Jonathan Haskin, University of Pennsylvania
In the months leading up to the November 8th election, an increasingly alarmed group of pundits and journalists who had been critical of Donald Trump came public with messages and tweets sent to them by Trump supporters. No matter their individual backgrounds, each recipient found the demographic group they were part of used as fodder for their harassment. Ethnic minorities were called slurs. Women were demeaned. White conservatives who were considered insufficiently eager to embrace Trump were referred to as “cucks”, a far-right neologism with racist implications and origins in pornography. Perhaps the group most surprised were American Jews, many of whom faced a barrage of anti-Semitic messages laced with Nazi imagery and allusions to a new final solution, shattering illusions of the United States being uniquely free of anti-Semitism.
The notion of the Internet as a platform for hateful anonymous commentary surprised few. But the apparent coordination of these messages- by users referencing the same visual memes, using the same iconography, and versed in the same extremist lingo- left many puzzling over how America’s messy far-right fringe had become so organized. The easy answer, which is at least partly true, is that the overtly xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Trump’s campaign had emboldened extremists into thinking they had been re-accepted into the political mainstream. Hillary Clinton herself took this position in a speech denouncing Trump’s appointment of Breitbart News chair Stephen Bannon to the position of campaign manager, given Bannon’s open boasts of Breitbart popularity with the “Alt-Right”, the extremist movement’s preferred name for itself. But the unfortunate reality is that while Trump may have given confidence to Internet extremists, their radicalization predates his campaign and will likely outlast his presidency.
At the center of this radicalization is a source that might surprise those not familiar with the structure of Internet discourse- the popular, intensely nerdy imageboard called 4chan. Founded in 2003 by a 15-year-old student named Christopher Poole (who is frequently referred to by his chat handle “moot”), 4chan was designed as an English language copy of the popular Japanese imageboard Futuba Chan (2chan). In Japan, imageboards are meeting places for the subcultural group known as Otakus, or obsessive fans of animation, manga, and comics. As opposed to mere text-based chatrooms, imageboards are intensely visual, allowing users to submit large images and GIFs to each other to communicate, and have done so long before the feature was available for mainstream communication services like Facebook chat. In the early 2000s, when Internet communities were a fraction of what they are today, boards like 2chan attracted a small but highly dedicated base of users whose occasionally obscure interests and emphasis on visual conversation led to conversations that were tightly specialized for a small number of hobbyists, and often indecipherable for outsiders.
4chan was different. While ostensibly nothing more than an English language clone of 2chan (with source code processed from Japanese to English via Babel Fish, the Altavista owned predecessor to Google Translate), 4chan added several features that would deeply change internet communication. First, 4chan offered fully anonymous, encrypted posting. While most forums require users to register a screenname, which is traceable and not truly anonymous, 4chan used an encryption algorithm that allowed all posts to be made essentially impossible to trace, and therefore, almost always without real world consequences for the poster. This feature led a user culture that is famously aggressive, transgressive, and at times gleefully eager to offend normal sensibilities. Secondly, 4chan moved beyond the typical conversations for which imageboards are generally usd. While most conversations on 4chan boards still consisted largely of traditional nerdy topics like anime or video games, as well as more niche boards, such as those that discuss obscure types of pornography, 4chan also hosts /b/, it’s “random” board, which has no curation guidelines whatsoever. For an approximately six year run from 2004 to 2010, /b/ became a legendary birthplace of Internet ephemera. Known for its fast paced, crass, and absurdist discussions, /b/ created an enormous number of memes and viral phenomena that often seemed inexplicable to those not familiar with 4chan or the nature of imageboard communication. Lolcats, the classic meme where pictures of cats were interspersed with grammatically incorrect text, traces its origins to /b/. Rickrolling, the worldwide meme where users click on links that unexpectedly take them to the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, originates from a single 4chan post.
From that point forward, 4chan began to develop a strange kind of mystique among dedicated Internet users. For teenagers excited to explore the Internet’s strange corners, the deeply surreal nature of image based communication combined with the site’s uncanny ability to have its homegrown communication trends spread to the world at large made it seem like a kind of nerdy vanguard.
It was also considered dangerous. While the clear majority of 4chan users never come across illegal or compromising content there, 4chan’s encrypted posting system also occasionally led to illegal activity, such as posts containing child pornography. More attractive to the average teenager, however, was the small community of hackers who sometimes organized through 4chan communication, including Anonymous, whose ethos of completely free and nameless communication is in many ways a more idealistic version of the general ethos of 4chan. For some, to be on 4chan was to be plugged in most directly to the Internet’s future, and to its freakishness. It should be noted that this view was somewhat artificial. Most 4chan posts indicate that it’s user base is overwhelmingly white and male. In more recent years, as alternative communication platforms popular with other demographic groups have appeared, like the heavily female user base of the blogging site Tumblr, 4chan’s comparative influence has declined.
4chan’s demographic issues were also reinforced by its lack of communication guidelines, leading discussions there to be infamously filled with casual slurs and demeaning language. However, this problem became most blatant on the site’s political discussion board, /pol/. While political discussions had sometimes found their way to 4chan previously, /pol/ allocated a section for politics alone. /pol/, whose users were protected by 4chan’s characteristic anonymity, quickly became a breeding ground for Neo-Nazis and other far right groups to communicate free of consequence. Where the story become hard to pin down is where and when the Nazis became so influential. While many entered /pol/ with some prejudice, even some extreme views, for the most part, most of /pol/’s user base could not be considered radical before they became frequent users. Many anonymous posts on /pol/ suggest that most began to frequent the board of out morbid curiosity, or simply incredulity, at the extreme viewpoints that were frequently expressed there. Similarly, it’s difficult to sketch an accurate picture of exactly who these Neo-Nazis were and continue to be. While some of professed right wing extremists with ties to known Neo-Nazi organizations, many users claim to be normal people (or “normies”, as their frequently referred to) who took on Nazi personas in private.
Whatever their backgrounds, users of /pol/ began to radicalize each other into the far right, relishing in using imageboard communication to display Nazi and nationalist aesthetics. At some point, /pol/’s reputation grew to the point where these images leaked onto other websites and became calling cards of the far right more generally. Some images transformed semiotically into hate images not by their inherent hatefulness, but rather because of their association with /pol/’s Nazi user base. For instance, many harassed journalists noted that Twitter accounts who sent them hateful messages with pictures of Japanese anime characters, a holdover of 4chan’s days as a forum largely for anime discussion. Another, the popular “Pepe the Frog” meme, was simply popular across the Internet, but saw enough repeated use by Nazi 4chan users and Internet harassers that it gained an anti-Semitic connotation, leading the Anti-Defamation League to add it to their list of hate symbols.
The defining moment for 4chan’s far right, at which point it began to transform into what is now identified as the Alt-Right, came during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. While many /pol/ users had previously supported populist anti-immigrant movements across Europe, Trump energized /pol/’s largely American user base by striking them as a domestic opportunity for their views to go mainstream. Trump’s campaign tactics, with which he frequently belittled and insulted his adversaries while refusing to apologize, made him a perfect avatar for a famously aggressive and trollish discussion board. But the crowning piece of connection between Trump and /pol/’s user base became Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” baseball hat. An image template that could easily be repurposed into memes and signal that any Twitter avatar was reactionary, the baseball hat connected the marketing success of Trump’s campaign to his most extreme supporters, who often used 4chan’s image based discussions to lure the potentially curious into engaging with their world view. While Trump didn’t introduce far right politics to 4chan, the crossover appeal of his campaign between the traditional far right and the new and curious turned /pol/ from being a mere discussion board with its own unique quirks into being a central node in the greater architecture of what is now referred to as Alt-Right.
4chan now has an established enough reputation that it has its own clones, like the nearly exact copy 8chan, which promises even fewer speech restrictions, or certain far right accounts on Twitter and Reddit who post content that is almost indistinguishable from those found in /pol/ discussions. The site still maintains a solid base of non-extremist users who use its hobbyist boards, as well as an air of danger around it that continues to attract new and curious users. But in an era in which far right politics are no longer an Internet side show, 4chan’s legacy as a radicalizing agent and as a space for extremist propaganda to leak to a wider audience will continue to reverberate through American political life cannot be ignored by anyone who has a serious interesting in understanding the rise of Donald Trump.