The Darkest Recesses of the First Amendment: How Chan Sites Came to Allow, Encourage, and Then Police the Worlds of Hate
Back in October 2013, a wheelchair-dependent 19-year-old with a rare bone condition that had stunted his growth and destroyed all semblance of a childhood did magic mushrooms with some friends and conceived the idea of 8chan. That man is Frederick Brennan, and now 24, married, and living in the Philippines, Brennan deeply regrets building the unmoderated version of 4chan — a similarly structured forum site where he'd spent the majority of his teen years.
"Shut the site down,” Brennan said in an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, after it became clear that 8chan had had a role in a third mass shooting in less than six months. “It’s not doing the world any good. It’s a complete negative to everybody except the users that are there. And you know what? It’s a negative to them, too. They just don’t realize it."
4chan was born out of the early internet, when much of online socializing occurred in text-based chat rooms and on message boards, often with moderators who policed unwanted or threatening behavior. Inspired by Japanese massage boards like Futaba Channel (nicknamed 2chan), 4chan founder Chris Poole built the site in his New York City bedroom when he was a 15-year-old anime and video game fanatic. Its tenets were simple: it had five topic areas, the first being Japanese culture, and users could post anonymously.
Brennan's deeply lonely teen years, living in foster care and forming a worldview that centered on rage about being alive, is emblematic of the kinds of isolation, deep-seeded anger, and warped egocentrism that proliferates on sites like 4chan, 8chan, and elsewhere. He said in a June interview with Tortoise Media that he practically lived on 4chan boards (/b/, /n/. and later /pol/) from the age of 12, when he discovered them through a community of gamers, via a single game that he played for hours every day. Over time, he developed an online persona obsessed with the subject of eugenics. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as "brittle bone disease," Brennan estimates that he had broken bones about 120 times by the time he was 19. And during his teen years, he formed a manifesto of his own that had to do with prohibiting "genetically defective" people from reproducing. Brennan did not share the sort of nationalist or white-supremacist views of many of the men (and the site is, by all accounts, predominantly male) on 4chan, but he did share their anger at the larger world, and an ideology that embraced genocide as some kind of solution for the world's ills. He argued "for a world full of healthy, happy children who can play outside with their friends without breaking their legs."
The move from 4chan to a more free-wheeling forum site of his own came after Brennan says he felt personally wronged by 4chan owner Poole. Around 2011, Poole started deleting some message boards as a form of content policing, deleting a couple of the boards where Brennan says he had found a home and some sense of community. Brennan responded, after that mushroom trip, by building 8chan and launching it in October 2013 — he says primarily as a kind of notch in his coding portfolio to show off to prospective employers. By way of promoting it, Brennan seized on a widely publicized issue that involved 4chan users as well as Twitter: Gamergate.
In August 2014, the infamous, incredibly abstruse online controversy erupted with the initial targets being a pair of female video game developers, Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, along with feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. Long story short, what began with some accusations by Quinn's ex-boyfriend about some unethical relationship between her and a gaming journalist erupted into a bizarre, complex web of fights and aggressive online behavior under the hashtag #gamergate — largely focused on the intersection of progressive politics, feminism, and the impacts of liberal thought on old-fashioned male fun (and video games). Both Reddit — which was built with a similar format to 4chan in 2005 though with more active moderation — and 4chan found themselves at the center of the online uproar, with accusations of doxing and claims of harassment as its primary problems. The revolt around censorship and moderation at Reddit led directly to the resignation of then CEO Ellen Pao, and at 4chan it led to Poole tightening the reins further — Poole had deleted the site's news board /new/ two years earlier, among others, because of the proliferation of racism there. But the storm had already consumed the site in an era in which the alt-right decried all content moderation as censorship of their First Amendment rights.
Responding to the subsequent anger from 4chan users, Brennan put out the call to accept any and all 4chan refugees on 8chan. "I’m not like Chris Poole. I’m happy to have you," Brennan said in a live stream, and within weeks 8chan was flooded with new users. Brennan celebrated with friends and supporters at a party at a strip club in Queens in October 2014, but the fun and elation was short-lived. Brennan moved to the Philippines the day after that party, and quickly sold 8chan to a U.S. military vet and neighbor whom he met there, Jim Watkins, who owns the site to this day.
Watkins owned a couple of porn sites as well as the precursor to 4chan, the Japanese site 2channel, so it seemed like a natural fit. And Brennan couldn't afford the server costs and maintenance that 8chan now required, in its new incarnation as a haven for extremist rhetoric and unmoderated "free speech."
Watkins has spoken very little about his motivations for keeping 8chan going, although in a 2017 interview, following the election of Donald Trump but prior to the events in Charlottesville in which these chan sites would again make headlines, he said of 8chan, "it doesn’t make money, but it’s a lot of fun."
Both the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter and the Poway, California synagogue shooter posted warnings of their massacre plans on 8chan, and the Tree of Life synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh has been lauded by many an 8chan user. The anonymous posters on the platform joke about these shootings, exchange anti-Semitic and white-supremacist literature, and refer to death tolls as "high scores."
"I’ve tried to understand so many times why he keeps it going, and I just don’t get it,” says Brennan to the New York Times, regarding Watkins. “After Christchurch, after the Tree of Life shooting, and now after this shooting, they think this is all really funny."
But the rise of these message boards and the communities that delight in them is indicative of far larger problems in our society. As the CEO of the company that de-platformed 8chan on Sunday, Cloudflare, said in a blog post, "While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online. It does nothing to address why mass shootings occur. It does nothing to address why portions of the population feel so disenchanted they turn to hate. In taking this action we've solved our own problem, but we haven't solved the Internet's."
As Tortoise wrote in June, the ethos of places like 8chan is one that is embraced in much of America right now. Animus for liberal politics and political correctness has given rise to the reactionary corners where "taking offense is for outsiders." And the issues are far deeper than any simple de-platforming or government regulation are going to solve.
"There is no fundamentalist preacher for the ideology of chan sites," Tortoise explains. "It’s mostly lonely people who find themselves in a febrile information ecosystem without precedent in human history. Chan sites like 8chan are something entirely new: organic communities of anonymous participants that have started to behave almost like a new consciousness, separate and more powerful and dangerous than the sum of its parts."