In the wake of the school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, public attention has again turned to the anonymous image board 4chan.org. The site was used to announce a potential act of violence against a Philadelphia-area university on Monday, which was not fulfilled.
From horrific acts of violence to celebrity photo leaks, the site comes up time and time again in the media, and many elements of the site make it susceptible to hosting threats.
The Anonymous Effect:
4chan is an anonymous image board, meaning posts are generally independent and not tied to any specific account or username, as compared to sites like Facebook or Twitter. This allows for a great deal of confusion in identifying who posted what. There are some instances in which posters have been identified. For example, in 2011, 19-year-old Ali Saad was arrested after the FBI discovered he had made posts to the site’s “random” board in which he made threats to shoot up his college, Wayne State University.
Many boards on 4chan frequently reference terms such as “normie," meaning “normal” — those who are more or less accepted by society at large. The board gaining particular infamy in the wake of the recent shootings and threats, “/R9K/,” is highly representative of this culture. The posters refer to one another as fellow “robots,” and the conversations tend to focus on the depression users feel due to their lack of social graces and status as outsiders. The board also has a “no repeat” policy, meaning every post must be new and unique. This often leads to a great deal of random and obscure posts on the board.
Given the seemingly monolithic nature of 4chan, it is easy to blanket the site and all the content that comes from it as a result of the site itself. An example of this comes from CNN’s coverage of the 2014 celebrity photo scandal in which the news outlet was under the impression that 4chan was stealing celebrity photos and disseminating them to the public. Many were under the impression that 4chan had published the photos in the same way a site such as Buzzfeed would. In reality, individual posters are the ones who ultimately post content.
For many members of the 4chan community, the greatest possible fruit of their labor would be to fool a mainstream news outlet into publishing something erroneous. An example of this comes from the investigations following Elliot Rodger’s massacre at UC Santa Barbara. After the killing spree, posters managed to fool a journalist from The Mirror, a British tabloid, into thinking they were close friends of the killer and that he regularly posted on the site's fitness board. The story eventually made its way to other news sources, from the New York Post to the Daily Mail. It wouldn't be surprising if triggering an FBI and ATF alert throughout the mid-Atlantic were the holy grail for some of these internet trolls.
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