Soldiers of 4chan: How the online forum changed the internet forever

Since its creation in 2003, online forum 4chan has been a place where free speech and anonymity reign. Jamie Milton looks at how a community that mostly discusses anime, video games and photography became a dark political force, adopted by the alt-right and the Trump family

Created in 2003 by 15-year-old New Yorker Christopher Poole – described by Rolling Stone as a “Mark Zuckerberg of the online underground” – 4chan’s aim was to create a community where conversations could grow wildly in seconds. With voluntary moderators (‘janitors’) monitoring an initial six boards, nobody had usernames and topics were discussed by anonymous (‘Anon’) users. It became somewhere to say anything without fear of punishment, and quickly skewed towards dark humour – the /new/ (News) board was deleted in 2001 after it became a hub for racist discussions. Some censorship took place but, generally, what might be controversial in real life wouldn’t just get a free pass on 4chan – it would be actively encouraged. Sometimes the consequences of this were good. Sometimes they were very, very bad…

It birthed a cultural phenomena

4chan’s unique design was based on Japanese imageboards, and it started as a place to discuss anime and manga. Early links with Japanese culture saw the forum’s predominantly male users adopting the descriptor “hikikomori”, which refers to young guys who spend so much time online they back out of real life. It was a term they embraced: in 2008, as an anti-Scientology protest in Brooklyn organised by 4chan came to an end, protesters shouted, “Now back to our parents’ basements!” Countless cultural phenomena formed on 4chan (see box). Although its roots are hard to decipher, hacking network Anonymous – responsible for cyber-activity like the one in 2015, where it took down Isis-related Twitter accounts following the Paris attacks – is believed to have started here.

Free speech is king

As 4chan’s user base multiplied by the millions – going from seven million in 2010 to 22 million in 2012 – its own code of conduct became more established. Just as Twitter became the place for social justice, where MPs could be fired over an offensive tweet, 4chan was the opposite, and anyone who didn’t see the internet as an open space for free speech was vilified. Users posted swastikas and graphic pornography, just to make a point. Cole Stryker, author of 2011 book Epic Win For Anonymous, which examines the history of 4chan, tells NME that users want “a free marketplace of ideas, even if those ideas include views that most of us would consider abhorrent.”

The alt-right have embraced it

4chan’s free speech crusade hit a turning point in 2014’s Gamergate controversy, where a female game developer was harassed for promoting gender equality within video games. Figures such as the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, recently shamed for claiming 13-year-old boys could have consensual relationship with adults, were 4chan frequenters. They began to see it as a righteous, opposing force to feminism and social justice.

Its Pepe The Frog cartoon became a hate symbol

Designed in 2005 by cartoonist Matt Furie, Pepe – a leering frog urinating with his pants pulled down, speaking the catchphrase “feels good man” – became one of 4chan’s most shared memes, embodying for 4chan users someone who made bad life choices without fear of the consequences. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Pepe was adopted as a symbol of white supremacy, being used to represent anyone that shunned political correctness and felt good about it. Creator Furie isn’t pleased. “It sucks, but I can’t control it more than anyone can control frogs on the internet,” he told Esquire.

It views Trump as a champion of ‘Loserdom’

Pepe the Frog is a gross, slimy symbol of pathetic ‘loserdom’ and self-interest, and in Donald Trump he found a friend for life. “Trump takes what he wants, he says what he thinks, and he shrugs off anyone who tries to criticise his behaviour because he’s convinced of his rightness, which is exactly how Trump’s followers wish to live,” says Stryker. In October 2015, Trump retweeted a Pepe representation of himself. And in September 2016, Donald Trump’s son Don Jr. shared a Pepe meme, Photoshopping him onto a poster for Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables renamed The Deplorables. That same month, US organisation Anti-Defamation League ruled Pepe the Frog to be a hate symbol. Instead of dodging a symbol of white supremacy, the Trump campaign chose to embrace it. And after Trump’s victory in November 2016, one 4channer declared: “We actually elected a meme as president.

It’s seen a phase of Post-Trump activism

Without bunching together all 4chan users – for most, it remains a place to discuss anime, video games and photography – one of its boards has gone power-hungry. In the wake of Trump’s victory, /pol/ (‘Politically Incorrect’) board users set up a ‘virtual community watch’ on the US-Mexico border, streaming webcam feeds of the area and anonymously reporting suspicious activity to border sheriffs, in the hope of curbing immigration.

The future is uncertain

4chan’s continued popularity could prove its downfall. In November 2016, owner Hiroyuki Nishimura (who purchased the site after Poole retired in 2015) claimed he could no longer afford server costs to host so many users. He wrote: “We had tried to keep 4chan as is. But I failed. I am sincerely sorry.” Amazingly, long-time lurker and full-time troll Martin Shkreli – who vastly inflated the price of the HIV drug Daraprim as Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO – expressed interest in “joining the Board of Directors”. Shkreli is yet to make an offer and, at present, forum rules remain the same; users can post anything. But even the most hated man in America can’t guarantee 4chan’s financial stability.