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4chan is a complicated community—to say the least.
The free anonymous imageboard, which brought us popular memes like lolcats and Rickrolling and helped spawn the hacker collective Anonymous, has often been on the cutting edge of internet culture. Started by Christopher “moot” Poole in his parents’ New York apartment in October 2003, the site has consistently pushed the boundaries of decency and defined the slang we casually use online.
4chan claims to have 27,700,000 active users each month, spread across its different forums. Posts only exist for a brief period of time, leading to a steady stream of ideas, pictures, and often chaos. On 4chan you can find earnest discussions about art, pop culture, and the human mind, and over the years, its community has actually done some good. It’s helped cheer up a WWII veteran on his birthday, helped a school for the deaf compete for a Taylor Swift performance, and helped police track down a girl who threw puppies into a river.
But whatever positive impact it’s had, 4chan has always been overshadowed by /b/, a notorious forum place where users exchange foul language, violent images, and sexual content freely. With nearly unlimited freedom and anonymity will come abuse, and the site has been the center of numerous controversies over its existence.
The biggest 4chan controversies, scandals, and pranks
1) Sarah Palin’s email account “hacked,” August 2008
The former Alaska governor had her email account broken into by a 4chan user during the 2008 election. The man behind the “hack” was David Kernell, a college student and son of state representative Mike Kernell of Memphis. Kernell was able to access Palin’s email account by using Yahoo’s password recovery feature. He posted screenshots of the emails to 4chan’s /b/ imageboard where they ultimately captured the world’s attention. Kernell was ultimately arrested and charged with four felonies. He served one year and a day in prison and is currently on probation. —Fernando Alfonso III
- 4chan has always sucked—but now it sucks works
- A beginner’s guide to 4chan
- The unbearable dankness of memes
- The spammy history of ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°), Le Lenny Face
- 34 surprising exceptions to Rule 34
Following the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, discussions of race, gun control and how laws are interpreted dominated the news cycle. The issue of race, in particular, became contentious, with people claiming that Zimmerman shot Martin the night of Feb. 26 because he was black. These claims angered one hacker named Klanklannon, who hacked Martin’s Facebook and email. Klanklannon posted screengrabs of emails Facebook messages to 4chan’s politics board to show that Martin “somehow deserved to be killed,” Gawker reported. —F.A.III
3) Steve Jobs death hoax causes stock plunge, Fall 2008
Following almost every public appearance Apple CEO Steve Jobs made in 2008, a death or illness rumor followed. On Oct. 3, 2008, just two weeks before Jobs presented one of his famous keynotes, a rumor appeared on CNN’s user generated news tip site iReport that Jobs had died from a heart attack. The rumor proved to be false and was ultimately tracked down to 4chan. But the damage was already done. The rumor of Jobs’ death spread to sites like Digg and ultimately helped cause Apple’s stock price to fall “about 10 percent before rebounding later in the day,” CNET reported. —F.A.III
4) Zoe Quinn proves 4chan is behind Gamergate, 2014
Gamergate, a sexist backlash against women in the video game industry, exploded in 2014 and continues to reverberate to this day—largely thanks to 4chan. While its proponents claimed it was really “about ethics in gaming journalism,” their tactics involved online harassment, doxing, leaking of nude photos, making death threats, and attacking the advertisers of sites that were critical of them.
After months of harassment, developer Zoe Quinn was able to gain access to private IRC channel used by 4chan. On the IRC channel, she found proof that the movement wasn’t a group of concerned gaming fans but rather a coordinated attack against her and other progressive voices in the gaming community. In the logs she found proof of raids against people and sites critical of the moment, plans for future attacks and social media campaigns, and general slander. While Gamergate itself has calmed down in the years since, Quinn and other Gamergate targets, like vlogger Anita Sarkeesian, are still the target of absurd amounts of online harassment. —John-Michael Bond
5) Wisconsin man sentenced to six months for NFL stadium bomb threat, Fall 2006
While 4chan may not have an archival system, large-scale threats made on the site don’t often slip by unnoticed. Between September and October of 2006, 22-year-old Jake Brahm posted at least 40 different threats on 4chan. One of them included a detailed plan to detonate 7 bombs at NFL stadiums in cities including New York, Atlanta and Miami.
““[T]he death toll will approach 100,000 from the initial blasts and countless other fatalities will later occur as result from radioactive fallout,” Brahm wrote, according to Tom’s Guide.
Brahm was arrested and pled guilty to posting a bomb threat on the Internet. He ended up serving six months in prison. —F.A.III
6) Swastika tops Google searches, July 2008
It was a mystery Google could not figure out. On July 12, 2008, the symbol of the Nazi regime hit the top of Google’s Hot Trends, a popular list that tracks the most searched terms or phrases at the moment.
“The swastika is a traditional Chinese good-luck character, the Olympics are coming up, and good luck is on the Chinese mind,” suggested one blogger named Dan, in an attempt to explain why the symbol was trending, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A tip sent to Google revealed that the real reason a swastika was trending was a simple post on 4chan telling users to search for 卐, a shortcode built into most operating systems. 4chan users played along, and a controversial symbol shot to the top of Google’s trending list and forced the company to issue a statement apologizing to anyone who may have been offended. —F.A.III
7) User posts photos of his murder victim, November 2014
It sounds like an urban legend. Only this isn’t folklore. There was a real murder. On Nov. 4, 2014, David Kalac, an anonymous 4chan user, started making cryptic posts on 4chan. He confessed to strangling a woman to death and then posted photos of her body. Many immediately wrote it off as a sick hoax, but in Port Orchard, Washington, Amber Coplin’s body was found by her 13-year-old son. Kalac went on the run but was quickly captured by the police. He is still awaiting trial for the murder, which has been postponed until Feb. 21, 2017. Don’t go googling this story. There are still screenshots floating around that are profoundly disturbing. —J.M.B.
8) Massacre threat shuts down Washington high school, September 2012
Screengrab via 4chan
Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., was closed on Sept. 20 after a threat was posted to /b/ by an anonymous user who promised to take his fathers submachine gun to school and “open fire on the people in the commons until I am taken down by our schools police officer, or until I run out of mags.” 4chan administrators told authorities that the threat originated on a server in Sweden. The school was reopened the next day. —F.A.III
9) User livestreams his suicide attempt, December 2013
In many online communities, when someone reveals that they plan on killing themselves, other users often offer support, positive messages, and resources to help them. Not 4chan. When Dakota Moore announced his intention to take his own life on 4chan, he was encouraged by /b/ users. Moore swallowed a combination of sleeping pills and vodka, then set his dorm room on fire. He survived thanks to the quick action of firefighters, but he was dubbed “Toaster Steve” by 4chan users, who bombarded his Facebook page with cruel messages and image macros—J.M.B.
10) Man pleads guilty to threatening to shoot up a college to avoid being charged with possession of child porn, November 2010
If you’ve been accused of distributing 25 images of child pornography and threatening to massacre a college, which one would you rather be charged with? For 19-year-old Ali Saad, the choice was pretty simple, considering that a child pornography offender can get up to 5 years in prison. Saad took a plea deal in February for threatening on 4chan to shoot up a Michigan community college with an AK-47 he got at a gun show. He faces between 6 months and a year in custody, the Smoking Gun reported. —F.A.III
11) iPhones destroyed by bending and microwaving them, September 2014
This has been an incredibly dark list, so let’s break briefly with a fun one. It’s not all death threats, dark secrets, and sad times on 4chan. Sometimes they pull pranks too, like getting people to destroy their brand new phones. During the iPhone 6’s “bendgate” controversy /b/ set out to get people to intentionally bend their phones, using fake Apple-inspired ads introducing “Bend.” The new iPhone feature meant your phone was bendable like so.
As if that weren’t enough, 4chan also attempted to convince people they could charge their iPhones by throwing them in the microwave. —J.M.B.
12) Popular rap music forum defaced, June 2008
“Some Ni**** ft Some Nappy Headed Ho” and “Ni****and pals” were just two of the video titles 4chan hackers changed on hip-hop forum SOHH (Support Online Hip Hop) in a messageboard battle that got out of hand. The battle started after members of SOHH’s Just Buggin’ Out community taunted 4chan users. The discussion quickly escalated and resulted in 4chan users from the notorious /b/ board taking down SOHH for about a half hour and plastering swastikas around its homepage, streetknowledge reported. —F.A.III
13) Australian student takes police on manhunt for Los Angeles massacre threat, December 2007
Jarrad Willis was hunted by more than 100 counterterrorism officers after posting a threat to “kill as many people as I can” at a Los Angeles shopping mall. Willis’ 4chan post included an image of a man holding a shotgun. Police confiscated Willis’ computer and believed that the 20-year-old “was a possible serial perpetrator of Internet hoax threats,” the Herald Sun reported. It is unclear what Willis was charged with, but police intended to collect more than $100,000 for the extensive search it took to capture him. —F.A.III
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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.
John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.