Transnational Terrorism – From Memeism To Extremeism

How Internet Subculture Trolling Forums like 4chan and the Daily Stormer are Radicalizing Disenfranchised Young Men.

In a 2009 report on “Memetic Warfare,” DARPA claimed that memes have the power to change individual and group values and behavior, enhance dysfunctional subcultures, and can act as a contagion. [1]  At first glance, it seems outlandish that a meme could have such influence, as they have traditionally been used simply to share ideas, banter, and produce inside jokes with your group. Memes refer to image macros, which are images that quickly convey humor or political thought, meant to be shared on social media. Sharing a meme, not only amuses your in-group but also defines it. During the previous election cycle, like-minded friends and family were sharing “Bidenbro” memes, where people imagine a strong relationship of love and respect between Biden and Obama, which was fun to laugh at but also reinforced the political views of my particular in-group. It’s harmless, it’s slightly political, and fun to share. What happens, however, when this content moves too far to either side of the political spectrum and certain groups, instead of sharing innocuous memes, share content applauding violence against another group, racism, and bigotry? It is becoming increasingly clear that online radicalization is not limited to the work of jihadists now, and according to some experts, these memes are now strategically created by alt-right, white supremacists, and misogynists to spread elements of their ideology. [2]

4chan, an imageboard which hosts a series of wholly anonymous forums has been considered an incubator for a number of memes and behaviors that we now consider mainstream internet culture. Some even say 4chan invented the meme as we use today. The site had innocuous origins but has been recently connected to the alt-right, the incel movement, conspiracy theorists and an array of other subversive countercultures gripping the attention of vulnerable young men. There are signs of radicalization, often far-right, across 4chan and chan inspired subcultural spaces like the 8chan, 2chan, and the Daily Stormer that stem from a complex history that fostered a perfect environment in which radical messages could fester and spread.

In order to understand how these internet subcultures are radicalizing young disenfranchised men, it is imperative to develop a brief understanding of the history of a trolling subculture fostered by 4chan and chan like forums, the radicalization process on these forums, and instances of these young men pushing from the online world to the real world to, as they often phrase it, “Kill the Normies.”

Mapping the 4chan Ecosystem: From Anime Enthusiasts to Alt-Right Misogynists

4chan was created by a 15-year-old user named Christopher Poole in 2003. Poole adapted a type of Japanese bulletin board format which led to its quick popularity due to ease of use. Initially, 4chan met once a year in Baltimore Maryland, at an anime convention and was comprised of mostly teenagers. Around 2008 however, their user base had grown significantly, averaging around 18 million unique site visitors a month. [3] The key to their popularity was that their threads became evanescent, growing within seconds, and then disappearing under a heap of new threads cyclically, 24/7. Structurally, 4chan consists of various boards dedicated to a variety of themes like anime comic books, and video games. However, nearly half of the daily posts in 2008 were on the /b/ board (random), where there is no fixed theme. [4] There was minimal regulation of /b/ and it often consisted of gory images, in-jokes, and disparaging language. In July of 2008, it is estimated that there were 150-200,000 /b/ posts per day. /b/ has now been eclipsed by the more inflammatory politically incorrect board known as /pol/. Another major appeal of the site was that users did not have to make an account, and the software displayed a default name of that was unassumingly “Anonymous.” Users began referring to each other by that name, and starting most posts with “Hi, Anon here.”

4chan also garnered much of their notoriety as they invented the meme as we use today. The white font with black outlines placed over an image with terms like “win” and “epic” were all created on 4chan, and used for years as a mean of communication on 4chan until it became an ever-present part of mainstream culture via its fast-moving, crowd psychology nature (there is now a preloaded extension in Apple iMessage to search and share such memes). The accepted standard on this site in 2008, according to Dale Beran from Medium, was a sort of “Libertarian Free Speech” banner, in which members asserted their right to say anything.[5] Therefore, anons often posted pornography, swastikas, racial slurs, and content that was targeted to harm people, “just because,” or as they often proclaim, “for the lulz.”

4channers exported their foolishness off of their forum for elaborate practical jokes they refer to as “raids.” The board would flood chat rooms or online networks to cause chaos “for the lulz.” In one instance in 2006, thousands of 4chan users would appear in the virtual children’s world Habbo Hotel simply to cause turmoil and crash their servers. In a more brazen “raid” in 2008, 4chan targeted Scientology, by creating videos directed at the Church of Scientology pretending “anonymous,” a shadowy figure in a Guy Fawkes mask would expose their secrets. This “raid” was unique, however, as it was one of the first times 4channers left their keyboards to occupy real space to protest in front of churches around the world sporting Guy Fawkes masks.

The Anonymous movement that emerged out of 4chan during the Scientology incident soon splintered off into a leftist “hacktivist” group which helped convict the Steubenville Rapists and was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The original cause of this dispute, was a perceived infringement on their access to funny information on the internet after Scientology removed a video of Tom Cruise rambling about Scientology on YouTube. There was a vague moral and political aspect to their protest, as they believe this action interfered with their libertarian right to post anything and access anything on the internet. During the 2008 elections, many 4chan supported Ron Paul, because 4chan wanted the right to do as it wished, which was to freely distribute information, but not much else. In 2008, a swastika character appeared at the top of Google’s Hot Trends List, after the character was posted on /b/, and a horde of 4chan users pushed the symbol to the top of the chart, highlighting their shift towards racism which revealed their much darker underbelly. The Anonymous movement that emerged out of 4chan during the Scientology incident soon splintered off into a leftist “hacktivist” group which helped convict the Steubenville Rapists and was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. They likely separated because 4chan, at its core was a still group of internet dwelling young men “raiding” for the fun of it – until the forums most defining “raid.”

The Habbo Hotel and Scientology raids were mostly just fun pranks to pass the time, but a raid infamously known as Gamergate speaks to the misogynist undertone that existed in many of the 4chan boards. In 2014, a disenfranchised channer claimed his ex-girlfriend had cheated on him. The target of his post, his ex-girlfriend, happened to be a game developer. In response, a harassment campaign emerged out of the depths of 4chan that included doxing (which is the practice of finding and revealing private information), threats of rape, and death threats as well as a hashtag campaign to perpetuate such attacks. This campaign was fueled by conspiracy theories inferring that women and social justice warriors were threatening traditional male-centric gaming culture. According to Matt Lees at The Guardian, Gamergate harnessed the pre-existing ignorance, misogyny, and anger among disaffected white young men on the forum who no longer “raided” for the fun of it, or some half-baked libertarian aims, but did so with degenerate misogynistic purpose.[6]

The fissures that had long existed on the site deepened after Gamergate and set the stage for 4chans emergence as a breeding ground for right-wing extremism shortly after. This incident represented a demographic change by adding a layer of misogyny, and according to the Anti-Defamation League, misogyny is a ‘gateway’ to extremism like white supremacy and acts as an important connective tissue among white supremacist groups, the alt-right, and incel movements.[7] To illustrate this shift in tone, in January 2018, there were 115,000 uses of the N-word and 40,000 uses of the word “kike.” What was once a gathering place for anime enthusiasts that enjoyed crashing, or “trolling” children’s games, now serves as a general assembly for right-wing extremism.[8]

According to the Data & Society Research Institute, although the activity around Gamergate dissipated, it was a crucial moment in the development of online subcultural tactics and strategies.[9] Gamergate provides us with an understanding of the subsequent emergence of radicalizing interest-based subcultural communities who use trolling tactics and memes to draw attention to their causes, and in group and out group differentiations to radicalize fragile young men immersed in internet culture.

Red-pilling and Memes – Means of Radicalization

According to Janet Reitnam’s story, “All American Nazis,” 4chan’s veil of obscurity is used to incubate extremists. Discussion threads on other white supremacist sites like Stormfront openly considered how 4chan and specifically /pol/, the Politically Incorrect forum might be used to help young people become “racially aware.” [10]. The goal of these subversive groups is to change public opinion to accept ideas that might have previously been radioactive. This notion of accepting ideas that were once radioactive is a technique developed by anons they refer to as “red-pilling.”


Red-pilling is an ode The Matrix in which the main protagonist, Neo, is offered a pill that would allow him to leave the Matrix and wake up in the “real world.” The term is used to describe an epiphany of an unpleasant truth of reality, and now red-pilling has become shorthand for radicalization on online forums if one is “red-pilled” it means you are conditioned into having certain contrarian, extreme, and reactionary views. Red-pilling means different things for different subcultural groups, but there is a lot of overlap. For the alt-right, it means revealing the lies behind multiculturalism. For white supremacists, it means waking up to the Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race. For the Incel movement, it means recognizing men as an oppressed class. For conspiracy theorists, it may mean realizing the influence of Illuminati, or the skull and bones society.  Conversely, the term “normie” is used to describe someone who refused the red-pill, or has yet to become “red-pilled.” Leaders of white supremacist movements like Andrew Anglin’s, stoke the already-present hateful sentiments that exist on 4chan in a manner that specifically targets youth. According to Anglin, he is “trying to change the way people think about things… it doesn’t make sense to target anyone but young people.”[11]

These anons even educate each other and collaborate techniques for “redplling the normies,” using a wide array of literature on media and public opinion. Some anons even refer to themselves as “memetic warriors.” The Data & Society Institute found a thread that exemplifies the collaboration, in which an anon posts a meme of a flowchart that demonstrates inconsistencies in liberal thought, and another anon replies:

This may seem like a good argument to people who already agree with it, but it won’t make it past any memetic defenses of the brainwashed. You need to make the message short and simple so that the reader has already intaken [sic] all of it before their brain shuts it down. And you need to make it funny so that it sticks in their brain and circumvents their shut-it-down circuits.

This reveals the communities interest in radicalizing people who they deem to be “brainwashed” by mainstream culture, and their level of savviness to utilize irony in “attention hack” onlookers. Channers often discuss American sociologists Joseph Overton’s “Overton Window” theory, which describes how to change societies view on topics that were once deemed unthinkable, and they often explain how this process works through media manipulation and the spread of memes, step by step.[12]

According to Jacob Davey, from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, “they’re not all knuckleheads… The big thing here is that they are increasingly becoming more sophisticated.[13] It’s a continuously growing and expanding process… They’re becoming more aware of the fact that they can have this greater impact.” Arguably these subcultural trolls most instrumental weapon to increase their impact, whatever their cause, is their curation and propagation of memes.



Alex Goldenberg
Alex Goldenberg
Alex is pursuing his Master’s in Global Studies with a concentration in Transnational Security at the New York University Center for Global Affairs. He is currently supporting several ongoing research projects focusing on social media and its impact on national and global security, as well as the intersection of sports and politics.

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