When the 4chan imageboard community helped make #cutforbieber a trending topic on Twitter and the subject of more than a half dozen news stories Monday, the world collectively gasped at the thought of Justin Bieber fans cutting themselves in response to a photo of the teenage heartthrob smoking marijuana. Yet underneath the shock and awe, 4chan's first prank of the year was about more than just cheap laughs.
Since its inception nine years ago, 4chan has become known as the Internet's sketchy male outhouse—a place where people can make crude jokes, show one another their penises, share their porn collections, and shock one another with gory photos, all under the guise of anonymity.
The site retained its smutty charm in 2012, but its tradition of schemes and pranks at the expense of other websites and the mainstream media took on a new level of sophistication. In the past six months, 4chan users rigged Time magazine's Person of the Year poll in favor of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and made "Hitler Did Nothing Wrong" look like the most popular name for a new Mountain Dew flavor.
In recent years, 4chan has become best known as the site that spawned Anonymous, the hacktivist collective that spent 2012 cracking FBI databases, lending a helping hand to Syrians, and seeking justice for a rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio.
But while Anonymous may have been spawned by 4chan, it no longer necessarily calls it home. Major Anonymous mouthpieces, like the influential @YourAnonNews, have shifted largely to Twitter or other sites. Anonymous has become a sociopolitical force. 4chan, meanwhile, has returned to its roots—with a twist.
While most 4chan stunts have been for the lulz, Monday’s sinister hoax at the expense of impressionable Beleibers is an example of the community's renewed obsession with manipulating the media into reporting on anything.
"I don't think it's at the children as it is the dum-dum tabloid media," Anonymous expert Cole Stryker told the Daily Dot. "I think Anonymous is going to revert back to this playfully dark mentality ... This stuff is way more fun than trying to bring down Tunisian government websites.”
The latest scheme started as most have, on the site’s random imageboard known as /b/, where users exchange foul language, violent images, and sexual content freely. The mission was to make the #cutforbieber hashtag trend on Twitter worldwide with photos of bloodied arms in response to one of Bieber smoking marijuana and “see if we can get some little girls to cut themselves.”
Once the scheme got rolling, the users who started the original /b/ thread removed it from the site in an attempt to hide their tracks and trick media organizations into believing the Twitter hashtag appeared organically.
It's around that point where the scheming likely moved to a private room on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and leadership roles were determined, said _js5, an IRC user who created the Java script used to game the aforemention Time poll in favor of Kim Jong-Un and spell “KJU GAS CHAMBERS” with the first letter of each candidate's name.
"The main hub of people working on the initiative will set goals and are very strict on following them," _js5 explained to the Daily Dot. _js5 also claims to have seen chatter about the scheme on the Internet after the photo of Bieber first leaked on Jan. 4.
"The leadership will decide the next moves and leadership is determined by skill, and how much power that person holds. The more resources a person has, the more power they will have. Access to easy media, web servers, administration of chat channels are examples of this."
With the leadership established, and the goal set, #cutforbieber went worldwide shortly after the 4chan thread was deleted. The result was gruesome. Photos of bloodied arms, a fake Facebook memorial page for a fan, and fake tweets from Bieber himself flooded Twitter, Buzzfeed reported.
#cutforbieber became the most popular hashtag on Twitter some time around 2:30pm ET Monday.
"As much as I love laughing at mindless internet drones joining an initiative that trolls set forward this one is a little too dark for my taste," _js5 added.
Almost immediately after #cutforbieber was a success, 4chan tried to double down on its trolling by making #smoke4bieber a trending topic.
"Time to counter troll!!!!" an anonymous user wrote around 6pm ET Monday. "We will now fuck with more kids by influencing them to smoke. It will still piss people off, and will make some stupid 12yr old smoke. At the end of the day, Bieber takes all the blame."
The effort proved to be futile due in part to a breakdown in leadership, said Jacob, a 4chan user.
"Once it reaches media attention, it gets picked up by outsiders of the community, and that's when it loses its leadership structure," Jacob added.
_js5 has been no stranger to the effects of such leadership woes and its damaging effects.
After Time magazine launched its prestigious Person of the Year poll on Nov. 26. users from Reddit, 4chan, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) gamed the online poll using a Java script by _js5 to automate votes for the Korean leader. The same script also enabled the group to to spell “KJU GAS CHAMBERS” with the first letter of each candidate's name and ultimately help Kim win Time's Person of the Year Reader Poll, despite North Korea's government run news organization reporting the opposite. (Time's coveted cover ultimately went to President Barack Obama.)
With the deed done, the leadership structure behind the Time prank fell apart. Other IRC users retaliated against _js5 for cooperating with the Daily Dot and for claiming ownership of the Java script by ordering pizzas to his home and dumping his personal information online.
"I look at these pranks as a cultural antidote to the asinine celebrity industrial complex," Stryker said. "It's a way for people to take the piss out of powerful media entities that try to present themselves as authentic to their audiences."
And if #cut4bieber is any indication, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of the prank.
"Expect Time magazine to get rigged again, and more people on Twitter to get trolled," _js5 said. "I predict the hoaxes to be more frequent. They gained a national spotlight recently in 2012 and people have gained a taste of what to expect."
Art by Jason Reed