After several shootings in the United States and across the globe that were related to the imageboard 8chan, much remains unknown about the obscure webforum. What is it, exactly? What is its history? How big is it? What do its users discuss? How toxic is it? What is going on with the 8chan community now that it is defunct, and where will its users move to? In this text we offer some overviews into this fringe, underexposed, and (at the time of writing) defunct space.

What is 8chan? A brief history

8chan, or infinitychan, is a currently-defunct imageboard, a webforum with subforums (“boards”) where anonymous users can create and participate in conversational “threads” through posting text, images, and links. Like other imageboards, it is ephemeral, meaning threads will be closed and deleted (or archived) after a certain amount of time. 8chan uses a version of the Yotsuba imageboard infrastructure, adding the ability for users to create their own boards, as well as providing robust overviews of user activity on the front page (image 1). Since imageboard code is usually open source, there are in fact many “chans”, like 2channel or Krautchan (see this OILab blogpost for an overview of chans).

Image 1: The front page of 8chan before it was taken down. Captured with the Wayback Machine on 6 August 2019.

8chan was initially marketed as a “free speech” alternative to 4chan, currently the largest imageboard globally and already known for its extremely loose content moderation. Marwick and Lewis, in their canonical early study of the alt-right, identify the birth of 8chan as “the result of an ideological schism that took place among users of 4chan between 2008 and 2016”, with inciting incident that precipitated the forking being the notorious Gamergate fiasco in 2013-2014. Prior to Gamergate, online gaming culture did not tend to overlap strongly with online subcultures engaged in political activism. This all changed when a user on the forum SomethingAwful posted a detailed anecdote regarding his relationship with a prominent independent video game designer (see Slater and Blodgett 2017). While soon deleted by the moderators of Something Awful, the post had already made its way to 4chan and acted as a catalyst for users fearing an imaginary nightmare scenario where “their” video games were violated by progressive sexual and cultural politics [1]. In the midst of the Gamergate controversy, 4chan’s then-owner, Christopher Poole, made the relatively unusual decision to censor all mention of Gamergate on the site in December 2014—stating in a stickied post on /v/ (4chan’s gaming board) that “gators” were violating the site’s rules against raids and doxxing, but implying in an interview that Gamergate was more the proverbial “final straw” for Poole after dealing with the events of “the Fappening” in the same year.

Image 2: Posts activity in 2014 and 2015 on 4chan/pol/, showing a dramatic decline after the Gamergate ban in December 2014. Image derived from 4plebs.org.

Enter Frederick Brennan, a.k.a. “Hotwheels”, who had originally created 8chan in 2013 as a response to Poole’s moderation measures. In October 2014, Brennan spotted a way to popularize his niche pet project. With Gamergaters having been successively chased from Reddit, then 4chan, then the alternative chan site 4chon, and finally the clone 7chan, Brennan contacted a Gamergate livestream chat and pitched his space as one wherein Gamergaters could coordinate undisturbed. In the minds of the Gamergaters, 4chan had changed from a bastion of “free speech” to a censorial hellscape. As such, 8chan filled the void left in this cyberanarchist imaginary.

In many ways, Brennan was a typical anon (a collective nickname for anonymous chan users), and his own radicalization was a reflection of the overall turn towards right-wing activism in chan culture. As he shares in this interview, Brennan moved from posting to 4chan’s notorious /b/ board, the initial home of the Anonymous movement, to /r9k/, a board with “no reposts” where anons share personal “green text” anecdotes, to /n/, the news board. In 2010, /n/ became overrun with extreme speech, which led Poole to shut the board down and subsequently start a new board: /pol/, short for “Politically Incorrect”. 4chan/pol/ functioned, and perhaps still functions, as a so-called “containment board”, quarantining extreme speech and preventing it from taking over the entire site. When /n/ was shut down, Brennan took personal offence at what he considered Poole’s tyrannical governance. While Brennan has claimed that his politics are not those of the extreme right to which these boards catered, he nevertheless arrived at the point of sympathising with some of their issues.

The path which brought Brennan to found 8chan was at once rooted in his own personal life experience and in another sense typical of the broader radicalization of chan subculture surrounding Gamergate. Suffering from a debilitating rare bone disease known as Osteogenesis, in 2014 Brennan wrote an opinion piece for the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer entiled “Why I Support Eugenics”, in which he advocated for incentivizing the abortion of foetuses with illnesses such as Osteogenesis. Like many other anons, Brennan had come to embrace a libertarian defense of free speech as a kind of political expression of the well-known hacker slogan that “information wants to be free”. This perspective seemed to license the expression of extreme statements as a sort of public good, thus making 8chan an inherently free space, where people would have the right to say anything. Furthermore, from the peculiarly fundamentalist perspective on free speech, the ability to speak hate could paradoxically be a measure of freedom. At the same time, a broader culture of free speech fundamentalism was also taking hold on the liberatarian right in these same years, as embodied by the Tea Party movement and later by Trump’s take-over of the Republican party.

After some trouble in keeping the site online because of its bandwidth demands and often highly obscene content, including child pornography, Brennan was contacted over email by Ron Watkins. Ron is the son of 8chan’s current owner, Jim Watkins, a US veteran and pig farmer living in the Philippines. As a result of this correspondence, 8chan was moved to the data centres of Jim Watkins’ company N.T. Technology, in exchange for a 60% share of the platform’s future profits. This initial arrangement, however, was only the beginning of a kind of “takeover by stealth” of the platform by Watkins, who—after the loss of 8chan’s “.co” domain in January 2015—came to own both its servers and its new domain, while Brennan remained an administrator and face of the site. Although Brennan left his role at 8chan in 2016, he continued to work for Watkins in assorted administrative capacities on Watkins’ other (mostly pornographic) websites over the next three years until they split due to personal issues in late 2018. 

8chan has been under increased public scrutiny after a string of violent firearm incidents in late 2018 and 2019 were attributed to the website’s lack of moderation and hegemonic far-right politics: the perpetrators of racially- or religiously-motivated massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, San Diego, and El Paso have all been linked to 8chan, particularly its /pol/ board. Although not explicitly linked to 8chan, shootings in Dayton and Gilroy added fuel to the fire, especially since the latter was motivated by xenophobia and theories of demographic replacement also present on 8chan. Since the massacres, Brennan has been on an apology tour of sorts, disowning the platform the founded and calling for the platform to be permanently shut down.

After the Dayton, Gilroy, and El Paso shootings occurred consecutively the week of July 29 2019, 8chan’s DDoS protection provider, CloudFlare, announced in a public post that it would no longer be providing its services to the board. Within one day, 8chan was then kicked off of two successive hosting providers. This prompted Watkins, an elusive figure who had provided few public statements or interviews up until this point, to post a YouTube video on his channel defending 8chan’s right to exist as an issue of free speech, while explicitly condemning the violence perpetrated in the El Paso and Dayton shootings that were linked to 8chan. In this regard, his rhetorical strategy is effectively identical to the defenses offered by Brennan when he was the face of the platform, namely that 8chan is “a piece of paper” and is not responsible for what is written upon it. This strategy of presenting the imageboard as a neutral object is indeed a common defense by platform owners subjected to regulatory scrutiny, including mainstream ones.

But what, exactly, is this “Wild West” of free speech? Below, we use some quantitative analyses to sketch an outline of 8chan in an attempt to offer the reader an introduction to its size, topics, and “toxicity”.

How big is 8chan? What are its main themes?

As shown in image 3, 8chan’s most active boards in early August 2019 mostly concern politics, news, videogames and a variety of sexual fetishes. Additionally, boards for certain national issues or language spaces also appear, such as the Polish /vichan/ and the French-language /dempart/.

Image 3: Active boards on 8chan. Captured with the Wayback Machine on 6 August 2019.

To further assess the size and types of discussion on 8chan, scraped and imported archives of four 8chan of its: /pol/, /v/ (Video Games), /leftypol/ (for left-wing political discussion), and /brit/ (UK-politics discussion). This choice was mostly based on the availability of archives, which start at various moments but allowed to make some comparisons. We then added data to these archives through our own scraping. During the scraping of /pol/ we had an outage during December 2018, meaning the post counts dropped during that month. Additionally, we could not precisely verify how complete the imported posts were. As such, the numbers here are estimates, not absolute counts. Nonetheless, they should provide a rough insight into what was going on.

Image 4: Post activity on 8chan boards /pol/, /v, /leftypol/, and /brit/ (per day and per month). Slide or swipe to change images.

A quick glance at the absolute post counts of the boards reveals /pol/ and /v/ are significantly larger than /leftypol/ and /britpol/. The far-right /pol/ has 2,500 to 5,000 daily posts and 100,00 to 200,000 posts monthly, overshadowing the left-wing /leftypol/. As such, these two opposite political spaces on 8chan can not be considered as equivalent in terms of activity. /pol/ further differentiates itself from the relatively constant pace of the other boards with a number of dramatic spikes in daily posts. These all appear to be correlated to the mass shooting incidents discussed above. Notably, the Christchurch shooting energized activity, and the El Paso shooting seemed to have been doing the same before the website went dark.

What types of topics are popular on 8chan? Like other chans, 8chan operates on the principle of threaded discussions which begin with an opening post followed by a series of nested replies. The list below shows the most replied-to threads on 8chan/pol/, the most notorious board that was related to various shootings.

  1. 8160 replies:
    QTDDTOT: Questions that don’t deserve their own thread (18/08/2018)
    Body excerpt: QTDDTOT: Questions that don’t deserve their own thread. This is the thread for one-liner questions about /pol/-related topics. “What does /pol/ think of [x]”, “is [x] redpilled,” and associated questions belong here. Threads created based on a single, simple question will be deleted. If your thread is deleted, come here and ask again. REMINDER TO SEARCH THE CATALOG FIRST. […]
  2. 1095 replies:
    Us Europeans with projected nasal traits and deep set eyes ( 06/03/2019)
    Body excerpt: We are not original native Europeans (unlike Nordic people). These narrow skull, inset eyes, long projected nose, more body hair etc are traits most strongly within Semitic and Persian populations (west Asians). Southern Europeans and western Europeans to an extent gained these features partially through genetic mixture, from ancient Persian civilisations that dominated southern Europe, in turn later the rise of Greece occurred. […]
  3. 906 replies:
    Christchuch is what an actual DOTR will look like (16/03/2019)
    Body excerpt: Not LARPING and pretending to be Nazis. Not meme’ing Ben Garrison or Moonman. Not grumbling and complaining about it on the internet. Not praying to a Frog Deity or a God Emperor that has no intention of keeping his election promises. Not waiting for a neutered ICE to catch illegals only to release them later on your soil. This is war and this is real. […] I’ll say it again. This is no longer a game of pretend. A man can only take so much leftist bullshit before he snaps.
  4. 890 replies:
    Christchurch Was An Initiation (18/03/2019)
    Body excerpt: Brenton Harrison Tarrant filmed the shooting in first person POV for a very specific purpose. He wanted us to live the experience through his eyes. He wanted to say to us: I did it. It can be done. He did this to shatter a barrier inside of us. He manifested an expression of pure, unadulterated power and he used it to send the animals who are invading our countries straight to hell. This is why they are trying so desperately to stop the spread of the video, at any cost. The NZ government is now threatening 10 years in jail for spreading the video. Jewish (((clinical psychologists))) are trying to warn people (obviously meaning young White males) against ever watching the video, because it will “change them”. […]
  5. 863 replies:
    Evola, Arthur & Hitler (07/02/2019)
    Body excerpt: IS HITLER THE FISHER KING? I have been reading Evolas Mysterie of the Grail again and had come to a conclusion that I had been racking my head about for over a year now. But I have come to the resolution that in fact Hitler not only is Prester John but also the Fisher King. Let me explain. Evola lays down in pretty clear terms that the original Imperium (Thule/Avalon/Atlantis) was destroyed but will be restored by an earthly ruler the rex regum (King of Kings). […]

Number one is a “sticky” thread pinned to the top of a board and dedicated to short questions that do not require a new thread. Once we go beyond this simple feature of the board’s moderation strategy, we immediately get a sense of its politics. The second most popular thread, for instance, supports a “race science” discussion concerning the genetic traits of “original native Europeans”, while both the third and fourth most popular threads discuss and glorify the Christchurch shooting — an event of enormous significance in 8chan/pol/, as can be seen quite clearly in many of the graphs below. Finally, the fifth most-replied to thread gives a sense of the preoccupation with esoteric fascist historiography, that has become characteristic of alt-right chan culture. The topic being discussed in this thread refers to Hitler as a spiritual redeemer figure, a theme discussed within post-war neo-Nazi new religious movements (see Goodrick-Clarke 2001) that, like the poster, tend to draw upon the mystical writings of Julius Evola.

How toxic is 8chan/pol/?

As a rough empirical measure of the general toxicity of the discourse on 8chan, we traced the prominence of several hate speech words. From the four boards collected, these words were particularly common on 8chan/pol/, and especially this board has come under public scrutiny, we decided to focus on this. The graphs below show the absolute and relative number of posts containing a certain keyword. These include prepended and appended words — so “cat” would also include “cats” — and do not take into account case sensitivity. Again note that December 2018 has incomplete data and is therefore greyed out.

Image 5: The absolute and relative occurrences of posts containing “fuck” on 8chan/pol/.

A first glance at the transgressive discourse on 8chan/pol/ can already be discerned by the appearance of the word “fuck”, with a very high presence of one out of ten posts.

Anti-Semitism

Image 6: The absolute and relative occurrences of posts containing Judaism-related and anti-Semitic keywords on 8chan/pol/. Slide or swipe to change images.

The word “jew” appears in a staggering number of around 6% to 8.5% of all posts on 8chan/pol, with its derogatory equivalent “kike” following close behind. The peculiar “(((“ occurs in about 3% of all posts and has a very similar pattern of usage to “kike”. Indeed, these triple parentheses indicate a notorious anti-Semitic dog-whistle term (see Tuters & Hagen 2018). Notably similar anti-Semitism does not appear on other boards like /leftypol/, where “jew” appears in around 1% of all posts. Of all the toxicity present on 8chan/pol/, anti-Semitism thus appears to be the chief mode.

Racism

Image 7: The absolute and relative occurrences of posts containing racist (hate) keywords on 8chan/pol/. Slide or swipe to change images.

The two race-related hate words above both tell a different story. The n-word, even leaving out its different variations, was extremely common on 8chan/pol/, rising to over 6% of posts in 2019. In chan-vernacular, the n-word is sporadicaly paradoxically used as a sign of affection, but predominantly shows the racist and white supremacist currents present in these spaces, especially on 8chan. “Spic”, though used way less often, seemed to have increased sharply after the Gilroy and El Paso shootings, showing a sign that the terrorist deeds energized toxic language usage on the board.

Islam

Image 8: Posts on 8chan/pol/ containing Islam-related (hate) words. Slide or swipe to change images.

The Christchurch attack in March 2019, where 51 mosque visitors lost their lives, seemed to have spiked Islam-related words and hate speech concerning muslims. Interestingly, the use drops off sharply after the attacks as well. Nonetheless, this general overview already indicates an alliance with the perpetrator, considering derogatory terms were not eschewed after the horrific attack.

What is going on with 8chan now?

A query to 8ch.net will, as of the time of this post, return a “Server Not Found” error. The following set of instructions are currently circulating on other imageboards such as 4chan and neinchan, as well as on Twitter, that direct users to a temporary “bunker” constructed with the P2P package Zeronet (image 10).

Image 10: An image circulating on 4chan/pol/ directing users to 08chan, an imageboard hosted through the peer-to-peer protocol Zeronet.

Zeronet is a P2P software package that, in this instance, creates a separate chan analogue that is not hosted on a centralized server, but instead distributes parts of the chan infrastructure to each of the users that are actively engaged in visiting and hosting the platforms. The users themselves become not only participants but also maintainers, and it elides the ability for the chan space to be rendered inaccessible based on the decisions of the centralized hosting providers. The YouTube alternative Bitchute, which now hosts many of the Nazi videos that were purged in YouTube’s “Great Purge of 2019”, also uses P2P infrastructure [2].

The following is a screenshot of the front page of 08chan as of August 8 2019. While 8chan’s front page welcomed visitors into the site through easy access points such as Featured Threads and Latest Headlines, 08chan provides a directory listing and nothing more.

Image 11: The front page of 08chan.

While information from which to draw an overview of 08chan’s activity is scant, we can easily see the particular boards and their popularity. The front page shows a large drop off in total posts after /pol/, /v/, and /qresearch/ – three boards that, in their 8chan iterations, were linked with the popular native movements of firearm massacres, Gamergate, and QAnon respectively. Their status as key gathering spaces for 8chan users is further illustrated when we examine the bunker’s post activities.

While there is sporadic usage (in the range of 0 to 6 posts a day) for some boards prior to 4 August, the day that the 8chan drama unfolded, we see a clear spike in usage of the bunker board from that date onward. The y-axis in the following visualization is logarithmically-ranged, in order to capture the stark increase in usage beginning that day. The 08chan versions of /pol/, /v/, and /qresearch/ comprise the bulk of the postings on 08chan, with /b/ also seeing some activity and the relatively low levels of activity on 08chan’s /leftypol/ inserted here for illustrative purposes.

Image 12: Activity on boards on 08chan.

It is worth noting that 08chan and the bunker approach does not seem to be a protocol endorsed by 8chan’s administrators, but is instead the creation of one of the moderators of 8chan’s /v/ board. Because of this, many who follow QAnon developments via 8chan’s /qresearch/ board remain skeptical of it.

Despite this skepticism from the broader /qresearch/ sphere, it remains the third-most popular board in the bunker. From this, we can infer that 8chan’s /pol/, /v/, and /qresearch/ boards comprised the true, inimitable affordances of the platform. Those users who are invested in the 8chan ecosystem enough to migrate to the bunker are those for whom /pol/, /v/ and /qresearch/ are significant discursive spaces. Meanwhile, the relative inactivity of boards such as /leftypol/ and even /b/ (the “random” or “general” board, syntactically popularized by 4chan [3]) shows us that the users of these boards did not value their particular configurations as hosted on 8chan enough to follow the community into the depths of the bunker.

While both Watkins, the owner of 8chan, as well as CodeMonkeyZ, one of the board’s administrators (and the screen name of Ron Watkins, son of Jim) continue to discuss the website’s imminent revival, it is yet to be seen whether the website will be able to return to the visible web without access to any hosting, DNS, or service providers. But even if the Zeronet iteration of 8chan is what remains of it for the foreseeable future, the location that 8chan lists on its Twitter account remains the place to find it: “The Darkest Reaches of the Internet.”

*

In her ethnographic analysis of the Gamergate controversy within the social news aggregator site Reddit, the new media scholar Adrienne Masanari refers to how the site’s design may have had an effect on creating what she calls a “toxic technoculture”. What seems clear is that 8chan, for all its talk of free speech, supported a highly toxic culture of political discussion with /pol/. While left-wing variations like /leftypol/ might also have likewise accused of toxicity, the site was more diverse than simply /pol/. These toxic and less-toxic cultures that found a home on 8chan/pol/ will now have to find a new home. In practice, this shouldn’t be difficult as 4chan/pol/ supports much the same extreme right “ironic” discussion culture. In addition, like what happened to the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, it may be expected that 8chan will find alternative hosters, bringing it back from its offline existence.

Footnotes

[1] “Kicked off 4chan for doxing, then kicked off 7chan, 4chon, and several other alt-chans, Gamergate needed a home and Brennan saw an opportunity. He dialled into a Gamergate live-stream chat and made his pitch: “I’m not like Chris Poole. I’m happy to have you.” Gleefully, the Gamergaters moved in.” In Woolf, Nicky. ‘Destroyer of Worlds’. Tortoise Media, 29 June 2019. https://members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/06/29/8chan/content.html.

[2] Gab, the alt-right Twitter clone, also recently migrated to the P2P software package Mastodon. See Tilley, Sean. ‘Gab Is Forking Mastodon and Joining the Fediverse’. We Distribute (blog), 30 May 2019. https://wedistribute.org/2019/05/gab-is-forking-mastodon-and-joining-the-fediverse/.

[3] Monroy-Hernández, Andrés, Drew Harry, Paul André, Katrina Panovich, and Greg Vargas. ‘4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community’. MIT Media Lab, 20 July 2011, 8.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

blog posts

public