By some accounts, 4chan has played an important role in the re-emergence of key taboos at the root of profoundly rooted fractures and tensions in American and European (intellectual) history. Race realism, the culture of masculinity and pragmatism are a few of the ideas constituting the language and imagery that comes out of the board and onto the worried ears of politicians, journalists and academia. Some of these ideas have been drawn from various sources in far-right political thought, and part of the outcome of reinvesting in these has appeared in the form of broad right and far-right populist movements, whose digital culture includes a wide array of visual and linguistic elements.
If we take a step back, there is reason to suspect that such elements are not exclusively produced on 4chan, but on in a much broader network of chans. These ‘chans’ are all based on Japanese imageboard software that hosts topic-specific boards, where posts are quickly deleted, users are anonymous and comments can be accompanied by an image. Pages in sites like allchans.org and encyclopediadramatica.rs list an enormous number of chans based on topics and languages. There are, amongst others, ‘a shit site about trains’, ‘another shit site that can’t pay its bills’, ‘news-chan for ex-Soviets’, ‘a shit chan for Chileans’ and even ‘a shit chan for no one.’
Chans centred around language or nationality (including national IPs, like Brazil’s dogolachan) refer to countries like Brazil, India, Israel*, Spanish-speaking countries, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Turkey*, Japan, Australia, Germany, France*, the U.K., The Netherlands and South Africa, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, ex-Yugoslavian countries, Lithuania, Hungary and Belarus.
This begs the question: if 4chan has gained notoriety for being an important site of development for these ideas, what of the many other chans boards of non-English speaking users around the world? To what extent are the memes, themes and vernacular language found on 4chan propagated internationally, and to what degree are they intended to propagate the same message?
We have ventured in a modest attempt to answer parts of these questions by collecting data from the /pol/ boards of chans from six countries, each from a different continent, in early February 2018. The chans we have chosen are 55chan.org/pol/ (Brazil), indiachan.com (India), hispachan.org/pol/ (Spanish-speaking countries), 2ch.hk/po/ (Russia), fscchan.nl/pol/ (Indonesia), a chan from Turkey* and nov.2chan.net/35/futaba (Japan). We have then identified and compared memes and themes from these pages.
The chans of freedom
Perhaps one of the most striking similarities we found amongst these chans is that nearly all of them hold freedom of speech to be the principal, guiding value of their forums. Nearly all have welcome pages with a list of rules that exert a particularly convictive regard toward the non-censorship of content, diversity of ideas, ‘open minds’ and minimal moderation.
Holding this value most explicitly, for example, is a chan from Israel*. In it, freedom of speech does not limit itself to its political sense. The welcome page already seems to indicate this is no matter of need of a reminder, given the relatively nonchalant presence of antisemitic imagery. Freedom of speech is found here more so in the form of freedom of content. Although the chan’s rules forbid ‘loli’, a Japanese term for the attraction of young looking cute girls that blend slightly erotic characteristics, and ‘CP’, an acronym for ‘Child Pornography’, this chan does, in fact, contain such content.
Another example is the Russian-speaking 2ch.hk. With an IP based in Hong Kong, this chan takes precautions for maintaining ‘quick and free’ communication ‘where any point of view has the right to life’. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule — consistency with a board’s subject matter is necessary — all else is ‘allowed on this forum.’
Also similar are the rules on the welcome page of fsschan.nl, an Indonesian-speaking chan. There, ‘with no exception’, it is necessary to ‘ALWAYS keep your mind open.’
Other chans like the Portuguese-speaking ptchan.net are far more explicit about the political value of their rights to freedom of speech. The board articulates a specific opinion regarding censorship. It posits that it censorship only ‘feeds extremism’ and reminds their audience that ‘freedom of expression and information is an inalienable right.’ It is ‘distinguished’ for having ‘extremely minimalist moderation’ and, so being, welcomes no particular type of political content from ‘any political alignment’, encouraging ‘all kinds of discussion regardless of its theme, ideology of point of view.’
One could go farther into suggesting that chans like these and 4chan attempt to practice a wide variety of freedoms. On 4chan, for example, the ‘free’ of ‘free spech’ is partly synonymous to random, arbitrary, irregular, non-linear or non-sensical. This type of freedom appears to be more synonymous to contingency; it holds that the intended meaning of an idea does not necessarily need to land into intelligible grounds. A contingency of meaning also appears to be sustained by the ephemerality of what is said. 4chan threads come and go, topics pass by (albeit in much longer themes of conversation, such as present conversations around far-right topics), and, ultimately, it seems that no particular ideological principle is upheld but the very freedom for content to change indifferently and in absolute irregularity.
This resembles a type of freedom maintained by the above-mentioned non-English-speaking chans. They are not just defenders of freedom of speech for their opposition to censorship or to forces oppressive to the exercise of personal opinion. Theirs is equally an advocation for informational freedom, in the sense that they encourage the reception of speech as informational units — as ideas outside the boundaries of normative resonance. It is as if these spaces took up the role of societal experimentation groups — a corner in society that intends to welcome the mumbo-jumbo of what can be said or thought.
Against the noobs of irony
In a sense, these defences of freedom of speech may explain many of these chan’s common defence of humour and irony against prospective victims of personal or political offences. That irony, as has already been talked about at length by Ana Teixeiro Pinto, often comes in the form of transgressive and anti-intelligible rhetorical twists. One is meant to get it, or at least get that they don’t get it. It would be a way of using provocation as a invitation into the board’s continuous experiment in juxtaposing ideas that are not necessarily intended to make sense or sound right.
And, so, chans like hispachan.org will remind visitors first-hand that it is solely meant for people ‘used to humour and irony’, and that ‘nothing that is written in the site should be taken seriously.’
Italy’s diochan.com has users go through terms of conditions to gain access to the site that state that ‘Nothing that is described in diochan.com is meant to be taken literally. Nothing that is in diochan.com is considered fit for people devoid of common sense and that cannot deal with sarcasm and irony and do not have the faculty to discern reality from fiction.’
The ghettos of political imagination
Combined with its fierce defence of freedom of speech (perhaps better called freedom of thought), this sense of subversive humour comes across as a greater defence against policies exerted in platforms like Facebook, Twitter or ‘the establishment’ at large. 4chan has often been a space for types of speech whose subjects feel were ‘expelled’ from big platforms for using hate speech. In the eyes of many users migrating from Twitter to 4chan or GAB, these ‘mainstream’ platforms apply a particularly shaky interpretation of what constitutes an offence to political sensitivities, notably in the form of coercive laws of conduct and thought. These measures come across as masking what is, in truth, a clear ideological affiliation.
This issue may, in turn, explain the inclination many of these chans have for flirting with classic far-right political thought. Hate speech is often taken to be a denial of internal inconsistencies in the way issues of race and identity are spoken about, preventing these from being debated and dissolved in open streams of conversations.
It must be said that the ‘free speech’ solution provided to this problem by these chans is not necessarily mild, in that politically sensitive topics are not necessarily debated in a constructive or multi-sided fashion. Instead, the points of view constituting the taboo core of these issues often seek refuge, congregate and amplify on these pages. This goes for, as mentioned above, far-right perspectives on race and gender. Those perspectives that are considered racist in a classical sense — in that their leading voices hold race to be the principal, defining aspect of personal identity and social and political life, proposing that governance be moulded around it — does find, there, an expansive intellectual solace it seldom finds in other public informational spaces. If it isn’t Jared Taylor, names and ideas mentioned in some of these boards refer back to entire National Socialist book dumps and bibliographies, amongst other defamed commentaries of the above-mentioned issues.
Similar effects to the online balkanisation of taboo issues also appear to take place in some international chans. Unsurprisingly, the exact ‘taboo’ content we find there varies per country. But the tendency to host and amplify rejected perspectives is a constant phenomenon to many of these chans, in their contempt for global, liberal values and their attempt to bring back historically unpopular political ideas to present memory.
Indiachan, for example, is a forum that appears to host a notable majority of Hindutva-friendly users. They often discuss about Hindu nationalism, history and symbolism. Conversations frequently point to ethnic and sectarian conflict, discuss the meaning and value of race and Aryanism, and also hold debates on what merits provocatively dressed women have to be respected. Many of their threads are critical of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Muslim Indians. Some images refer to what resemble soldier-users sent to the ‘Kashmir division’ of a cyber-conflict, and there are frequent references to Hindu symbolism and theology.
indiachan.com/india’s whole imagery dating from early February 2018
Some of this content – particularly conversations about the historical ties of India with the Axis during WWII – is not controversial in itself. The Hindutva-friendly tone of the chan and the formal ascension of political groups linked to ultra-nationalist Hinduism to power has, however, been considered a controversial novelty in recent Indian history.
Supporting this ascension is a clear sentiment against liberalism in general, as shown by the images below.
Aside indiachan, Brazilian chans like 55chan and a notable portion of Brazilian voters also go as far as to speak of the merits of authoritarianism and the military dictatorship. The country’s past military dictatorship was an episode that presided over the mass disappearance and torture of political dissidents by state officials from 1964-1985, and has remained a profoundly painful period of Brazilian history. As was the case in Chile with Pinochet, politicians associated to similar regimes and human rights abuses have since been shunned and popularly condemned. But the intrinsic support for the ideas that constituted it, which Guillermo O’Donnell has so famously spoken of as a strand of ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’, have proven to be either very much alive or as if resurrected by a renewed interest in Brazilian far-right political thought in general.
Explorations of far-right themes include conversations about state (and occasionally ethno-) separatism (referenced below by the image on the top, far-right), a cause some citizens of the state of São Paulo and the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul have typically advocated for. These explorations welcome discussions about Brazilian-specific strands of far-right political philosophy such as Integralism, a fascist political movement founded in 1932 by Plínio Salgado. The images with the captions ‘Anauê‘ and ‘Integralismo do Norte ao Sul‘ (the cover to a book written in 1934 by Integralist Gustavo Barroso) were in fact used to promote this movement around the time of its foundation.
Although the 1930s movement took its inspiration from Italian fascism and drew from militarism and conservative Catholic values, the movement is quite distinct from what we could popularly associate to far-right political thought. It does not appear to have supported an exceptionalist conception of race in the same sense as white supremacist movements in the US or identitarian movements in Europe. The movement advocated for the Brazilian national strength by taking pride in the country’s social and cultural peculiarities, particularly its racial miscegenation. This is perhaps why images of indigenous Brazilians and of people of multiple ethnicities are present in the same line of images supporting the making of ‘Brazil great again’, which in a sense reflects the original Integralist desire to foster national strength and pride. According to Integralists, the word ‘Anauê’ is a term of Tupí origin and is meant to express affection and fraternity toward one another.
Aside of these images, that of Che Guevara with the caption ‘Bolsonaro’ refers to a man pictured on the following image on the right. Jair Bolsonaro is the leading far-right presidential candidate in the country’s presidential elections, and is indeed an avid sympathiser of the military regime and of values of strength, discipline and social conservatism. He has gained notoriety for publicly insulting a female politician during a parliamentary session, deeming her ‘not worthy of being raped’.
Perhaps due to the recent, humongous political scandals regarding intra-partisan money laundering schemes, many conversations in this chan diverge into conspiracy theories. These often hold Jews as the main culprits of not only problems in Brazil but in the entire ‘new world order’.
The open disfiguration of these issues can also be spotted in several other chans. This is especially observable at the level of memes, which often refer to deep-rooted ideas of racial, ethnic, social and political conflict in their respective, local contexts. It goes to say that the memetic value of these images is here proven to be particularly effective. Figures and themes such as Pepe the Frog, the Feels Guy, Big Grin, Vaporwave, the Red Pill, Amerimutt, the Happy Merchant and the Thinking Face Emoji are found in nearly all of the above-mentioned chans.
Parts of the intended meaning of these memes are transposed into different historical and political contexts to convey other similar ideas and issues. As I write below, the racial connotation of memes such as the Amerimutt may not be applicable at all places, but other aspects of the meme have, in fact, been used as a reference to motives for social conflict other than (or in combination with-) race. Elsewhere, it also refers to groups held in contempt for their religion, their social class and their own national stigmas.
Of all the memes we have found in these chans, Pepe is, perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the most divulged meme. Although it is most shared in the usual ‘smug Pepe’ format, it is often slightly twisted to represent personalities or symbols. On 2ch, for example, Russian Pepes include two smug Pepes who appear to be bullying a small man resembling Alexei Navalny.
In the Indonesian fscchan.nl, one Pepe is placed on the logo of Partai Golongan Karya (previously Sekber Golkar), a key political party that ruled the country from 1971 to 1999 with Muhammad Suharto at its reigns. Suharto has gained a notorious reputation for his regime’s brutal repression of communist groups with far-right paramilitary forces. This particular Pepe is an adaptation of Big Grin; it derides something in laughter.
Elsehwere in indiachan.com, one smug Pepe is akin to the looks of a theological figure.
Across the board, the Amerimutt meme seems to maintain its connotation to exaggerated racial stereotypes. On the Indonesian fscchan.nl, for example, it depicts a Javanese Indonesian man as an arrogant and idiotic figure boasting about his ‘glorius race’.
On Hispachan, an equally racially charged meme is intended to represent an uninformed Venezuelan voter, presumably from a lower class, who regrets the Maduran repression but still maintains that no-one voted for him or Chavez’s government.
In the Russian-speaking 2ch, another similar version of Amerimutt represents a Jewish man screaming ‘Oy vey!’, a Yiddish phrase expressing dismay or exasperation.
Similar to these variations of Amerimutt is Le Happy Merchant, a meme that originally depicts a self-interested and unreliable Jewish man delighting in his power of deception. Elsewhere, the meme maintains its connotation to manipulation and greediness, but tends to represent other historical figures that have been equally dubbed as self-interested parties mastering and misusing the financial or material resources of the world. On indiachan, for example, the Jewish stereotypical appearance of the Happy Merchant is traded for another stereotype of an upper-class Englishman or a Chinese man. Both of these figures refer to past and present interested parties from, indeed, past and present colonies. The stereotypical representation of a Chinese man replicates a recurrent critique against alleged neo-colonial practices of Chinese businesses in South Asia.
If chans do find similarities in vernacular discourse, and the memes they use to convey their ideas, a couple of other chans radically step out of this frame of reference. By doing so, they challenge the idea that chans are controversial spaces of taboo-ridden debates. The Japanese futaba, for example, does not make use of any easily recognisable figures, with the exception of manga cartoons.
For an urban planning of the banlieues of the web?
The fringe and somewhat ghettoised position of these chans may lead one to wonder about the structural effects of rules regulating inflows of information online. What becomes of taboo ideas when they turn into online information, and how effective is the present geography of the web in curtailing them through hate speech and walled gardens of moderation? If we should avoid the proliferation of radical political, social and cultural un-saids and un-thoughts, of the ideological violence of far-right ideas and other unresolved intellectual hairballs, then should we begin observing how these ideas are developed online spatially? And, if so, should we venture into thinking of a more ‘social’ architecture of information flows? These are perhaps far too many questions, but one can at least hope that they constitute a debate on the state of far-right information online, for after all, it not longer solely inhabits the peripheries of the web.
* Although all of these chans contain some degree of violent images, those we do not provide links to or do not mention by name are very poorly moderated and contain paedophilic images and/or images of extreme sexual violence. We cannot stress enough that we highly advice viewer discretion when (or if) visiting any of the chans we mention. Although we have not found contents of such gravity in these, we cannot guarantee that any of it has not appeared or will appear after we have visited them in the context of this research.