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We Should Really Stop Ignoring All the Terrorists on 4chan

by | Jan 19, 2017 |

America has a pretty obvious problem preventing incidents where someone walks into a crowded area and starts shooting everyone in sight. A big part of that problem is that, at least when the person doing the shooting is white, we’re oddly reluctant to call these incidents acts of terrorism. Instead, we act like they’re senseless tragedies that no one could have foreseen or prevented. And when we assume someone isn’t a terrorist, we don’t look into whether they acted on behalf of a terrorist organization.

Consider the story of Elliot Rodger, who went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California in May 2014. Rodger was very active in the internet’s “incel” community, a collection of internet message boards for the “involuntarily celibate” – or phrased less politely, sex-addicted virgins who have tried and failed to become “pick-up artists” and abandoned all hope. Rodger made his motive very clear in a series of videos and manifestos (which were shrugged off by authorities at the time) that he, essentially, planned to murder as many women as he was able, in order to punish the world for not providing incels like himself with loving girlfriends.

How about Dylann Storm Roof? He assassinated sitting state Senator Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in his church in South Carolina in June 2015, along with several other members of his congregation. In his confession to police, Roof specifically stated his goal was to “start a race war.” A look into his background shows that he became thoroughly radicalized from exposure to propaganda found on various popular white supremacy sites on the internet.

We also have Christopher Harper-Mercer, who murdered nine people in a rampage in Oregon in September 2015. Just like Elliot Rodger, he planned his act of terrorism on a message board for the “incel” community –specifically, 4chan’s /r9k/ subforum. Not only did he make it perfectly clear what he planned to do a day in advance, the rest of the community responded with suggestions to ensure a higher body count.

About two months later, sandwiched between a terror attack in Paris and a violent shootout at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a group of young men quite openly representing 4chan’s /pol/ and /k/ subforums recorded a pair of videos taunting Black Lives Matter protestors in Minnesota. Their livestreamed videos as they approached the protests included various slogans, in-jokes, and derogatory terms common to the site. Then they opened fire on a crowd, injuring five but resulting in no fatalities, causing the story to be lost amongst the week’s higher profile terror attacks.

If I were simply listing off a year’s worth of clear-cut acts of terrorism from white American men, I could also list the Louisiana theater shooting from July 2015, but I’d like to focus on the connection between these four incidents. The shooters were all the same ages, and made their motives crystal clear. More importantly, each one frequented the exact same set of websites. These kids all represent a firmly established terrorist organization that at the time lacked a formal name, but whose members all referred to each other as having “been Red Pilled.” So let’s go with that term.

Members are generally young cisgender white men, in their late teens and early twenties, self-described as friendless and loveless; in addition, they are typically in denial of their fringe-right political ideology, frequently describing themselves as “left libertarians” and “advocates of free speech.” They congregate primarily on 4chan, reddit, and similar sites (such as 8chan, Wizchan, and Voat), along with a strong presence on sites openly advocating white supremacy (such as Stormfront) and “Men’s Rights Activism” (such as A Voice For Men, MGTOW, Return of Kings, and PUA Hate). They’re uniformly misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and bear a particularly strong hatred of trans women above all else.

To be Red Pilled (the term is used almost exclusively as a verb, essentially a euphemism for “radicalized”) is to accept a belief that the world is secretly run by an evil cabal of “Social Justice Warriors” who, in an extremist extension of the civil rights movement, seek the total subjugation or eradication of white men. “SJWs” are an all-purpose boogieman – the cause of any and every problem facing the Red Pilled, no matter how trivial or important – and must be stopped.

The term itself is a reference to The Matrix. While this is a hilarious reference to make, given the themes of the movie (rejection of authoritarian states and an extended metaphor of coming out as trans) and the politics of its creators (whose later works are increasingly on the nose about embracing diversity), it’s also telling in a rather frightening way that they equate embracing their conspiracy theory with realizing one’s whole life to date is a lie. Acting as if a devastating war has been lost, and the world is run by unfeeling genocidal robots. They’re also prone to celebrating victories by shouting “the fire rises,” a catch-phrase of the nihilistic villain from The Dark Knight Rises, and making Nazi references both direct and obscure, particularly with their alternate term for “SJWs” – “cultural marxists” – or shouts of 14 and 88.

Equality-minded women with any presence on Twitter should be familiar with these terms and slogans, thanks to the first action from the Red Pilled to garner international attention: GamerGate. In its nascent days, before it was rebranded by TV’s Adam Baldwin, everyone’s favorite pack of screaming gibbons came into our lives when yet another friendless 20-something chose to take revenge on an ex he used to beat for leaving him by posting a novella-length manifesto of his target’s fictional crimes on a Red Pilled site – specifically, 4chan’s /r9k/, which you may recall as the planning site for Harper-Mercer’s rampage.

What is it about this particular support group for lonely virgins that makes it such a hotbed for violence? A big part of it comes from the structure of 4chan itself. 4chan and its many sister sites are really just message boards, with two eccentric features. First, every time a new thread starts, the least active thread is automatically deleted. Second, posters are truly anonymous, without even consistent usernames to distinguish them. For the average person, this enables a certain degree of hostility and criminality, since there’s at least the perception of no accountability, but it’s much worse for devout posters.

Say you’re feeling particularly friendless and alone. You find a new internet community, be it a message board, MMO, IRC channel, whatever. You look for conversations that interest you, join in, make connections, and eventually build up a sense of community, getting to know everyone better, and having deeper, more meaningful conversations.

That doesn’t happen on 4chan. You still get the initial feeling of belonging when you’re on the same page as everyone in a given conversation, and you might even talk to the same people the next day about something else, but there’s no real way for you to know it. Everyone’s nameless, faceless, and inherently interchangeable. You can’t compile a list of what interests you share with another person over the course of several chats. Attempts to form deeper connections through 4chan posts is like drinking salt water when you’re dehydrated: It tastes like it’s working, but ultimately, it just leaves you thirstier.

The feedback loop of loneliness this creates is particularly destructive on boards like Wizchan or /r9k/ catering to “incels.” The vast majority of new threads on /r9k/ are sad, lonely guys in their teens or twenties announcing that they have reached the end of their rope and plan to kill themselves, often specifying that they plan to first go on a killing spree to seek revenge on the world. Invariably, those replying encourage them to do so, frequently citing Elliot Rodger as an example to follow. Many urge everyone posting to follow suit, and “start the beta uprising.” It’s comforting to assume most are just doing this as a piece of performance art, but if so, the performance doesn’t stop when one of them follows through. Reaction threads to mass shooting incidents are full of the same talk. Essentially these boards are free-range farms for terrorists – willing to die, just needing a cause.

Another way of looking at the anonymity of chan culture is to imagine a gathering where everyone wears identical hooded robes. (A particularly apt metaphor when discussing /pol/, a gathering place for literal straight-up Nazis.) When they aren’t “ironically” sharing tales of white supremacy, they launch monthly “operations” as team-building exercises, where they demonstrate their superiority by impersonating women and black people on Twitter with inflammatory rhetoric.

Reddit is perhaps even more popular amongst the Red Pilled, because while it lacks the anonymity of 4chan, the structure of the site keeps the Red Pilled subsections hidden from the general public. 8chan, a spinoff of 4chan built to house what little content 4chan bans posters for, combines the worst aspects of both. Before GamerGate’s doxxing threads were driven there due to legal concerns, that only meant child pornography. Today, they’re best known for /baphomet/, a board where “SJWs” and government officials, along with their extended families, have their addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers overlaid on images of dismembered human corpses, sandwiched between animated gifs of pets being tortured to death. And of course, the extra scrutiny following the arrest of key /baphomet/ posters has lead to further decentralization, with doxxing efforts now shunted to a dedicated site called Kiwi Farms, separate from both target selection (handled on reddit) and plans of attack still made on more anonymous chan boards.

It should also be noted that all these Red Pilled sites serve as active recruitment sites for “more serious” hubs of white supremacy, and act as primary sources for Red Pilled tabloid “reporters.”

Why the hell aren’t we doing anything about this? While organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center keep regular tabs on Red Pilled terror attacks and their connections, and the FBI has had specific concerns about “right-wing terrorism” for years, right-wing politicians have pressured law enforcement agencies to focus more or less exclusively on international terrorism.

This means, sadly, we aren’t likely to see any legal action against Red Pilled terrorists or the sites on which they’re radicalized. Unless, of course, they follow the lead of Joshua Goldberg, who reached out to provide Red Pilled bomb-making advice to ISIS in September 2015.

Terrifying as it may be to realize how openly a dedicated terrorist organization has been operating within the U.S. for the past several years is the realization of just who it is directing these attacks. Gamergate was the moment when the roiling masses of violent reactionaries across the internet first really banded together to make war on society, and their roots in 4chan culture caused them to fall deeply in love with the notion that they were a truly leaderless movement, adherent only to the aggregate of their collective will. In reality however, they were (and still are) a blindly loyal army, all too happy to follow the orders of anyone fluent enough in their jargon of 4chan slang and racist jargon to stroke their collective egos and declare support of their war on “SJWs.”

Initially, the de facto leaders of Gamergate were a handful of 20-something deadbeats who regularly posted their “sociological theories” to 4chan’s /pol/ and organized earlier group actions like the “bikini bridge” and “End Father’s Day” operations. As it snowballed and drew more and more attention, however, more and more opportunists took advantage of the ready-made mob, pursuing personal vendettas or old grudges. Most such opportunists quickly withdrew back into the shadows afterwards, but one was so enamored with having his own personal hit squad he redirected his entire career and lifestyle into serving as their unofficial commander in chief.

That man is Milo Yiannopoulos, who while most famous today for leading a wave of truly vile mob harassment towards actress Leslie Jones has a very long history of just being the worst sort of petty misogynistic worm, as exemplified by his current project, “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”, wherein he simply travels from college to college outing closeted LGBT students before a crowd of bigots.

Yiannopoulous, already quite plainly Red Pilled, took up pandering to what was at the time known as Gamergate so shamelessly that he ultimately simply let members take over the writing of his columns for far-right tabloid Breitbart. After winning them over with horrific personal attacks on random women the community had fixated on, included baseless accusations of pedophilia and publication of extended family trees, he began to shift their focus away from their bizarre conspiracy theories, and onto campaigning for presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Trump would later reward these grassroots efforts by appointing Breitbart’s CEO as first his campaign manager, then chief strategist upon his eventual victory. Most of the Breitbart headlines stirring protests to these appointments were written by Yiannopoulous, including an attack on activist Shaun King based on tips from an associate later arrested for international terrorism.

While Yiannopoulous bought the loyalty of the Red Pilled terror movement purely through pandering, other Trump supporters funded their efforts more directly. Most notably billionaire and Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey, who in a truly surreal story proved to be directly paying Red Pilled operatives to bombard social media sites with 4chan memes, like “Pepe the Frog”, in support of Trump and in an attempt to discredit Hillary Clinton. It should be noted that Luckey’s funding aided not only the creation of Trump propaganda, but helped sustain the “movement” in direct aid of Yiannopoulous, as the latter directed a torrent of violence with clear ties to the various mass shootings covered previously against women and minorities. Billionaire Peter Thiel, now well rewarded for his role in Trump’s election, also has ties to these dangerous domestic terrorists, who were instrumental in diminishing Gawker Media’s ad revenue prior to his high profile efforts to sue them into bankruptcy, thanks to a Gamergate-backed assault on advertisers referred to as Operation Disrespectful Nod.

And of course, lest we forget, still further support of Trump’s meme-driven path to victory has been revealed to have clear ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The overlapping ties for all parties involved here could easily fuel a number of different conspiracy theories, but even without speculating on organizational charts, we have clear evidence of a terrorist organization whose members have been responsible for a distressingly large number of deadly mass shootings, and whose leaders are now being granted a variety of positions at the highest levels of executive power. It’s high past time we acknowledge this group for what it is, and hold them accountable for their crimes.

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