Dissecting the de-evolution of 4chan and the rise of the alt-right
“This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley,” wrote Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in their 1995 paper “The Californian Idealogy.”
The “new faith” was a strange hybrid of Reaganomics and New Left idealism, which would produce a no-holds-barred and democratized internet.
It was within this spirit that an introverted teenager translated an obscure Japanese message board into English to create 4chan and radically alter the way the internet functioned, and eventually become the fertile soil in which the alt-right seed would germinate.
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And while the “alt-right” are really neo-Nazis repackaged for popular consumption, the repackaging has been successful. As was the case in 1995, when Newt Gingrich rode into Congress on a tide of right-wing populism, so too has the alt-right ridden into popular culture on the back of Donald Trump and a wave of anti-political correctness.
In late 2015, many tech culture writers, bloggers and other collectors of cyber curios began writing about the alt-right as a phenomenon. At the time, it only existed online. That didn’t last for long.
By last summer, Hillary Clinton mentioned the movement by name in a campaign speech, when the anarcho-capitalists, neo-Nazis and men’s rights activists who had treaded water at 4chan were first attempting to swim into the mainstream.
Now they’ve moved into the streets, marching lockstep with Trump supporters.
Way back in 2004, I first visited 4chan out of curiosity. In the past 15 years since, I’ve watched as it has grown into one of the largest, most influential sites in tech culture.
In order to understand how all this happened, it is necessary to understand the evolution of 4chan itself.
4chan started off innocently enough. It’s founder, Chris Poole, was a 15-year-old anime fan and started the site simply as a way for others like him to communicate. Pool would create in excess of 60 subsections on 4chan. Topics ranged from animals to “worksafe gifs.” Initially, the board was tame and had a modest community of like-minded adolescent boys, said Dale Beran in a recent article about the site.
“They were obsessed with Japanese culture and, naturally enough, there was already a term for people like them in Japan, hikikomori — meaning ‘pulling inward, or being confined’ — teens and adults who withdrew from society into fantasy worlds constructed by anime, video games, and now the internet,” Beran said.
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Poole resigned his stewardship of 4chan for a more lucrative job at Google in January last year. By then, the imageboard had taken on a life of its own. 4chan was receiving 20 million unique hits a month, spawned the internationally infamous hacker collective Anonymous, and vaulted Poole to the height of “Most Influential Person of the Year” in a 2009 Time Magazine poll.
The anonymity of the site drew in a crowd. 4chan provided its users a cloak of invisibility while sites like Facebook encouraged users to share details about themselves. Indeed, Anonymous takes its name from the default user ID provided every person who posts at 4chan.
“There are very few places where you can go now and maintain complete anonymity,” Poole said in a 2009 TED talk.
This is why when I first clicked into 4chan in 2004 – at the time still a little-known internet community to which most web denizens were oblivious – I encountered images on subforum /b/ (the notorious “random” section) that sent me scurrying for the back button on my browser.
Only a year old, the site was awash in the kind of vulgarity most wish they never knew existed.
Part of 4chan’s ethos is flaunting societal norms and mores. Indeed, the board’s users, colloquially referred to as anons, refer to those not in their “in-group” derisively as “normies,” but tend to revel in their own underdog status. They call themselves NEETs, an acronym meaning Not in Education, Employment, or Training — an odd celebration of their own “epic fail.”
Back then, 4chan was mainly populated by teenage boys who took glee in political incorrectness. Because of the lax rules, and because the site’s anonymity, it eventually became a haven for what would later become the alt-right.
Part of the problem with trying to link the alt-right directly to 4chan is in the way the site functions. Popular message threads vanish in a matter of hours and there are no archives.
The relationship can, however, be seen in the way anons and alt-righters communicate.
Many of the alt-right’s cryptic language and symbols were created on 4chan for example, cuck, short for cuckold and a favorite insult among alt-righters, originated there alongside the Pepe meme. The helicopter, a symbol for helicopter rides and a reference to Pinochet’s habit of having political enemies dropped from helicopters, originated there also. The “OK” hand gesture is another variant, mimicking a common gesture in Pepe memes.
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Anthime Gionet, Twitter handle @BakedAlaska, is fond of such memes. Gionet was disinvited from the alt-right inaugural celebration, which he helped plan, by co-organizer Mike Cernovic. Cernovic had decided Gionet’s tweets were too anti-Semitic. The DeploraBall, as the celebration was named, was attended by a number of Silicon Valley luminaries, including Peter Thiel, PayPal chief executive officer. Gionet had more than 150,000 Twitter followers at presstime.
Such visible collaboration between the alt-right and high-level techies is rare. Josh Hartkinson, tech reporter at Mother Jones, believes many of the “alt-techies” are low-level functionaries that work as support technicians and similar jobs, leaving them a lot of downtime during the day, Hartkinson said.
“It’s broadly geek culture,” Hartkinson said.
Critics say this embracement of race-related meme culture illustrates the modern evolution of the white supremacist movement, which had been forced to change its public persona due to public pushback.
“They’ve had to rebrand themselves to communicate effectively and recruit,” Camacho said.
Another example linking the alt-right to 4chan is Milo Yiannopoulos. He was, in many ways, the archetype of the average Anon. He’s young, male, tech savvy and his hostility toward feminism mirrors that of the anons’ spirit animal — the “forever alone” meme.
Both 4channers and alt-righters often refer to “red pill” and “blue pill” people – a reference to The Matrix. Red-pill people, alt-righters and 4channers, are all said to have been awakened to reality. Blue-pill people are generally anyone who disagrees with them. And Yiannopoulos, with his twitter handle @neo, is positioned right in the center of it as the chosen one.
Because of the site’s enforced anonymity, it is unclear whether Yiannopoulos still posts on 4chan.
Unravelling the culture at 4chan can be a difficult proposition. Memes and jibes are served up as platters of irony, topped with irony sauce with a side of mixed-green irony.
“No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was ‘for the lulz’ (lols),” wrote Beran in his article for Medium.
Melissa Camacho, an associate professor of media theory and criticism at SF State, doesn’t buy that argument. She says this sort of behavior has a way of affecting political discourse.
“You may not mean it, but by vocalizing it, you are normalizing it,” Camacho said.
Recent schisms within the alt-right movement have made it difficult to determine which groups are or are not part of it. What is clear is that, in many ways, the recently emerged Proud Boys tend to behave as though they are, and the real-world implications are often street violence.
A melee in Berkeley between Donald Trump supporters and members of various leftist factions left several injured and led to at least 10 arrests, but Proud Boys, who were featured heavily in leaflets advertising the “March 4 Trump” event remain something of an enigma.
Since the scrum in Berkeley last month, Rich Black, a self-proclaimed libertarian activist, whose Twitter page contains a banner evocative of Ayn Rand’s hyper-capitalist novel “Atlas Shrugged,” has claimed responsibility for organizing the march.
However, a flyer circulated on Twitter by the anarchist counter-information organization Fireworks Bay Area indicated that Proud Boys had been involved since at least mid-February.
The Pepe meme, while not originally considered a symbol of bigotry, was declared a symbol of hate by the Anti-Defamation League last September because of its frequent association with Adolf Hitler and other symbols of racism. Originally designed by cartoonist Matt Furie, the image of Pepe was proliferated by posters in 4chan’s /pol/ board, short for politically incorrect.
Proud Boys found Gavin McInness has directly disputed both the labels of “white supremacist” and “white nationalist,” but Camacho isn’t so sure.
“By making yourself more mainstream, you make it less threatening,” Camacho said.