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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Inside 4chan’s Top-Secret Moderation Machine

According to the cross-section of bans provided to New York, which were issued in the days after the Buffalo mass shooting, 21 bans were imposed for violating US law. Some of those were, as 4chan pointed out to the Attorney General’s Office, for counseling for further terror attacks. The posts encouraged fellow 4chan users to kill politicians, journalists, law enforcement officials, Jewish and Black people, and to target Pride events. 

In practice, however, the majority of calls for violence on 4chan do not result in bans. Users frequently make calls to instigate a race war—a “boogaloo,” in far-right parlance—or make threats against individuals or whole classes of people. Their vitriol is particularly vile when it comes to Black, queer, and Jewish people.

Users counsel each other to “go full ER”—a reference to Elliot Rodger, who, aged 22, murdered six people at his university in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 before dying by suicide. That kind of encouragement has been reflected back to 4chan by those who follow through on acts of violence. When 25-year-old Alek Minassian rammed a van through a crowd  of people in Toronto, Canada, in 2018, killing 11 and injuring 15, some critically, he uploaded a post to Facebook immediately beforehand, making a convoluted reference to “Sgt 4chan” and the “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

Mike Chitwood, the sheriff of Florida’s Volusia County, has gone out of his way to underscore just how prevalent these violent threats are on 4chan. His office has arrested multiple 4chan users for issuing specific threats against the sheriff himself. Users, undeterred and without reprimand from moderators, have responded with posts like: “Kill Sheriff Shitwood.” “Behead Sheriff Shitwood.” “Roundhouse kick Sheriff Shitwood into the concrete.”

One particularly conspiratorial and racist poster, who sported a Nazi flag icon, was more blunt than many of their fellow users about 4chan’s toxic impact: “Hoping some kid reads this.. kinda keeps it in the back of his mind.. then if all things and chances fall in place then those kids may start a boogaloo in the future.”

4chan wasn’t always a hotbed of racial animus and hatred. When its founder, Chris Poole, ran the site, he was locked in a constant effort to keep it from sliding into racist chaos. Right until he quit the site in 2015, Poole actively resisted its emerging political streak. Initially, the imageboard trended towards a progressive libertarianism epitomized by the hacktivist group Anonymous. With time, however, it developed a harder edge.

At one point, 4chan had been organizing raids on the notorious neo-Nazi forum Stormfront. But around 2010, Poole was reckoning with the fact that some of the boards on his website had essentially “become Stormfront,” as Dale Beran writes in It Came From Something Awful.

In 2011, Poole created /pol/ explicitly to contain this growing far-right attitude, hoping it would spread no further. It didn’t work. “Rather, 4chan’s new neo-Nazi section thrived,” Beran writes.

Poole would keep trying, in vain, to stem the growing vitriol. In 2014, the anti-feminist Gamergate movement took hold on 4chan. Poole tried to ban all discussions of Gamergate, but the reactionary ethos of the movement seeped into the website just the same.

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