8chan Logo Pattern
The banner of free speech flies high above 8chan.co.

The banner of free speech flies high above 8chan.co, the central hive of Gamergate, where thousands of users have converged in recent weeks to build their movement. But clinging to that noble First Amendment ideal is a community of pedophiles, walking just barely on the right side of the law.

On numerous public forums, 8chan users share graphic images of children, plus links to hardcore child pornography. No content is hidden. Thousands of posts are accessible within two clicks of the homepage.  

8chan’s founder, Fredrick Brennan, created the site in response to what he sees as the ongoing and vast loss of free speech on the Internet. On 8chan, “anyone can say what they want and mean,” Brennan told the Daily Dot. 

It’s easy to find what Brennan calls “proof” of his ironclad commitment to free speech: numerous forums filled with radically sexualized images of little girls and boys. Alongside photos of children in varying states of undress, guided into Playboy-model poses by unseen older hands, user-submitted stories chronicle their interactions with children.

• • •

8chan has been around since Oct. 2013, but it was 4chan’s expulsion of Gamergate, a group of anti-feminist crusaders, that set off an explosion in 8chan’s popularity. The site is now the indisputable home base of a popular but divisive online movement. 

Gamergate has been described as a modern culture war between left and right. The side that most 8channers land on is clear.

Advocates say Gamergate champions fairness and transparency in journalism. Critics call it a delusional and violent harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry and their allies. The discussion first spread on 4chan’s video game forum after a blog post inspired death threats against a female game developer. 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole banned the conversation, allegedly because it violated 4chan’s rules against harassment. 

The promise of unrestricted chatter led Gamergate to 8chan. Brennan welcomed the group with open arms, and some of the Internet’s right-leaning political activists made 8chan a cause celebre. 

Brennan now calls 8chan a “free-speech-friendly 4chan alternative.”

It’s odd for some to hear 4chan thought of as a restricted community. The site, known for years of high-profile online pranks against everything from major corporations to 11-year-old girls, has always had a mainstream reputation as an anything-goes free-for-all. Brennan unceremoniously rejects that idea. He called 4chan “authoritarian” and accused it of turning into a soulless for-profit venture. 

• • •

Free speech, two simple words that evoke a torrent of political emotion in the West, is simultaneously the flag raised above our most important self-expression and the shield protecting some of humanity’s most nauseating acts.

When some of the biggest and most influential websites on the Internet—such as massive communities like 4chan and Reddit—are criticized for hosting abhorrent material, you can be sure you’ll hear those two words repeated ad nauseum in their defense.

When redditors post upskirt photos of unsuspecting women in public: free speech. When 4channers harass a preteen girl to the point of needing police protection: free speech. When one of Reddit’s most popular communities is dedicated to a celebration of bigotry: free speech.

Of course, the issue is often more complicated than a simple two-step like that. 

Pageviews, profit motives, corporate parents, public relations, and the basic morality of community administrators all influence site rules and enforcement. Reddit and 4chan have defended grisly content in the past with the words “free speech,” but each has adopted a progressively stricter rule set as it’s grown more popular. 

“We stand for free speech,” Reddit’s former CEO Yishan Wong once said in response to a wave of controversy that washed over the site because of a forum dedicated to surreptitious, sexualized shots of women on the street known as “creepshots.”

Still, many redditors don’t feel that the site adequately allows them to exercise their right to free speech. So that movement, too, migrated in a small way to 8chan. It’s shown up several times on 8chan but has died off repeatedly because of inactivity. In truth, creepshots is still an active movement on Reddit.

Under increasingly bright spotlights, both Reddit and 4chan now regularly ban some technically legal but controversial content that was once deemed acceptable.

8chan strives to be different.

• • •

On 8chan’s pedophile forums, users insult and dismiss most anyone who might object to the content they’re sharing, calling them “moralfags.” 

Moralfags, the thinking goes, are not worth listening to because the self-described pedophiles, hebephiles, and ephebophiles (each word specifies the age of children that an adult is sexually attracted to) who populate these forums have heard “moralfag arguments” a million times already. No amount of indignant Internet posting, they reason, changes the fact that they’re attracted to children, or that they want to look at sexualized images of them. So ignoring or berating the inevitable crusaders is the only retort they have.

Several 8chan forums feature children as young as toddlers dressed in swimsuits or thongs and posed suggestively. If this isn’t outright illegal hardcore child pornography, it’s walking up to the line of the law and spitting over it with a smirk.

8chan’s userbase leans conservative, says Brennan, although there are left-leaning forums too, such as /marx/ and /leftypol/. 8chan’s supporters laud the aggressive political allegiance to free speech.

According to Brennan, “the very fact that the boards are full of things that your average person (myself included) would find reprehensible” proves his site is dedicated to unrestricted conversation. “Once you get past all of the terrible content posted by teenagers to feel cool, you get to very interesting discussions and opinions that could simply not happen on Reddit or Facebook,” he said.

Public traffic data for 8chan.co is not available, but Brennan said the site “has held steady at a little over 1 million page views per day, 35,000 unique visitors per day, and 400,000 posts per week for the last few weeks.”

The site’s biggest boards are not pedophile-centric. Instead, many of 8chan’s most active boards are political. 

These are where Brennan’s “very interesting discussions” occur. Self-described conservatives make up the majority of these boards. “Our largest politics board, /pol/, is very right-leaning,” Brennan explained. 

I checked into /pol/ to take a sampling of the content. I saw discussion of small-government Republicanism, angry criticism of “n****r culture,” a long thread saying Bill Cosby’s alleged rape victims are faking it, and multiple rants against Muslim immigration to the West.

Brennan is himself a registered Republican, he told me, but only so that he could vote (for Ron Paul). 8chan has boards visited by people across the political spectrum, but there’s no doubt where the majority weighs in.

The right-wing ideology that permeates the site is made evident by 8channers’ preoccupation with feminism and other liberal ideologies, which they see as the root of evil. That’s not a surprise, given that Gamergate was the major catalyst for 8chan’s popularity. 

• • •

“I don’t give a shit about what any news agency has to say about me or my website,” Brennan told me. “I only care what law-enforcement agencies have to say.”

He said he expects regular backlash, but “I don’t care about media crocodile tears for pageviews.”

With that, he dismissed the idea that a journalist might have genuine concern about a website hosting photos of what many would call sexual abuse of small children. In his caricature of the media, reporters aren’t human beings so much as they’re digital machines fueled by advertising dollars.

I asked him about a forum called /doll/, which hosts provocative photos of barely clothed little girls.

“If you want /doll/ shut down,” he countered, “you should instead focus on the studios who are producing this content. Some of them are even legally based in the USA. That’s the real story here, not some perverts posting them online after the fact.”

The photos already exist, Brennan argues. So what if he’s building a directory through which they can be shared and discussed? In other words: Someone else is in the wrong already, and he’s merely using the fruits of that labor.

Brennan’s 8chan hosts no advertising, it should be noted, but he does solicit donations on top of every page on the site. According to records from his Bitcoin wallet and Patreon page, Brennan receives about $1,500 in monthly donations from 8chan’s users.

In Brennan’s eyes, his only responsibility is to free speech and the laws that govern the United States, where his website is hosted. If the laws get too restrictive, he noted, other options are available.

Do thoroughly sexualized images of small children qualify as free speech? The images found on 8chan are often legal “softcore” photos in which the content does not definitively qualify as sexually explicit, i.e. featuring simulated sex, intercourse, and visible genitalia. The tone and context of 8chan’s forums make the sexual references clear, however, and there are multiple threads throughout the site in which users discuss and link directly to hardcore child pornography.

Much closer to a pure free-speech issue are 8chan forums like /younglove/. Rather than feature photos of children, this forum emphasizes safe discussion between pedophiles, the sort of interaction that many can’t get in real life.

On /younglove/, pedophiles gather to discuss their urges, lament what they perceive as their persecution, and ask about how others interact with children.

“I tend to do ‘childish’ things that tend to annoy other adults,” one anonymous poster wrote. “People constantly complain that I'm ‘making noises’, tapping on things, playing with the buttons, windows and vents while in a car. One time at a party I was just kinda sitting there ripping up the dirt with a stick. A cute girl about 5 came over and asked me why I was doing it and wanted to join me. So I was wondering if it might be some kind of unintentional thing pedos to do ‘attract’ kids.”

Some observers doubtlessly read conversations like this as sharing strategies for grooming children to become victims, but the pedophiles themselves see it differently. The discussions are, they say, a chance to open up in ways that they simply can’t in day-to-day life.

The freedom to post sexualized images of children on sites like 8chan is a signpost not just for those who enjoy them. The fact that those photos are fair game sends other users a clear message straight from the top of 8chan: Brennan is truly dedicated to his ideals of free speech with as few limits as possible.

Pedophiles, likely the Internet’s most reviled subculture, are among the digital groups most heavily targeted by police. Wherever in cyberspace they are able to survive despite pressure from the law, it’s seen as signal to others that the coast is clear.

When law enforcement shut down 27 Dark Net sites in a global police operation last week, the chaos led many to wonder if the Tor anonymity network had been profoundly compromised. One early sign that Tor was not totally broken was that the Dark Net’s biggest child pornography sites survived and even thrived under the police pressure.

Much of the rest of the Dark Net’s diverse population, even those whose stomachs turn at the very mention of child porn, took that as a sign that all was not lost.

I asked Brennan if child pornography and the kind of pedophilic content found on 8chan are inevitable fixtures in the landscape of hardcore free-speech zones like his website.

“Unfortunately, yes,” he said. “I don’t support the content on the boards you mentioned, but it is simply the cost of free speech and being the only active site to not impose more ‘laws’ than those that were passed in Washington, D.C.”

Brennan sees his site as a bulwark against an Internet that he believes is in rapid decline, one losing free speech and gaining surveillance.

“I hope that with my help we’ll [be] heading towards more free speech, but I fear that the reality is that we’re heading towards less,” he explained. “All the major discussion sites are owned by large money-grubbing corporations, and their platforms are closed source. It’s incredibly toxic.”

Toxicity that, in Brennan’s opinion, warrants the images of child abuse his users are sharing right now.

• • •

Brennan’s personal dream of free speech is idealistic and popular, but ultimately an abdication of responsibility for the role consumers of this content—and administrators of these websites—play in a realm where children are victimized.

8chan’s servers run within the United States, but the site is not bound by the U.S. Constitution. Brennan has no obligation to the First Amendment. The rules that govern his website are strictly his own decision.

As such, there’s one person who is ultimately responsible for what is allowed on 8chan: Brennan himself.

Illustration by Jason Reed

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