On 27 April, before he burst into a San Diego synagogue and opened fire, killing one worshipper and injuring three more, the gunman said goodbye to the community that radicalised him. “It’s been real dudes,” he posted on the far-right politics board, /pol/, on the image-posting site 8chan. “I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless.”
Why this story?
There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism – and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan?
The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan. Ceri Thomas, editor
The story was familiar. Six weeks earlier, a 28-year-old had killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Before starting his attack, he, too, had posted on 8chan’s /pol/ board. “It’s been a long ride,” he had written. He signed off his post: “Meme magic is real.” The first response from an anonymous 8chan user urged him to “get the high score”.
From its effect on the world, 8chan could be ranked as one of the internet’s most dangerous sites. Some have even compared it to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. The pattern is similar: men – and it is always men – find their way there, and get radicalised into an extreme ideology which drives some of them to violence.
But there is no fundamentalist preacher for the ideology of chan sites. It’s mostly lonely people who find themselves in a febrile information ecosystem without precedent in human history. Chan sites like 8chan are something entirely new: organic communities of anonymous participants that have started to behave almost like a new consciousness, separate and more powerful and dangerous than the sum of its parts.
The anger and hate that spews from 8chan is not a conscious extension of the anger and hate of its creator – though he had plenty – but an inevitable byproduct of the dark structure he built. The story of 8chan’s founder, Fredrick Brennan, is a perfect expression of this: born with a profound disability and shuttled in and out of foster care, his creation of the site was born not out of cold calculation or political ambition, but from a need to find community in loneliness.
8chan is a monster, but its creator had no idea what it would become. He was just a kid.
Brennan was born in 1994 in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. He lived with his parents in a trailer park in the small town of Livingston until they divorced when he was five, and Brennan moved with his brother and father to Craryville, NY. His childhood was one of intense pain.
Brennan had inherited from his mother a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta. The condition, which stunted his growth and confined him to a wheelchair, is often called “brittle bone disease”. By the time he was 19, Brennan estimates, he had broken his bones 120 times.
The condition meant constant agony, but also boredom. After the divorce, his mother’s new boyfriend Bill showed him how to use a computer. Brennan was smart, always ranking near the top of his class in reading and writing, and was soon the best typist in his class. But he wasn’t yet interested in much other than gaming. “Because we were poor we didn’t have many different games,” Brennan tells me. “So we used to play the same one over and over.” One had a little online forum for players. Brennan made friends there; they swapped tips. It was there that Brennan first stumbled across chan culture. In fact, it stumbled upon him.
It is important here to explain how chan sites work. 4chan, the oldest and most influential English-language chan site, is split into a limited number of topic-specific boards. There are boards for various interests – cars, knitting, anime – and each one is a community of users, who make posts and comment on others’ posts. Posts expire after they lapse, and are pushed out by newer ones. No registration is required, and each comment is anonymous.
Anonymity is key: it means there is no incentive to follow social norms. It also means that belonging to the community entails performance. With its users an anonymous mass, free from the effects of individuality – shame, in particular – chan culture forms organically. The bigoted argot that emerged serves to denote in-group status: taking offence is for outsiders.
One of the things the users on 4chan’s raucous and popular “random” board, /b/, liked to do was go on “raids”. In a raid, users pile on to another site en masse, saturating it, disrupting the community and generally pissing people off. Getting a rise out of others is core to chan culture.
By the early 2000s, 4chan was growing exponentially, and at some point, its users picked on Brennan’s video-game board. To Brennan, it was as if an alien invasion force had descended from the sky. He realised the internet could be used for destructive as well as constructive purposes – and he saw how much fun the destructive side could be. In the force of 4chan’s raid, which demolished his little community, Brennan saw for the first time in his life something that could make him feel powerful.
He went to 4chan.
By 2006, the year he turned 12, he was on /b/ “all the time”. It was fun. On his old board there would only be a few posts every day; on 4chan, every 30 seconds there was something new. Brennan spent as much time at the computer as possible. “My dad, he just felt like: well, he’s in a wheelchair, so it doesn’t make sense for him to do anything else but play with the computer,” he tells me.
When he was 14, Brennan was placed into foster care. His new guardians limited internet access, but Brennan found ways around it. Brennan figured out how to defeat the blocker program on the house laptop that prevented it from accessing the internet. When he was caught, and his laptop privileges were revoked, he found another way to get online: he bought an iPod Touch, an MP3 player that could access the internet. “Nobody knew,” he says.
Access to 4chan became increasingly important to him during his time in foster care. “I don’t know how long I’m going to spend in one place, the state is deciding everything through its agents, and I don’t really have much say in what happens to me,” he says of that time. “Maybe [4chan] wasn’t really a family, but it definitely made me feel a sense of normalcy.” After two years in foster care, Brennan went to live with his mother in Atlantic City, the fading casino resort on the New Jersey coast, aged 16.
The kind of 4chan user he was, he tells me, changed over time. He moved on from /b/ to two other boards, the news board /n/ and /r9k/, a board programmed to reject any content that repeats something that’s been posted before. He got turned on to the “alt-chan” scene – people looking for alternative sites – when 4chan’s founder and administrator, Chris Poole, known by his username “moot”, unilaterally shut down both boards. Both were later reinstated, with /n/ reconstituted as /pol/, but Brennan was angry. “I felt like 4chan’s admin had deleted those boards just to hurt me,” Brennan says.
In the meantime, Brennan’s online identity was developing. “I was known as the guy who was always talking about eugenics, that was my thing,” he says. He posted about it every day. In 2014, he wrote a disturbing essay, published on the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, calling for the sterilisation of people with diseases like his. It simmers with anger, especially at his father, whom he calls “a complete deadbeat”. It ends: “I am simply asking for compassion from an ignorant society that falsely believes it is unethical to give genetically defective people incentives not to reproduce. I am simply arguing for a world full of healthy, happy children who can play outside with their friends without breaking their legs.”
Brennan’s views on eugenics were unarguably appalling, but they should also be seen in the context of his experience. He hated his parents for bringing him into a life of pain, and it led him to this monstrous viewpoint. “I don’t want to speak for everybody with a disability, but I hate being disabled and I always have,” he tells me.
One of his oldest memories, from when he was six, is of catching sight of a photograph of himself and a friend. By some accident of composition, the shot made it look like he was standing up. For a moment the six-year-old Brennan daydreamed an alternate reality where he could walk, run, and play with his friends. “Eventually it abruptly stopped, and I was thrust back into reality,” he says. “That’s the first time I really remember hating being disabled. And I cried for a long time.”
Brennan’s rage festered as he became a teenager. He says that he never identified as a Nazi; his feelings were more masochistic at root. “I literally wanted a new version of Nazi Germany to take over and to kill me and everyone like me. That’s how angry I was,” he says. He spent hours thinking of ways to tell his dad how much he hated him. “I put most of the blame on him. And it’s hard to recover from that, you know. It’s hard to recover from saying those type of things to your father. And I could tell it upset him, but as a teenager I really didn’t care.”
Now, he tells me: “Eugenics is just not that important to me.” He chalks most of it up to “rebellion”. This may be downplaying the extreme nature of the views he held; we have only Brennan’s framing of his own story to go on. But in any case, soon Brennan would barely have the time to post at all, even if he was inclined to maintain his eugenics obsession. Things were about to get wild.
When Brennan turned 18, he started working for Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing marketplace for cheap digital labour, doing small writing jobs or classification work. “Bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.” His first year, he made $7,000. But he was also learning the system; he wrote a library program for Mechanical Turk which brought his coding skills into the marketplace without him needing a degree.
He moved to New York City, where he met a girl. They broke up, but he remained living with her in Midwood, Brooklyn. One day, he did magic mushrooms with her and her new boyfriend and, while high, the idea for a new site came to him where users could make their own infinitely recurring boards, rather than be limited to what 4chan’s admins made. By the next day, he was already writing the code for what would become 8chan. Within a few days, he had registered the domain name. “It was kinda: boom – an instant idea,” he says.
That was October 2013. The following year, the site would take off in a way Brennan never expected when a rabid new online movement, kicked off every other chan site, came looking for a home. It would come to be known as “Gamergate”.
He still posted about eugenics, but he was already growing out of the hardline views he developed as a teenager as a way of dealing with his anger and his pain. For him, the site was never about creating a home for his ideology or actively spreading it to others; 8chan was just a demonstration of his coding abilities, “a portfolio-piece”.
But there was a culture-war brewing. Self-described as free speech advocates campaigning for “ethics in video games journalism”, Gamergate was actually a large, leaderless group of misogynist video game fans, annoyed by what they considered the forced diversification of what had been a white male safe space, who began a campaign of targeted harassment against the “social justice warriors” they blamed.
Kicked off 4chan for doxing, then kicked off 7chan, 4chon, and several other alt-chans, Gamergate needed a home and Brennan saw an opportunity. He dialled into a Gamergate live-stream chat and made his pitch: “I’m not like Chris Poole. I’m happy to have you.” Gleefully, the Gamergaters moved in. Discovering Brennan’s disability, they gave him a new nickname: Hotwheels.
Brennan wasn’t keen on the moniker, and he says he didn’t personally care about their cause – he didn’t care much at all who his users were. “Free speech didn’t really factor in to the reason I made 8chan in the beginning,” he says. “I just wanted to see what it would look like if users could make their own boards. But after the Gamergate guys came, I decided to go whole hog on the free speech thing – to keep them.”
At best, he was wilfully blind to Gamergate’s politics; there is moral culpability in inviting them to the site. But the traffic they represented was, to Brennan, unarguable. 8chan went from 100 posts a day to more than 10,000 every hour. It was “insane”, Brennan says. He was euphoric. If this keeps up, he thought, I am totally going to unseat moot.
The euphoria quickly faded as he realised what he had taken on. The next two years were, he says, “the hardest of my life”. He had to keep the servers going. He had to keep the software going. He had to talk to the media. “Honestly, sometimes it felt like I was the president of a small nation,” he says. There was “kind of a cult of personality on the board about me”, he says.
He wasn’t their leader, exactly: on chan boards leadership is impossible. But as the owner of the site’s domain, he was legally responsible for removing illegal content like child pornography. Far from leading the mob, he spent his days desperately trying to keep up with it. It was completely out of control. In Brennan’s telling of the story, he was more like a mascot.
In October 2014, Brennan held a party at a strip club in Long Island City, Queens, to celebrate the site’s first birthday. People wanted his autograph. It was “crazy”. The next day, he moved to the Philippines.
Brennan only held on to the legal ownership of 8chan for about six weeks after Gamergate arrived. His funding platform Patreon cancelled his account; money was running low. The site was in such chaos, the traffic was so extreme, and there were so many attacks and legal threats flooding over him that he decided he had to find someone to take ownership.
He had a few offers, and he picked Jim Watkins, an American army veteran in his fifties who owned a pig farm outside Manila. His company, NT Technology, which operated several porn sites as well as 2channel – the Japanese forerunner to 4chan – assumed legal responsibility for the domain and provided the hardware, while Brennan would continue to run the software and grow the community. In January 2015, as part of his new employment at NT Tech in Manila, Brennan formally signed the domain over to Watkins.
The content on 8chan is among the most offensive, violent and bigoted on the web. It became a sump for the most racist and misogynist of users – especially on the /pol/ board, where the most far-right political viewpoints collected. But in evaluating its behaviour, it is probably helpful to think of a chan site not as a collection of individual people but as some kind of many-headed trickster-god; a psychotic consciousness in its own right.
It is an explosive mix of nihilists looking to have fun and mess with people, lonely naïfs who don’t get the joke, and everyone in between. When an impressionable, troubled person winds up on a site like 8chan, they can soak up the culture like a sponge; some turn to violence to impress this faceless morass.
If Brennan hadn’t created 8chan, the same culture would have developed elsewhere, he insists. “It’s not the technology that causes what happens, it’s really the hearts of the people who are using it,” he says. “If 4chan ceased existing, they would go to another site. If 8chan ceased existing they would go to another site. And the same patterns would repeat over and over.”
It is the structure of a chan site itself that radicalises people. “The other anonymous users are guiding what’s socially acceptable, and the more and more you post on there you’re being affected by what’s acceptable and that changes you. Maybe you start posting Nazi memes as a joke… but you start to absorb those beliefs as your own, eventually,” Brennan says. “Anonymity makes people reveal themselves, but because there are other anonymous users – not just one person in a black box – it also changes what they reveal.”
It changes what they do as well.
The killings in Christchurch and San Diego were not isolated incidents. It is difficult to prove beyond doubt – one of the things that distinguishes chan sites is that posts are anonymous – but several more mass shootings, including in Umpqua, Oregon, and Isla Vista, California, are linked to the culture of sites like 8chan and its predecessor, 4chan. They are also key to the spread of conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate”, which claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the basement of a restaurant in Washington DC – and “Qanon,” which holds that Donald Trump is a secret genius working to topple the “deep state”.
Both those theories also almost led to massacres; a Pizzagate believer was arrested after shooting into the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle when he came to “investigate” and a Qanon believer was arrested in Arizona with a home-made armoured vehicle and several firearms. From 8chan they quickly spread to the real world: Qanon signs are now a regular feature of Trump rallies, and the lingua franca of chan sites are echoed in the language of Trump supporters, among whom it is common to share memes originating in chan culture, often without knowing where they came from.
Because of the way it’s structured, chan culture has immense power to create memes: they spread from the site’s users via pseudonymous communities like Reddit out to Twitter and beyond into the mass cultural consciousness. The /pol/ boards on both 4chan and 8chan have become home to far-right politics. One now-infamous meme that featured Hillary Clinton next to a Star of David sign made its way from its original posting to 8chan’s /pol/ board via anonymous Twitter accounts to Trump’s Twitter feed in a matter of days.
This kind of thing happens all the time in the modern internet era, but the fact that it’s common makes it more shocking not less: the most extreme forms of hate-speech now have a direct line feeding them to the President of the United States.
By April 2016, a little over a year after he sold the site to Jim Watkins, Brennan had soured not just on 8chan, but on the whole idea it represented. He now has no links with it; Watkins and NT Tech are the site’s sole legal owners. (Watkins did not respond to a request for an interview.)
In essence, Brennan had created one of the most dangerous sites on the internet – a place with a structure that made it a perfect petri-dish for violent misogyny and all kinds of hateful ideologies to germinate and spread – but he had done so entirely by accident.
When he sees news like the Christchurch shooting, Brennan says it makes him “worried for the future”. He tells me: “There’s this idea that if we have unbridled freedom of speech that the best ideas will fall out. But I don’t really think that’s true any more. I mean, I’ve looked at 8chan and I’ve been its admin, and what happens is the most rage-inducing memes are what wins out.”
Brennan still lives in the Philippines, but has moved out of the apartment leased by Watkins into one of his own. He is married, has converted to Christianity, and spends his time designing his own fonts. Asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, he pauses. “Um. It sounds like a cliché, but it gets better. You’re not going to feel like that for ever.”
He says he no longer supports compulsory sterilisation, though he still thinks governments should provide genetic testing for disabled people who want to have children. In fact, he is voluntarily undergoing those tests now – he and his wife are thinking of having a child.
Photography by Todd Heisler/Eyevine and Getty Images