“When George Floyd cried for his momma everyone ‘felt that,’ now try to imagine 22,000 CHILDREN A DAY crying for their momma and no one hearing them! Please, ‘feel that’ too!! #SaveOurChildren,” read one post liked by nearly a dozen people I went to school with. Other posts incorporated Covid-19 misinformation or advocated against mask-wearing: “Mask or no mask? What we NEED to ask is where the fuck did 8 million children go???” another image read.
Save The Children
Save the Children is different in tone than straight-up QAnon, which originated on the anonymous discussion board 4chan in October 2017, with an unknown individual (or group of individuals) called “Q” claiming to have top-security clearance within the U.S. government. Q believers think that someone in the Trump administration has been using online message boards to send coded messages, known as “Q drops,” about the president’s secret war against this cabal to the public. Once a fringe conspiracy theory among Trump’s most ardent supporters, QAnon’s latest iteration is taking over white women in suburban communities, particularly mothers, and several other unexpected demographics. In Parker, Colorado, the suburban town I lived in for nearly a decade, and surrounding cities, it now feels like QAnon is everywhere.
Once a fringe conspiracy theory among Trump’s most ardent supporters, QAnon’s latest iteration is taking over white women in suburban communities, particularly mothers.
Parker is an affluent suburb in Douglas County, the richest county in the state and among the richest in the nation. The population is heavily conservative and predominantly white. In the time I lived there, Parker was about 93 percent white, though it has diversified a bit more in recent years, according to census data. The suburb’s member of Congress, Republican Rep. Ken Buck, is among the GOP lawmakers fueling Save the Children conspiracy theorists. He’s demanding that the Department of Justice investigate the Netflix film “Cuties,” which has faced intense backlash over claims that it sexualizes young girls. The film, a coming-of-age comedy-drama directed by French Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, became an instant target for the pedophile-obsessed.
A few of the friends I spoke with were young moms who recently began posting Q-curious content, adopting the anti-trafficking cause as their top issue — despite openly detesting the Trump administration and otherwise holding left-leaning positions. Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch who has been covering QAnon since its inception, said that this web of conspiracy theories during the pandemic has “spread so much that it’s coming home to roost in places we were not expecting.”
“During the last six months, QAnon has really, as a movement, found a lot of success breaking out of its confines among sort of the far-right fringe,” Holt said. “You are now seeing mommy bloggers, health and wellness influencers, MMA fighters, various celebrities embracing parts or the whole of QAnon.”
The cult-like movement is achieving undeniable influence in the political sphere, including through dozens of QAnon candidates who have run for Congress this cycle and Marjorie Taylor Green’s unsettling primary victory in Georgia. President Donald Trump has praised Q believers as “people that love our country,” while countless Republican lawmakers have avoided disavowing it. Save the Children marches have attracted small but impassioned crowds — notably diverse in race, gender, and age — in cities across the U.S., and some adherents have already committed criminal or violent acts inspired by their beliefs.
Last month, NBC News reported that an internal investigation by Facebook revealed millions of members in QAnon groups and pages. The following week, the company announced that it would be removing and restricting thousands of QAnon accounts, pages, and groups from its sites, including Instagram.
But the Q believers I spoke with stumbled upon these incomprehensible ideas the old-fashioned way. They say they were indoctrinated (though they don’t use that term) by their parents, other family members, and friends, or introduced to the conspiracy through word-of-mouth, rather than via the algorithms that have received the most national attention. But word-of-mouth alone isn’t enough. The ability of people sitting at home to follow the online rabbit holes downward is critical. Moms are seeing an ever-changing web of trafficking conspiracy theories bounce around their circle of mom friends, like the debunked Wayfair conspiracy theory and USPS phishing text scam. The Jeffrey Epstein saga, a real-life case that involved an alleged sex trafficking ring and was covered by reputable news outlets, has also served as a key gateway into QAnon.
Zoë Royer, a 23-year-old youth advocate based in Denver, said QAnon and Save the Children is everywhere. “The Parker bubble is so real,” she said. “It’s this exurb that’s very new, and it takes a while to get to the major highways, like — you really can just stay in Parker and have no idea of what the entire rest of the world is like.”
She agreed that the theories have captured moms especially, adding that most people have been bored and cooped up at home during the pandemic. “This all kind of popped up around the same time that the [Black Lives Matter] protests did as well,” Royer said. “I think that because it’s such a conservative area — and the fact that there was a popular movement and reaction to all the police brutality, that they couldn’t straight up say, ‘no, we’re anti-BLM’ — they kind of had to grasp onto this other basically fake story to make it seem like they are the ethical crusaders.”
SAVANNA NASH, 24, is a stay-at-home mom in Dacono, Colorado, a small town north of Denver. She lived all around the state growing up but moved to Parker, where she attended middle school and high school, just before starting seventh grade. Nash comes from a law enforcement family and, like many of my old classmates, inherited her parents’ conservative ideals.
“I didn’t know about any of this until a couple months ago,” Nash told me. “I actually heard about it from my mom. I don’t know how long she knew about it, but she started talking to me about it because she started reading a couple of books.”
One of those books was “Calm Before the Storm” by Dave Hayes, a Christian author and QAnon star known online as the “Praying Medic.” His YouTube channel has more than 386,000 subscribers and the book, which sells for $15.42 on Amazon, is ranked No. 17 in the Political Corruption & Misconduct category and No. 22 in books about the United States National Government. In the book, Hayes explains the entire theory and “decodes” Q drops, including a glossary of Q terms and codes at the end. “And honestly, at first, I thought she was psychotic,” Nash continued. “She just started making these claims that sounded outrageous to me, like ‘JFK Jr. is not dead.’” (Hardcore Q believers think John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and a Trump supporter who lives in Pittsburgh.)
The Future of the GOP?
Among her mother’s claims, Nash said, were stories about celebrities, including big Hollywood names, doing “ritual sacrifices” on Epstein’s island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It just sounded ridiculous to me,” Nash said. “I was kind of laughing it off.”
But then her friends started talking about it too. “My friend Ashley Campbell, she was like, ‘No, I actually think this too and here’s why,’” Nash continued. “And she recommended me some books and documentaries to watch, and she also added me to this Facebook group. After I watched that, it was super eye-opening. It was about three hours long, and I liked it because those things sound crazy if you don’t have anything to back it up.”
In late June, she began posting regularly about QAnon and related conspiracy theories on Facebook, sharing viral content from other accounts. I asked if she buys into some of the other conspiracy theories that have merged into the Q world, like anti-vaccine or anti-mask views. Nash said she is not personally against vaccines and has no problem wearing a mask in public if it’s required, but understands the skepticism other QAnon believers may have about the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Like other followers of the movement, she also shares a deep distrust of the media and has been avoiding all mainstream news outlets. “Even Fox News, I don’t really like to watch that much,” she said, adding that she avoids Google and uses the search engine DuckDuckGo instead. “My sister, she is a police officer, she believes in [QAnon],” Nash said. “Not sure about my dad, he’s a police officer as well. For the most part, it’s me and my mom discussing it.”
CAMPBELL, a criminal justice student aiming to go into law enforcement, first got into QAnon a few months ago, learning about the conspiracy theory through a three-hour YouTube video recommended by her brother and dad, who’s a federal employee. An avid Trump supporter, she said she was pretty confident he was headed for reelection until the pandemic hit. But seeing how widely the QAnon and Save the Children movements have spread around Colorado, including recently spotting a “Save the Children banner over a bridge,” has renewed her optimism. “It’s giving me a little bit of hope that our president in the coming term could be on our side.”
“As a Trump supporter, I kinda feel like I’m alone most of the time in my beliefs,” Campbell said. “But this one I feel like I’m part of the majority because everyone is kind of thinking the same thing.”
But QAnon isn’t just a set of beliefs. The movement draws adherents into an alternate reality, which, at its core, is calling for the mass arrests and execution of the president’s political enemies. And because followers inherently distrust traditional media and most forms of authority, it becomes difficult to deradicalize them.
“As a Trump supporter, I kinda feel like I’m alone most of the time in my beliefs. But this one I feel like I’m part of the majority because everyone is kind of thinking the same thing.”
Notably, a Parker woman was arrested last December in Montana and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, as she was allegedly planning an armed raid to kidnap her child from foster care with help from QAnon. The woman, Cynthia Abcug, lost custody of her son, and, according to an arrest affidavit, her daughter told the police that Abcug had “gotten into some conspiracy theories and she was ‘spiraling down it.’” I asked Campbell whether she had any concerns about QAnon-inspired violence or believers getting in too deep and acting on it. For a very brief moment, I felt like there was a small breakthrough.
“To be honest — this is going to sound kind of dumb of me — but I had never really even thought about the possibility of people taking it into their own hands,” she replied. “I guess I do now, because I had never really thought about it before, but yeah it is scary. It is really scary, and I’m sure it won’t be the end of it getting to people’s heads because how do you really stop it at that point? Once you realize, oh shit, this actually is so real.”
AUSTIN PRIESTER STILL lives in Parker, working at a coffee shop at the heart of Old Town Parker and teaching theater classes nearby. He doesn’t affiliate with either political party, but does consider himself “a big environmentalist, so things that have to do with the environment and regulations, I tend to care about more.”
“I work at a coffee shop, so I just overhear people talking a lot,” Priester said. “Certain members of my extended family had mentioned it to me in the past, and then I kept hearing — I mean, just in passing on the street, in the coffee shop, at restaurants, at bars, I’d just hear people talking about Q. I thought, what is this thing?”
He got into the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which first circulated before the 2016 election, before it began receiving mainstream attention. Unlike Campbell, Priester didn’t seem troubled by Abcug’s case or the possibility of violence, believing that QAnon primarily attracts the nature-loving hippie types. “From what I’ve seen from the QAnon movement, I’ve only ever seen love and light talked about and emanated from that,” he said.
“I’ve never met a violent, or someone who knows about Q and is an inherently violent, individual,” he continued. “But I’ve met a lot of people who are into Q who are very hippie-dippy types, very open love and, you know, wanting to save the world through peace and unity. Again, I’m aware that there’s a few kind of religious, cultish kind of groups that claim to be Q followers or whatever — and that, as well, I roll my eyes at, because it’s like, you’re doing it wrong. That’s not what the movement is.”
ANOTHER WAY IN which QAnon’s influence has spread — even across ideological lines — is through viral videos on TikTok, a popular short-form video platform. The app is awash with conspiracy theories about missing children and the “pedophile elites,” the type of content that can grab the attention of even avowed liberals.
One of my closest friends, Taylor Metzner, a 25-year-old mom and brand strategist living in a suburban community in Los Angeles County, is one such example. We met in Parker during my senior year and had bonded over our shared high school obsession with Barack Obama. After college, we drifted apart, but recently reconnected and picked up where we left off. I had grown out of my adolescent fondness for the former president, largely out of ideological differences and a journalistic conviction to challenge power, while she grew out of her affinity because she became convinced of his participation in satanic rituals with other Democratic Party figures.
Metzner has had left-of-center politics since I first met her and is particularly vocal in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She cares deeply about a range of progressive issues and generally aligns with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. In recent months, she’s also gotten into spirituality, meditation, and the like, which, combined with her bell-bottoms and lifelong love of Stevie Nicks, makes her the kind of hippie Priester was talking about.
Pizzagate’s revival on TikTok — and its transformation into a theory that focused on celebrities, rather than political figures — accelerated QAnon’s reach among younger generations, especially teenagers.
“TikTok’s algorithm is insane,” Metzner told me. “So I started seeing it and I just went down the rabbit hole. Now I see it all the time because I literally spent a week, like a manic episode, just going through the internet and finding all these videos and documents and flight logs, you know, watching survivors’ videos.”
In earlier stages of QAnon, boomers seemed particularly susceptible to the conspiracy theory’s claims, more likely to share and engage with its online content. But Pizzagate’s revival on TikTok — and its transformation into a theory that focused on celebrities like Justin Bieber and Chrissy Teigen, rather than political figures — accelerated QAnon’s reach among younger generations, especially teenagers.
Metzner’s “For You” page usually consists of “a lot of nature stuff and pretty videos,” but then “it’ll pop in a video of Save the Children stuff.” She’s genuinely terrified about child trafficking and worries for her 3-year-old daughter’s safety every day.
These movements, which insist on the ubiquity of child sex trafficking, are using tactics that were perfected by the mainstream, bipartisan anti-trafficking movement. QAnon and Save the Children have thrived, in large part, because a less ridiculous version has long been a force in political orthodoxy. As Melissa Gira Grant has argued in the New Republic, decades of exaggerated anti-trafficking rhetoric and sex trafficking “awareness” campaigns helped drive our current panic. “Anti-child sex trafficking memes were already popular on Facebook and Instagram,” she wrote. “Among them now are a mix of both overt and more subtle mentions of QAnon.”
Common claims and statistics about human trafficking that go viral online are often exaggerated, misinterpreted, or taken out of context. The claim that 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children, for example, is based on a 2017 report from the International Labour Organization, which was done in collaboration with other groups. But ILO’s figures are more complicated than can be conveyed in a short tweet; the organization factored in a wide set of legal concepts, including forced marriage and forced labor, which is a much more prevalent form of trafficking and exploitation than say, getting kidnapped in the suburbs. As a recent HuffPost article noted, the problem of child exploitation “persists for complicated, heartbreaking reasons that have more to do with the failure of America’s social safety net than the rapaciousness of its criminal sex offenders.”
Though Metzner didn’t use the word QAnon or seem as diehard as many of the other believers I spoke with, she said she’s “heartbroken” by the “horrifying rumors” surrounding the Clintons and Obama, a politician she once admired.
When it came to the Epstein stuff, I couldn’t argue with some of the broader disdain I heard for a system and ruling class that let the late millionaire financier off the hook. But these occasional kernels of truth were always intertwined with the indefensible. Using bits of truth to support a bigger, baseless conspiracy theory, Holt noted, “is a practice as old as time.”
“That is a key way of keeping a conspiracy theory going and interesting, sort of evolving the conspiracy theory,” he said. “Then, it also acts as a vector to open up potentially another entry point for new believers to come into the movement.”