You are not anonymous on 4chan. At least, not entirely. Apart from the fact that moderators can identify IP-addresses, there are subtle cues of identity present in the obscure fog of anonymous posts. One example of this are flag icons present on certain boards. Most often, like on the /int/ “International” board, these represent the geolocation of the poster based on their current IP address. Other times these are fictional, like the flags for characters of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on (you guessed it) the /mlp/ “My Little Pony” board. On the far-right /pol/ “Politically Incorrect”, geolocated flags are mixed with predefined “meme flags”, including ideologies, religions, or fictional countries (e.g. “Nazi”, “Muslim”, or “Kekistani”). Having grown into important infrastructural and cultural elements on the imageboards, in this blog post I map their presence and genealogy on /pol/, the most infamous and popular board to feature country flags.
Country flags as light identity markers
While a seemingly minor feature, 4chan/pol/’s country flags perform important communal functions. They have been framed as “light” identity markers by Dillon Ludemann (2021), acting as subtle devices to perform one’s familiarity with community norms. He outlines how meme flags are taken as a reason to dismiss the contents of a post altogether; a post with the “Hippie” or “LGBT” flag, for instance, may signal trolling, shitposting, or an unwillingness to assimilate into the predominantly ultranationalist, far-right culture of /pol/. The use of the default “geo flags”, in contrast, is often associated with earnestness and nationalism, even though you can always use a VPN to spoof a location. Through commands like “show your flag”, country flags became entwined with vilification of those who distinguish themselves from the masses.
At the same time, the icons are one of the few elements that let 4chan users differentiate themselves from each other – or even signal a specific individual. The latter can for instance happen when combined with a recognisable writing style appearing in general threads, that already host subgroups of specific users. As such, the flags paradoxically signal both collectivity and individuality, solidifying group norms and offering a way for users to “affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass” (Thornton 1995, 10).
This communal function of country flags on 4chan is well-documented. But no research has yet mapped what country flags have persisted throughout the years. To do so, I collected /pol/’s country flag data from the 4plebs archive and a 4CAT server that had been capturing /pol/-data since 2018 (Peeters and Hagen 2022). This data ranged from November 2013 to September 2021, including 308 million posts out of which 194 million contained flags. Below I run through overall trends and different flag “eras”.
Looking at the overall frequency of country flags (as a percentage of all posts with a flag), we can see how /pol/ is effectively dominated by the United States (51.8%). While a wide array of national and geopolitical discussions can be found on /pol/, the board thus remains quite U.S.-centric. The U.S. is followed by other Western Anglophone countries, most prominently the United Kingdom (7.13%), Canada (6.24%), and Australia (3.92%). Western Europe is also well-represented, especially those with a high rate of English proficiency and Internet connectivity: Germany (2.78%), The Netherlands (1.23%), Sweden (1.16%), and Finland (0.93) rank highest.
The country flags provide a flawed yet interesting insight into the absolute demographics of /pol/. For instance, as also shown elsewhere (Hagen and Jokubauskaitė 2020), the Dutch flag appears in about 40.000 posts per month. If the average Dutch user would post once a day, this would mean about 1.300 active /pol/ users from The Netherlands. Of course, this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, lacking precise data on the average post per user, ignoring meme flags, and done in the knowledge that geo flags may be spoofed. Still, they provide a rough sense of users from a certain country.
Geo flags greatly outweigh the use of meme flags, which quantitatively underlines that “showing your flag” is the community norm. When meme flags are used, Nazi is unsurprisingly the most common (0.87%), followed by Pirate (0.76%), Confederate (0.54%), and Anarcho-Capitalist (0.5%). The use of meme flags is a bit more distributed than the geo flags, with semi-frequent appearances of banners that contradict /pol/’s far-right culture like Commie (0.29%), LGBT (0.23%), and BLM (0.26).
Mapping the flags over time, we can see that the distributions remain remarkably stable, contrasting the eclectic and chaotic character that 4chan is sometimes attributed. Important geopolitical events only subtly change the monthly distribution, like with the general elections in Brazil in October 2018. The striking changes that do happen are not due to 4chan’s shifting users, but because of infrastructural changes. In this regard there are three “eras” to discern.
Meme flag era (2011 – 15 December 2014)
From the start of /pol/’s inception in 2011 to December 2014, users could only select flags from a list of presets. At first, the default option was “Random”, resulting in a random flag if none was explicitly chosen, and thus every post featuring a flag. This was later changed to “None” so that a flag was omitted by default. In this first era, the options included most of the current-day meme flags, as well as some that wouldn’t reappear later, like Libertarian, Tea Partier, Texan, and Obama. Some actual countries could also be chosen, notably ones with controversial geopolitical reputations (United States, Israel, North Korea), while other obscure flags only appeared briefly like the Brotherhood of Nod flag. In the collected data from this first era (November 2013 – December 2014), only 12% of posts in the archive featured flags. Indeed, this seems to support that, back then, there was already disdain regarding meme flags for being inauthentic and used by “shills”.
Geo flag era (15 December 2014 – 13 June 2017)
The change to geo flags-only came in December 2014, occurring just after “/pol/ Harbour” which saw 4chan’s then-administrator Christopher “moot” Poole randomly changing the workings of the board (including a brief removal of flags). At this point, geolocated flags had already been a thing on the /int/ “International” board. Users of /pol/ started pondering whether geo flags would be beneficial to their board too. Proponents argued that geo flags would help to lessen manipulative and disingenuous posts – or as one anon stated, it would make it “harder to shill or bullshit about where you are from”.
However, when the change was in fact implemented, there was a backlash. In contrast to the argument that geo flags encouraged authenticity, others claimed they went against 4chan’s spirit of anonymity. For instance, one anon, looking back on the change, claimed that geo flags “destroy the purpose of 4chan, a place which attracted an audience […] because nobody attacked you for anything that isn’t in your post. Geoflags lowered the anonymity and provided an excuse to whine and moan about the country instead of the content of the post.” Through this contestation, the communal function of country flags hovered between signalling individuality and collectivity, authenticity and inauthenticity.
As a peculiar result of geo flags introduction, discussions started popping up on “rare flags”: little-seen flags from small countries Some of these were indeed rare because VPN availability was lacking in these places. According to some, rare flags were also used as a sign for administrators to identify and ban users with a dynamic IP. Just like post IDs turning into mythical symbols or tripcodes being entwined with the spread of global conspiracy theories, the vernacular lore surrounding country flags (Figure 4) shows how in a barebones subcultural environment, the most innocuous of digital objects can be magically reappropriated to function as mythical communal markers.
Mixed flags era (13 June 2017 – present)
In June 2017, a stickied “new flag testing” thread appeared, meant to offer a space to test the new suit of meme flags that could be chosen next to the “Geographic Location” option. Immediately after the introduction of the two-flag system, the distinction between geo- and meme flags became entwined with passionate debate on community norms. The command “show your flag” quickly joined the ranks among other subcultural formulas like “lurk moar” (Figure 5). Now that there was a choice, it was only at this point that the term “meme flag” started trending. Having all but forgotten that “meme flags” used to be the only option on the board, the disdain even went so far that some /pol/-anons started circulating methods to filter out all posts with meme flags by using browser extensions and block lists. Despite this, the stable distribution between flags (Figure 3) implies that the meme- or geo question has metastasized into well-known practices of cultural subversion and preservation.
This is not to say nothing has changed. In May 2022, NATO and Z flags were added, two contested icons that highlight the well-known role of 4chan’s moderators fuelling the fire of /pol/’s radical subcultures. Apart from these top-down changes, what we have learned from mapping the country flags is /pol/’s domination of U.S.-centric publics, the distribution of other nationalities on the board, and how the various “flag eras” sparked discussions on authenticity.
Blommaert, Jan. 2018. Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Hagen, Sal and Emilija Jokubaukaitė. 2020. “Dutch Junk News on Reddit and 4chan/pol/.” In The Politics of Social Media Manipulation, edited by Richard Rogers and Sabine Niederer. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Ludemann, Dillon. 2021. “Digital semaphore: Political discourse and identity negotiation through 4chan’s /pol/. New Media & Society (OnlineFirst): 1-20.
Peeters, Stijn and Sal Hagen. 2022. “The 4CAT Capture and Analysis Toolkit: A Modular Tool for Transparent and Traceable Social Media Research.” Computational Communication Research vol. 4, no. 2.
Thornton, Sarah. 1995. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity.