8chan: Where the Appalling Becomes Appealing

8chan’s ability to bring the worst of the human mind out into the open drives its traffic.

© Who is Danny / Shutterstock

8chan is one of the most notorious message boards on the internet. Its contents include subjects ranging from extremist political ideas to extreme pornography. Unsurprisingly, it stands by the slogan “Embrace Infamy.” Visitors receive an equally intriguing salutation: “Welcome to 8chan, the Darkest Reaches of the Internet.” 8chan’s ability to bring the worst of the human mind out into the open drives its traffic. On May 6 this year, it had 85,084,569 active message boards with millions of visitor interactions. Is 8chan just a provocateur, or is there more to its story?

Unnervingly, 8chan is a place where provocative “views” develop into “beliefs,” and this has the ability to transform the attitudes and behaviors of its users. Martin Fishbein’s and Icek Ajzen’s theory of reasoned action is one of the best-known when it comes to the role of cognitive beliefs in attitude, intention and behavior formation. 8chan contributes to transforming petty and, at times, light-hearted social banter into deeply-held notions, attracting individuals and converting some into believers. It then provides them a space to organize, interact with and develop ideas that strengthen their beliefs.

Most importantly, users experience a sense of belonging and acceptance from like-minded people. This is the contribution of 8chan in creating virtual communities. Unsurprisingly, it was revealed that the New Zealand mosque attacker, Brenton Tarrant, and the Poway Synagogue shooter, John Earnest, used 8chan to circulate their terrorist intentions, distribute messages of hate and find a sense of belonging among an accepting audience.

Themes of Hate

How effective is the content of 8chan in inflaming marginal views? Does the site really incite extremism, or is it just a forum for free speech? 8chan stands by the latter, but what does its content reveal?

The Politically Incorrect message board, which is one of the site’s largest, had a total of 13,237,422 posts by 10.58am on May 6. Its ideas are hostile to the shared values of tolerance. As one user lamented, “all inclusive ‘sub humans’ [are] telling me to cope, [that] makes you no different than everyone else.” These views then develop in many different ways, targeting homosexuals, Jews and anyone else who is judged as different in one way or another.

It is interesting to observe that some of the forum participants’ exact desire to be different from everyone else is the reason for their hostility toward others. This shows a clear example of an unsolvable contradiction created by flawed reasoning. It is like saying that you want to be different, but can’t stand the differences of others that allow you to be different in the first place.

This fundamental intolerance of the Other then develops into hatred and malicious targeting. One user accused homosexuals of “set[ting] traps and play[ing] their … games as an excuse to rape straight men.” Even the idea that homosexuals aim to rape straight men would incite hatred toward LGBTQ people. This othering then predictably turns toward people of color. “If you found a monkey in an empty library, would you assume it wrote all the books?” asked one user, questioning colored people’s contribution to knowledge.

It does not stop with such amusing remarks. Another user passionately justified “genocide,” giving reasons. In the post titled “In Defence of Genocide,” an anonymous user stated: “It is good for genocide or expulsion to happen within a territory because the presence of humans of a different ethnic group than your own in an area means that the genes of your kindred will face future competition from other ethnic groups.” These are the views that are being normalized, accepted and hailed on the platform of 8chan.

Scapegoats of History

None of these prejudices seems complete without placing blame on the scapegoat of history — the Jews — for everything that is wrong with the world. One thread about the recently announced Westminster Holocaust memorial attracted many views that tried to justify the old Nazi ideas of “Jewish control.” As one user exclaimed, it is “next to the Houses of Parliament” while another claimed that “Hyde Park would be a better location.” This follows ideas of Jewish supremacy in Europe: “This is how they repay their best goyim for handing them Europe on a plate”; Jews “enslaved half of Europe for half a century,” and so on. The users seem to obsessively generalize reality and openly court conspiracy.

According to them, all mainstream ideas are Jewish propaganda: “Mainstream social media is a total locked down echo chamber where bluepills (Jewpill) are propagated without encountering opposition or real debate.” The comments go on and on.

8chan provides a space for reviving common prejudices or negative feelings toward difference. This politics of othering is already out in the open: political movements against the Other are on the rise across Europe. Sites such as 8chan do their silent bit, impacting their users’ perspectives, establishing dogmas and creating convictions. As seen in many European countries, the rise against the Other is also becoming a winning political formula. 8chan may be a small cog in a large machine that produces this winning formula, but its impact cannot be underestimated: The propagation of prejudice settles into minds, creating a strong impact that alters individual beliefs and attitudes. This can be devastating for the social fabric of democratic societies.

There is a debate as to whether or not to block platforms such as 8chan. However, blocking a site will not create a lasting solution. It is not the site that is the root of the problem but the rationale of the people who create and maintain it. What happened when Reddit blocked certain virtual communities, for example the subreddit known as DarkNetMarkets? The users migrated elsewhere to the sites such as Dreddit and who knows where else. Extremists will do the same as long as the dogma is there to convince and lead them. What is missing in this climate is a commitment toward strengthening alternative ideas at the grassroots level that act against the tide of political intolerance.

However, to be fair to 8chan users, we must not forget that these individuals who propagate inflammatory ideas might not have anything to do with the rise of the radical right. They may be 14-years-old kids who enjoy the cover of anonymity and the thrill of breaking taboos. This is the dilemma that researchers face in the age of the 4th industrial revolution. Therefore, it is necessary to keep in mind that these keyboard warriors can always be totally sensible people in real life.

Dr Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and a Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research, UK. See her profile here.

© Chamila Liyanage. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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