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What Happens When 4chan Attacks?

A new study explores the influence of the site’s Politically Incorrect forum.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Howard Kang/Flickr)

4chan is the dark underbelly of the Internet (or at least the darkest readily accessible underbelly), a place where ruthless mockery is de rigueur. Now, as the denizens of 4chan have begun to venture into political mayhem-making, a team of computer scientists is working to figure out how much influence they actually have—and, in some cases, it’s quite a lot.

If you haven’t heard of 4chan, well, consider yourself lucky. In theory just an anonymous Internet message board hearkening back to the bulletin board systems of yore, it is probably best known for leaking nude images of celebrities and an attack that spammed the social network Tumblr with graphic images and pornography. ArsTechnica recently reported 4chan users were likely behind GamerGate, an online campaign meant to harass and discredit women game developers and journalists.

More recently, they’ve embraced a sort of political activism via the “Politically Incorrect” forum, also known as /pol/, where a plan called Operation Google was hatched to circumvent Google’s anti-harassment efforts. There are also hints /pol/ users were behind a pro-Donald Trump effort to take over Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta’s Twitter account and wipe his smartphone.

If you haven’t heard of 4chan, consider yourself lucky.

But what impact does a typical 4chan-based attack have? That’s where Gabriel Emile Hine, a graduate student researching information security at Roma Tre University in Rome, and his colleagues step in. First, they gathered more than eight million posts from the /pol/ forum, a content analysis of which revealed what sophisticated Internet users already knew: “/pol/ is a pretty hateful place,” where derogatory language is, if not exactly commonplace, then far from unusual.

Among the more disturbing posts on /pol/ are what the researchers term raids, such as the attacks on Tumblr and Operation Google, the aim of which was to get people to use technology company names in place of racist epithets in tweets and other communication outside 4chan (for example, “Google” in place of a derogatory term for African Americans, or “Skype” in place of a slur for Jews). Operation Google, the researchers found, had limited effect outside of /pol/—for example, perhaps a thousand or so instances of the hashtag “#dumbgoogles” ever showed up on Twitter.

Raids may have somewhat more impact on YouTube. Hine and his colleagues compared comments on YouTube videos with /pol/ posts that include links to the same videos. That comparison suggests the rate of new comments—especially those that include racial epithets—rises dramatically shortly after a video is mentioned in a /pol/ post.