“Dennis Erasmus” — Containment Breach: 4chan’s /pol/ and the Failed Logic of “Safe Spaces” for Far-Right Ideology

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LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US (2017)
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US (2017). Image source: hewillnotdivide.us

“Dennis Erasmus”

This essay has been peer-reviewed by “The New Extremism” special issue editors (Adrienne Massanari and David Golumbia), and the b2o: An Online Journal editorial board.

Author’s Note: This article was written prior to the events of the deadly far-right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11-12, 2017. Footnotes have been added with updated information where it is possible or necessary, but it has otherwise been largely unchanged.

Introduction

This piece is a discussion of one place on the internet where the far right meets, formulates their propaganda and campaigns, and ultimately reproduces and refines its ideology.

4chan’s Politically Incorrect image board (like other 4chan boards, regularly referred to by the last portion of its URL, “/pol/”) is one of the most popular boards on the highly active and gently-moderated website, as well as a major online hub for far-right politics, memes, and coordinated harassment campaigns. Unlike most of the hobby-oriented boards on 4chan, /pol/ came into its current form through a series of board deletions and restorations with the intent of improving the discourse of the hobby boards by restricting unrelated political discussion, often of a bigoted nature, to a single location on the website. /pol/ is thus often referred to as a “containment board” with the understanding that far-right content is meant to be kept in that single forum.

After deleting the /new/ – News board on January 17, 2011, /pol/ – Politically Incorrect was added to the website on November 10, 2011. 4chan’s original owner (and current Google employee) Christopher Poole (alias “moot”) deleted /new/ for having a disproportionately high proportion of racist discussion. In Poole’s words:

As for /new/, anybody who used it knows exactly why it was removed. When I re-added the board last year, I made a note that if it devolved into /stormfront/, I’d remove it. It did — ages ago. Now it’s gone, as promised.[1]

“/stormfront/” is a reference to Stormfront.org, one of the oldest and largest white supremacist forums on the internet. Stormfront was founded by a former KKK leader and is listed as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017c).

Despite once showing this commitment to maintaining a news board that was not dominated by far-right content, /pol/ nevertheless followed suit and gained a reputation as a haven for white supremacist politics (Dewey 2014).

While there was the intention to keep political discussion contained in /pol/, far-right politics is a frequent theme on the other major discussion boards on the website and has come to be strongly associated with 4chan in general.

The Logic of Containment

The nature of 4chan means that for every new thread created, an old thread “falls off” of the website and is deleted or archived. Because of its high worldwide popularity and the fast pace of discussion, it has sometimes been viewed as necessary to split up boards into specific topics so that the rate of thread creation does not prematurely end productive, on-topic, ongoing conversations.

The most significant example of a topic requiring “containment” is perhaps My Little Pony. The premiere of the 2010 animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic led to a surge of interest in the franchise and a major fan following composed largely of young adult males (covered extensively in the media as “bronies”), 4chan’s key demographic (Whatisabrony.com 2017).

Posters who wished to discuss other cartoons on the /co/ – Comics and Cartoons board were often left feeling crowded out by the intense and rapid pace of the large and excited fanbase that was only interested in discussing ponies. After months of complaints, a new board, /mlp/ – My Little Pony, was opened to accommodate both fans and detractors by giving the franchise a dedicated platform for discussion. For the most part, fans have been happy to stay and discuss the series among one another. There is also a site-wide rule that pony-related discussion must be confined in /mlp/, and while enforcement of the rules of 4chan is notoriously lax, this has mostly been applied (4chan 2017).

A similar approach has been taken for several other popular hobbies; for instance, the creation of /vp/ – Pokémon for all media—be it video games, comics, or television—related to the very popular Japanese franchise.

A common opinion on 4chan is that /pol/ serves as a “containment board” for the neo-Nazi, racist, and other far-right interests of many who use the website (Anonymous /q/ poster 2012). Someone who posts a blatantly political message on the /tv/ – Television and Film board, for instance, may be told “go back to your containment board.” One could argue, as well, that the popular and rarely moderated /b/ – Random board was originally a “containment board” for all of the off-topic discussion that would otherwise have derailed the specific niche or hobby boards.

Moderators as Humans

Jay Irwin, a moderator of 4chan and an advertising technology professional, wrote an article for The Observer.[2] The piece was published April 25, 2017, arguing that unwelcome “liberal agenda” in entertainment was serving to inspire greater conservatism on 4chan’s traditionally apolitical boards. Generalizations about the nature of 4chan’s userbase can be difficult, but Irwin’s status as a moderator means he has the ability to remove certain discussion threads while allowing others to flourish, shaping the discourse and apparent consensus of the website’s users.

Irwin’s writing in The Observer shows a clear personal distaste for what he perceives as a liberal political agenda: in this specific case, Bill Nye’s assertion, backed up by today’s scientific consensus regarding human biology, that gender is a spectrum and not a binary:

The show shuns any scientific approach to these topics, despite selling itself—and Bill Nye—as rigorously reason-based. Rather than providing evidence for the multitude of claims made on the show by Nye and his guests, the series relies on the kind of appeals to emotion one would expect in a gender studies class…The response on /tv/ was swift. The most historically apolitical 4channers are almost unanimously and vehemently opposed to the liberal agenda and lack of science on display in what is billed as a science talk show. Scores of 4chan users who have always avoided and discouraged political conversations have expressed horror at what they see as a significant uptick in the entertainment industry’s attempts to indoctrinate viewers with leftist ideology. (Irwin 2017)

As Irwin believes the users of /tv/ are becoming less tolerant of liberal media, he expects them to also become warmer to far-right ideas and discussions that they once would have dismissed as off-topic and out of place on a television and film discussion board. Whether or not this is true of the /tv/ userbase, his obvious bias in favor of these ideas is able to inform the moderation that is applied when determining just how “off-topic” an anti-liberal thread might be.

On the other end of the spectrum, a 4chan moderator was previously removed from the moderation team after issuing a warning against a user with explicitly political reasoning. In the aftermath of the December 2, 2016 fatal fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse, an artist’s space and venue in Oakland, California that killed thirty-six people, users of /pol/ attempted to organize a campaign to shut down DIY (“Do-it-yourself”) spaces across the United States by reporting noncompliance with fire codes to local authorities, in order to “crush the radical left” (KnowYourMeme 2017). As another moderator confirmed in a thread on /qa/, the board designed for discussions about 4chan, the fired moderator clearly stated their belief that the campaign to shut down DIY spaces is an attack on marginalized communities by neo-Nazis. (Anonymous##Mod 2016).

The anti-DIY campaign is a clear example of the kind of “brigading”—use of /pol/ as an organizational and propaganda hub for right-wing political activities on other sites or in real life—that regularly occurs on the mostly-anonymous imageboard. The fired moderator’s error was not having an political agenda—as Irwin’s writing in The Observer demonstrates, he has an agenda of his own—but expressing it directly. They could have done as Irwin has the capacity to do, selectively deleting threads not to their liking with no justification required, so as to continue to maintain a facade of neutrality that is so important for the financially struggling site’s brand.

He Will Not Divide Us

Another such example of brigading activities would be the harassment surrounding the art project “He Will Not Divide Us” (HWNDU) by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö & Luke Turner. Launched during the inauguration of President Trump on January 20, 2017, the project was to broadcast a 24-hour live stream for four years from outside of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. LaBeouf was frequently at the location leading crowds in relatively inoffensive chants: “he will not divide us,” and the like.

LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US (2017)
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US (2017). Image source: Nylon

Within a day, threads calling for raids against the exhibit on /pol/ were amassing hundreds of replies, with suggestions ranging from leaving booby-trapped racist posters taped on top of razor blades so as to cut people who tried to remove them, to simply sending in “the right wing death squads” (Anonymous /pol/ poster 2017). Notably, in part because it was noted by the /pol/ brigaders, two of the three HWNDU artists, LaBeouf and Turner, are Jewish.

Raid participants who coordinated on /pol/ and other far-right websites flashed white nationalist paraphernalia, neo-Nazi tattoos, and within five days of opening, directly told LaBeouf “Hitler did nothing wrong” while he was present at the exhibit (Horton 2017). LaBeouf was later arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault against one of the people who went to his art exhibit with the intent of disrupting it, though the charges were later dismissed (France 2017).

On February 10, less than a month into the intended four-year run of the project, the Museum of the Moving Image released a statement declaring its intent to shut down HWNDU, perhaps at the urging of the NYPD, which had to dedicate resources to monitoring the space after regular clashes:

The installation created a serious and ongoing public safety hazard for the museum, its visitors, its staff, local residents and businesses. The installation had become a flashpoint for violence and was disrupted from its original intent. While the installation began constructively, it deteriorated markedly after one of the artists was arrested at the site of the installation and ultimately necessitated this action. (Saad 2017)

High-profile liberal advocates of free speech causes did not draw attention to the implications of a Jewish artist’s exhibit being cancelled due to constant harassment by neo-Nazis and other far-right elements. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, one of the most high-profile liberal opponents of “politically correct” suppression of speech, spent his time policing the limits of discourse by criticizing anti-fascist political activists (Chait 2017). The American Civil Liberties Union spent its energy defending former right-wing celebrity and noted pederasty advocate Milo Yiannopoulos against his critics (NPR 2017).

Containment Failure

Among those who sincerely believed themselves to be politically neutral or at least not far-right, 4chan’s leadership was mistaken to view far-right politics as simply another hobby, rather than the basis of an ideology.

Ideology is not easily compartmentalized. Unlike a hobby, an ideology has the power to follow its adherents into all areas of their lives. Whether that ideology is cultivated in a “safe space” that is digital or physical, it is nonetheless brought with its possessor out into the world.

Attempting to contain far-right ideology in physical and virtual spaces provides its followers with one of the essential requirements it needs to thrive and contribute to society’s reactionary movements.

By way of comparison, the users of /mlp/ or other successful containment boards do not use their discussion space to organize raids and targeted harassment campaigns because, basically, hobbies do not traditionally have antagonists (with Gamergate being a notable exception). Adherents to far-right ideology, on the other hand, see liberal protesters, Hollywood activists, “cultural Marxists,” “globalist Jews,” white people comfortable with interracial marriages, black and brown people of all persuasions, and anti-fascist street fighters to be in direct opposition to their interests. When gathered with like-minded people, they will discuss the urgency of combating these forces and, if possible, encourage one another to act against these enemies.

It seems obvious that a board which has been documented organizing campaigns to harass a Jewish artist until his art exhibit is shut down, or to attempt to force the closure of spaces they believe belong to the “far left,” is anything but contained.

If anything, the DIY venue example shows exactly how the average /pol/ user views designated ideological spaces: leftists will use those venues to organize, they assert, and if we take that away, we can decrease their capacity. If a DIY venue meant the leftists would be contained, then it would be advantageous for them to remain and let leftists keep talking among themselves. Rather, the far-right /pol/ userbase demonstrates through their actions that they believe leftists use their political spaces in the same way as they do, as a base for launching attacks against their enemies.

Countdown: What Comes Next

The political right in the United States remains divided in tactics, aesthetics, and capacity.

Footage surfaced of a June 10, 2017 rally in Houston, Texas, of an alt-right activist being choked by an Oath Keeper—a member of a right-wing paramilitary organization—following a disagreement (Kragie and Lewis 2017). The alt-right activist is clearly signaling his affiliation with the internet-fueled right one might find in or inspired by /pol/, displaying posters that represent several recognizable 4chan memes (Pepe, Wojak/”feels guy”, Baneposting), in addition to neo-Nazi imagery (a stylized SS in the words “The Fire Rises,” an American flag modified to contain the Nazi-associated Black Sun or Sonnenrad). Which element of his approach provoked the ire of the Oathkeepers—identified by the SPLC as one of the largest anti-government organizations in the country—is not clear (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017b). The differences between the far-right inspired by 4chan and the paramilitary far-right mostly derived from ex-military and ex-police may be mostly aesthetic, but these differences nonetheless matter.[3]

None of this is to discount the threat to life posed by the young and awkward meme-spouting members of the far-right. Brandon Russell, aged 21, was found in possession of bomb-making materials including explosive chemicals and radioactive materials, and arrested by authorities in Florida. He admitted his affiliation with an online neo-nazi group called Atom Waffen, German for “Atomic weapon,” an SPLC-identified hate group (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017a).

Russell was not found due to an investigation into terroristic far-right groups, but because of a bizarre series of events in which one of his three roommates, who claimed to have originally shared the neo-Nazi beliefs of the others, allegedly converted to Islam and murdered the other two for disrespecting his new faith. Police only found Russell’s bomb and radioactive materials while examining this crime scene (Elfrink 2017).

The Trump regime and its Department of Justice, then headed by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, indicated that it plans to cut off what little funding has been directed towards investigating far-right and white supremacist extremist groups, instead focusing purely on the specter of Islamic extremism (Pasha-Robinson 2017).

By several metrics, far-right terrorism is a greater threat to Americans than terrorism connected to Islamism, and seems on track to maintain this record (Parkin et al. 2017).

A federal judge ruled that Russell, who was found to own a framed photograph of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—whose ammonium nitrate bomb killed 168 people in 1995—may be released on bond, writing that there was no evidence that he used or planned to use a homemade radioactive bomb (Phillips 2017). Admitted affiliation with neo-Nazi ideology, which glorifies a regime known for massacring leftists, minorities, and Jews, was not taken as evidence of a desire to maim or kill leftists, minorities, or Jews.

Just like the well-intentioned 4chan moderators who believed in the compartmentalization or “containability” of ideology, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun III seemed to believe that neo-Nazi ideology is little more than a hobby that can be pursued separately from one’s procurement and assembly of chemical bombs. McCoun did not consider that far-right politics is not a simple interest, but produces a worldview that generates answers to why one assembles a dirty bomb and how it is ultimately used.

Judge McCoun only changed his mind and revoked the order to grant Russell bail after seeing video testimony from Russell’s former roommate, who claimed Russell planned to use a radioactive bomb to attack a nuclear power plant in Florida with the intention of irradiating ocean water and wiping out “parts of the Eastern Seaboard” (Sullivan 2017). Living with other neo-Nazis, it seems, gave Russell the confidence and safe space he needed to plan to carry out a McVeigh-style attack to inflict massive loss of life.[4]

Finally, one should note that Russell, who may still be free were it not for the brash murders allegedly committed by his roommate, is also a member of the Florida National Guard. The internet far-right may look and sound quite differently from the paramilitary Oathkeepers today, but that difference may change in time, as well.

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Dennis Erasmus (pseudonym) (@erasmusNYT) lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for six years prior to 2016. He has studied political theory and was active on 4chan for roughly eight years.

Back to the essay

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Notes
[1] Statement posted by moot on Nov at the /tmp/ board at http://content.4chan.org/tmp/r9knew.txt, and previously archived at the Webcite 4chan archive http://www.webcitation.org/6159jR9pC, and accessed by the author on July 9, 2017. The archive was deleted in early 2019.

[2] The New York Observer, now a web-only publication, came under the ownership of Jared Kushner, President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law, in 2006. The Observer is one of relatively few papers to have endorsed Trump during the 2016 Republican primary.

[3] The alt-right activist who said “these are good memes” is supposedly William Fears, who was present at the Charlottesville 2017 riot and was arrested later that year in connection with a shooting directed at anti-racist protesters in Florida. While Fears’ brother plead guilty to accessory after the fact for attempted first degree murder, charges were dropped against Fears so he could be extradited for Texas for hitting and choking his ex-girlfriend. See Brett Barrouquere, “Texas Judge Hikes Bond on White Supremacist William Fears” (SPLC, Apr 17, 2018) and Brett Barrouquere, “Cops Say Richard Spencer Supporter William Fears IV Choked Girlfriend Days Before Florida Shooting” (SPLC, Jan 23, 2018).

[4] Russell pled guilty to possession of a unlicensed destructive device and improper storage of explosive materials. He was sentenced to five years in prison. U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew said “it’s a difficult case” and that Russell seemed “like a very smart young man.” See “Florida Neo-Nazi Leader Gets 5 Years for Having Explosive Material” (AP, Jan 9, 2018).
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Works Cited

 

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