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Here’s what happens when you report on the Internet’s most notorious forum for pranks and mischief.
Two large pizzas. A year-long subscription to Lucky magazine. A catalog for Enhanced Vision, an organization that creates product for the visually impaired.
What do all of these things have in common?
They’re just some of the items fraudulently ordered using my name since I started reporting on 4chan, an imageboard community notoriously known for its random forum /b/ and historic pranks.
Over the last four months, I’ve reported on 4chan’s best (and worst) moments, such as gaming an online competition to have Taylor Swift perform at a school for the deaf and trying to name a new Mountain Dew flavor “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
But I unintentionally kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest with a series on how a group of 4chan, 9gag, Reddit, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) members who took over Time‘s Person of the Year poll. The anonymous users were ultimately able to vote North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the top of the list using a Java script that automated the voting process on Polldaddy, the survey site powering Time’s poll.
The pranking began after the first Time-related story ran on Nov. 27, only a day or so after the magazine opened its prestigious poll. That afternoon, while sitting in a computer lab at the State University of New York at Oswego, I received a phone call from Amore’s Pizzeria, an Italian restaurant in my hometown.
“Hi, is this Fernando Alfonso?” the woman on the phone said. “I’m calling to verify an online order for a Family Feast [1 large 16″ pizza, 1 spaghetti dinner, mozzarella sticks, garlic knots].”
I kindly told the woman that I did not place that order. And neither did my father, who had also received a call from Amore’s verifying the transaction. My father, who worked at IBM for more than three decades, was unfazed at the news of some Internet misfits playing a prank. My mother, on the other hand, had a different perspective.
“How the hell did they get our address?” my mother balked over the phone, forgetting that she and my father have been listed in the White Pages since before I was born. “I don’t like any of this. Get our address off the Internet.”
Sorry, mom. There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.
4chan pranksters soon went digital. They bombarded my personal and work email accounts with subscriptions to Lotto Daily, HerRoom (an online lingerie shop), and recipes from goodtoknow. I also received notifications from Twitter and BlueHost that password resets had been requested from my accounts. The emails, and pranks in general, seemed to slow to a trickle over the last week—until I received another call from Amore’s Monday.
This time it was to verify an order for a large pizza and fried shrimp platter (which they were calling to change since they were out of shrimp).
Of course, I’m not the first reporter to land in 4chan’s crosshairs. After publishing his masterful book, Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web, author and Anonymous expert Cole Stryker received more than just the occasional pizza.
“I received pizzas and death threats, the usual,” shrugged Stryker.
“My favorite was a single $90 Dominoes pizza that came with triple of every available topping. Also, someone sent my middle-aged aunt an invitation for a sexual rendezvous with ‘Cole Stryker’ from a Facebook account that mimicked my own perfectly. I got a free Koran. To be honest, I’m surprised they’re still doing this sort of thing in 2012. It seems kinda boring at this point.”
No matter how many precautions are taken, like using fake addresses online, 4chan users and their like-minded contemporaries have ways of digging for information. That was the case for _js5, an IRC user who created the Java script used to spell “KJU GAS CHAMBERS” with the first letter of each Person of the Year candidate. After cooperating with the Daily Dot on a story about the Time prank, _js5 had pizzas ordered under his name.
“It’s kind of scary the amount of information that is on the Web and how easy it is to find said information,” _js5 told the Daily Dot. “There is much worse they could have done, but they didn’t seem to be very angry.”
Since 4chan was started nine years ago by Christopher “moot” Poole in his parents’ New York apartment, the community has grown to be an Internet force to be reckoned with. The site has more than 100,000 users who publish more than 1 million posts a day to more than 50 different boards covering topics like video games, anime and science.
On Aug. 3, the site collected its landmark billionth post.
Over the years the 4chan community has done a lot of good. It has helped cheer up a WWII veteran on his birthday and helped police track down a girl who threw puppies into a river.
Yet despite these good deeds, the site has also become notorious for the random imageboard known as /b/, a place where users exchange foul language, violent images, and sexual content under the cover of anonymity. 4chan users have hacked the Facebook account of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, caused Apple’s stock to plunge following a Steve Jobs death rumor, and helped the swastika land on Google’s Hot Trends, a popular list that tracks the most searched terms or phrases at the moment.
So the question is, what can an ordinary person do to avoid being pranked? The simple answer is also the most difficult: Pay them no attention.
“My advice is to not engage with the trolls at all,” Stryker added. “Don’t email or call back, just ignore them and they’ll lose interest. Also, be supremely apologetic to the [pizza] delivery men.
“They’re the real victims here.”
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III/Photo by id-iom
Fernando Alfonso III served as an early Reddit and 4chan reporter and the Daily Dot’s first art director until 2016. He’s gone on to report at Lexington’s Herald-Leader and at the Houston Chronicle.