One of the first mainstream reports about the infamous 4chan imageboard, this Fox News broadcast simultaneously captured and totally missed the mark about the outrageous culture that was emerging from 4chan and other chans.
In 2007, chan culture was equal parts irreverent, offensive, and nihilistic. On most chan boards, people posted without names or identifiers—the underlying impetus for the name “Anonymous.” A foundational value was a nihilistic belief that nothing mattered except entertainment, known as the “lulz.” Aided by anonymity and without any serious rules beyond a ban on child pornography, board participants created the best and the worst of anonymous material. This included charming memes, such as the lolcats mass produced on “Caturdays,” and racist, sexist, misogynist, and homophobic content.
Collective action of every type also flourished. Sometimes action was characterized by banal cruelty, such as searching for accidentally public nude photos on photo hosting websites, revealing the identity (“doxing”) of the people in the photographs, and distributing the photos to the victims’ families, classmates, teachers, and coworkers. Sometimes it was marked by altruism, such as when 4chan organized online raids against white supremacist radio host Hal Turner. And, sometimes it was somewhere in between.
Even though the Fox news report was deadly earnest, its exaggerated framing matched the overblown humor common to the chans, such as the “Anonymous: No one of us is as cruel as all of us” tagline, and the focus on lulz, no matter how malicious. In that sense, the report reflected the image chan participants were themselves tongue-in-cheek fostering, all the while appealing to their inflated sense of self: larger than life, in control of the internet itself. Tellingly, 4chan appropriated many of the report’s most hyperbolic framings, such as the phrase “internet hate machine,” spawning a bevy of memes.
In early 2008, just a few months after the news report, anti-Church-of-Scientology activists departed 4chan—taking the name “Anonymous” with them. Remaining chan residents subsequently abandoned the label Anonymous, disgusted at the do-good protestors. While some still conflate activist Anonymous and 4chan trolls because of their shared origins, the groups firmly parted ways by 2011. But their shared cultural history remains evident, as activist Anonymous could not resist the appeal of the Fox News framing—mixing elements of the news report in with their early propaganda videos and retaining the commitment to neither forgive nor forget.
Fox’s reporting underlines just how improbable it was that Anonymous activists working on behalf of progressive issues would emerge from board systems rife with offensive speech and imagery. And, how the seeds of 4chan’s second legacy as a fountain point for the reactionary right were present all along in 4chan’s hateful trolling culture—with new groups picking up 4chan’s tactics after the Anonymous collectives’ departure.