In Christchurch, New Zealand, 49 people were killed and over 40 were injured after a gunman opened fire at two mosques on Friday. It was one of the largest and most grotesque attacks targeting the Muslim community to date. And the shooter made it clear that it was a racist, xenophobic terrorist attack.
Moments before the mass shooting, an anonymous 8chan user shared a post on the imageboard’s politics board, /pol/, claiming that it’s “time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post.” That same user shared a series of links to a 74-page manifesto called “The Great Replacement.” Penned by an Australian 28-year-old named Brenton Tarrant, the main suspect arrested in connection with the mosque shootings, the manifesto is filled with tongue-in-cheek bigotry and irony, mirroring 8chan’s sense of humor. In one passage, Tarrant posts the “Navy Seal” copypasta. In another section, he calls himself a “kebab removalist.”
None of this rhetoric surprised /pol/. There were no users claiming his post was too edgy or that his actions are reprehensible. No, in 8chan’s eyes, Tarrant is “based.” He is the real deal. All this is a joke, and the punchline is 49 deaths.
“HAHAHA HE PLAYED REMOVE KEBAB EN ROUTE!” one /pol/ user wrote. “I’M DYIN’ OVER HERE!”
If you want to understand 8chan, you’ll have to first go to 4chan. And to understand 4chan is to know Gamergate.
In late August 2014, actor and conspiracy theorist Adam Baldwin kicked off the hashtag #Gamergate on Twitter, mobilizing “gamers” over a series of articles criticizing white male entitlement in the gaming world. Gamergate uncorked political issues festering under gaming’s surface, revealing an ongoing divide between reactionary gamers and the women, queer folks, and people of color who held up the industry. Gamergate became a battle between the left vs. right on Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan, and its conversations weren’t just theoretical: Gamergaters saw certain key people, such as Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian and her criticism, as gaming’s problem.
By September 2014, 4chan’s moderation team realized things were getting out of hand. Citing 4chan’s rules against posting “personal information/raids/calls to invasion,” 4chan’s founder and then-admin Christopher “moot” Poole said Gamergate had “outgrown 4chan.” He apologized to /v/ users, and across the site, Gamergate discussions were effectively banned.
This sent /v/ and /pol/’s Gamergate supporters into a frenzy. Many users began a mass exodus to a little-known imageboard created the year before: 8chan.
“I followed [8chan] pretty closely during its rise,” Twitter user @voidgndr (who uses voi/void and they/them pronouns) told the Daily Dot. “It was… Weird? Like, actively watching this website I’d used for years that was just fucking abhorrent finally reach such a fever pitch that someone finally had to step in and moderate, and then the userbase just fucking split.”
8chan was originally founded by computer programmer Fredrick “Hot Wheels” Brennan, who wanted to create a website dedicated to free speech, anonymity, and custom user boards, according to a Daily Dot report from 2017. For fleeing Gamergaters, 8chan’s appeal was obvious. The imageboard only has one global rule: “Do not post, request, or link to any content that is illegal in the United States of America and do not create boards with the purpose of posting or spreading such content.”
While there are a couple of adjacent rules for board owners, 8chan’s global admins otherwise let mods run their own imageboard communities as they please. No one will stop you if you post racial slurs, organize a dogpile against a games journalist on Twitter, or share someone’s dox. YouTuber Dan Olson, a prominent 8chan critic who unveiled its problems with pedophilia, claims 8chan was “pretty much always this bad” and “friendly to the far-right since day 1.”
“While 4chan’s neo-Nazi problem is something that has festered and grown over the years through a mix of apathy and complacency, 8chan pretty much came out the gate courting extremists,” Olson told the Daily Dot. “Like, 4chan is an awful place, but there is still a level of overt white nationalism that will get you banned. It’s a high bar, but it exists. 8chan was promoting to the people who felt 4chan was too ‘cucked.'”
Gamergate cycled through a couple of imageboards at first. These days, discussions mostly reside on a Gamergate thread on 8chan’s /v/, where lists for “current tasks,” “resources,” and more are shared. Ongoing campaigns are called “operations” and given tongue-in-cheek names. For instance, Gamergaters are currently trying to contact the United Nations to counteract a U.N. protocol calling for a ban on child pornography in all forms, including drawings and cartoons. That operation is called “OP Locked and Loli’d: Striking Back Against the U.N. Loli Ban.”
8chan didn’t invent “operations.” The name goes back to the early days of Anonymous on 4chan. But 8chan’s Gamergate community is bizarrely intense, even by Gamergate standards. Anonymous users talk about the gaming industry almost as if they’re at war, with battles taking place across the internet against everyone from women in games to the U.N. It’s an us vs. them mindset, one that proved too much even for some Gamergaters.
Twitter user @RinaIsBad supported Gamergate when 8chan first blew up years ago, although she initially saw the imageboard as just a “temporary tool” and a “shittier, slightly edgier” version of 4chan. She later left Gamergate after she felt it “stopped caring about the industry itself” and instead hyperfixated on “the ideology of people as if that in and of itself was the issue.” These days, she doesn’t have any kind words to spare 8chan.
“As years went by, and more batshit insane stuff started appearing [on 8chan], like the Qanon shit, and the general /pol/ /b/-ishness of literally everything posted on every subject, the whole place seemed like a dumpster fire of people who took the ‘pretending to be an asshole’ thing way too far,” @RinaIsBad told the Daily Dot. “At some point, shit went from, ‘I’m just pretending to be a racist psycho,’ to ‘I actually am a white nationalist lunatic.'”
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. While one can debate whether Gamergate started as a right-wing movement, it became one de facto early on. By September 2014, Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos started reporting on Gamergate, and many supporters flocked to his side (Disclosure: Yiannopoulos was the founder of the Kernel, a publication the Daily Dot acquired in 2014.). Not everyone was comfortable with Yiannopoulos, but making bedfellows with the then-editor proved convenient: He could give legitimacy to Gamergate. In turn, his support opened the floodgates to more right-wing radicalization among Gamergate’s members. Gradually, Gamergaters further doubled down on the right as Yiannopulos became a celebrity among them.
“Almost every thread [on 8chan] was GG-related starting out, which makes sense given the timing,” @voidgndr told the Daily Dot. “A lot of people just mocking SJWs and stuff, the kind of shit you see on [internet stalking forum Kiwi Farms] today. A LOT of doxing too. It was vicious, I mean, but it was honestly probably the tamest it ever was, insane as it is to say that. […] Like, they were still literal fucking Nazis, but they at least downplayed it.”
It would be a stretch to say Gamergate caused the Christchurch mosque shootings. But Gamergate provided the traffic that 8chan needed to take off and grow. And it provided a series of values that meshed well with right-wing radicalization. If you believe women like Sarkeesian are ruining gaming, it’s easy to believe feminism is destroying Western culture. If you believe journalists of color in the gaming industry are being “reverse racists” toward white men, you could easily come to believe that Muslims are destroying white, European culture. Over time, “shitposts” about white nationalism turn into “effort posts” that lead to real-life violence against the most marginalized groups. All it takes is a userbase ready for indoctrination.
“As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t the first chan shooter; this is just the most unambiguous,” Olson told the Daily Dot. “Gab, 4chan, 8chan, Reddit’s incel and redpill forums, Return of Kings, Kiwi Farms—they’re different sites, but it’s all the same pool of users. It’s the same people.”
Over 82 million posts have been made on 8chan since it opened in October 2013, and the site is also among the top 5,000 visited around the world. While the imageboard isn’t quite as popular as 4chan—8chan’s rival is among the top 900 sites internationally—it’s still one of the most popular imageboard alternatives, if not the most popular. Another popular alternate imageboard, lolcow.farm, has a global Alexa rating (ranking popularity) in the 25,000s. BBWChan, an imageboard dedicated to fetishism around large bodies, has a ranking in the 18,000s.
The sad reality is 8chan wasn’t even founded on free speech: It was founded on pettiness. At least, that’s what Twitter user Margaret Gel claims, who says she was friends with founder Brennan during Gamergate and tested features for 8chan at the time. She reached out to the Daily Dot and said his “free speech” rules were “just a ploy to get as many users as possible” to surpass 4chan, and that he “hated most of the people who used his site.”
“When it came to Gamergate, he just thought that the people from Gamergate would help him with his ambitions of having a more popular site than 4chan,” Gel alleged. “He didn’t even like them; they annoyed him, but he saw them as being a means to the end he wanted.” (The Daily Dot reached out to Brennan for comment and is awaiting a response.)
Running a website is a great responsibility, one that should be taken seriously. That means moderating content appropriately and preventing dangerous materials from spreading, whether that’s child pornography or hate speech. But 8chan was built on a foundation tied with some of the worst parts of the internet: pettiness, drama, and a right-leaning movement eager for legitimacy. It’s no surprise 8chan ended up where it is today. It was set up for this.
“It’s exactly what I expected. It’s exactly what you should expect when you let shit like this fester, and I really doubt that [Brennan] or [8chan’s current owner Jim Watkins] give a fuck that it happened, regardless of whatever they’re gonna say about it,” @voidgndr told the Daily Dot. “Anyone with their finger on the pulse in 2019, with any knowledge of the alt-right’s origins, probably knew something like this was likely.”
Update 7:45am CT, March 17: Brennan responded to the Daily Dot’s request for comment after the publication of this article. In a tweet from Saturday morning, he directed the Daily Dot to two public statements regarding his affiliation with 8chan. In particular, he stressed that while he founded 8chan, he is “in no wise responsible for its continued operation,” and that he has “neither stake in nor any type of control over the website known as 8chan/8ch.net.”
After being sent a list of questions responding to both Gel’s allegations and this published article’s claims, Brennan stressed that he was not familiar with Gel and that he denies her account.
“My only comment is that I had no idea who Gel was,” Brennan told the Daily Dot over email. “I looked up their ED page and Twitter and believe maybe I’ve heard of them, I believe they were popular on Twitter during the Gamergate controversy, I recognize vaguely their Twitter handle, but of course deny being friends with them and deny their characterizations of myself and events generally.”