The 4chan mass shooter playbook
It's the same thing every time. We can stop it.
Four years ago, Alek Minassian drove his rented Ryder truck down Yonge Street in Toronto, and began aiming for pedestrians.
Many of those who were hit by Minassian’s truck were young women, but his rampage claimed the lives of retirees and grandparents.
In the hours before the attack, Minassian logged on to his Facebook page and posted the following:
“Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
In the hours after Minassian’s killing spree, that message lit up the worst parts of the internet. Some users seemed genuinely horrified by the attack. Others seemed indifferent, or worried about the heat from the FBI. Many insisted it was a false flag operation. But a particularly online group of users, particularly on image boards 4chan and 8chan, responded with their trademark brand of trolling.
They shared images of edgelord comedian Sam Hyde, claiming he was the real perpetrator — a bit that was inane when it began in 2015, and hasn’t aged any better. They criticized his technique, insisting that he should have died in a hail of gunfire. (“This guy forgot the most important part of going ER: killing yourself at the end,” one wrote.) They celebrated his kill count, as though it were a videogame.
Of course, for 4chan, it is a game. Their persecution complex has fomented such a deranged cynicism that mass shootings are something ephemeral. Deaths are abstract. Terror is something for normies. If push comes to shove, then, well, they deserved it.
Like clockwork, once 4chan’s radicalizing influence hits the public consciousness, the users of the vile imageboard circle the wagons. Any conversation about their malign indoctrination and their outright manipulation of each other, particularly those with mental health issues or who are neuroatypical, is attacked as anti-free speech. What’s more, 4chan has been known to unleash its obsessive harassment campaign at journalists and advocates who dare report its role in the terror.
4chan isn’t a single entity. Each board has its own culture, and sets of regular users. Even the notoriously toxic /pol/ and /b/ boards boast some 200,000 posts per day between them. Its culture is difficult to understand, nevermind the actual structure of the message boards. Peeling back the many layers of irony is next to impossible, unless you intimately understand 4chan’s culture.
I want to unpack the role 4chan plays in these mass shootings — and what, if anything, we can do to address it.
Step One: Radicalize.
When the Islamic State was nearing the apogee of its terror and popularity, its recruiters would sit on Facebook and Twitter and dutifully reach out to Westerners. They were particularly effective with very-online young men in their 20s, who were the children or grandchildren of refugees.
In other words, they had a target. And they had a message carefully designed for that target.
4chan’s user base, unsurprisingly, is quite similar. Their own data suggests their users are 18 to 34 (likely overwhelmingly), some 70 percent male, and mostly college attendees or graduates. They are likely some of the most online users you will find on the internet.
The Islamic State, of course, didn’t reach out to random Westerners with a sales pitch for suicide bombings. They sold a vision of a new utopia: An independent state that sought to preside over a renaissance of a culture that had been destroyed by colonization. A place to be free of capitalist obligations and a staid social structure — one where you would be assigned a job, a wife, and a future.
In a sense, 4chan is the inverse of that. Users self-select themselves for the ranks. They sign up not to fly to salvation, but to wallow in their (perceived) hell.
Take /r9k/, a birthplace for the incel movement that inspired Minassian. It’s a community — along with 8chan, and a revolving door of message boards — that believes Western society is inherently and intrinsically stacked against men. What’s more, that there is a class of men who can overcome those odds (Chads) but that the rest of the sex is destined for lonliness and celibacy. In this world, women (Stacys) are enjoying as much sex as they want without consequences.
This is a world where the established social order — that men chose their bride early in life, and she is essentially forbidden from leaving — has been deliberately decimated. Not only are the Incels condemned to a life of sadness, but this new order is inherently immoral and disconnected from our biological imperatives.
In some ways, this absolute chauvinistic nonsense is nothing new. It is sexist tripe updated for the digital era. But what is particularly novel about it is the pathologizing and the paranoia. The perverse Incel community — because it is exactly that, an insular community — perpetuates its miserable lot in life. Users incessantly tell each other they are worthless, disgusting, ugly, and that the only escape is misery, suicide, or, better yet, suicide by cop after taking out a whole bunch of “normies” in the process.
I spent a lot of time in 2018 reading those forums, 4chan included, and speaking to an Incel who “escaped.” What scared the shit out of me was how young 4chan’s most religious users were when they started.
The ex-Incel I spoke to said he began using 4chan at the age of 11. “That’s where I became immersed, at a very young age, in reject culture,” he told me.
The perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch killings started using 4chan when he was 14. While he cited Youtube as a larger influence on his radicalization, his deranged hated of Muslims bears a stark resemblance to the kind of clash-of-civilizations tripe that is dogma on the /pol/ board.
The alleged Buffalo shooter began using 4chan regularly when he was 16, according to his own manifesto. In a kind of private diary, he says he eschewed all sorts of normal social interactions in favor of video games and 4chan — a problem worsened after the pandemic began.
I started browsing 4chan in May 2020 after extreme boredom, remember this was during the outbreak of covid. I would normally browse /k/ because I’m a gun nut and /out/ because I love the outdoors and I eventually wound up on /pol/. There I learned through infographics, shitposts, and memes that the White race is dying out, that blacks are disproportionately killing Whites, that the average black takes $700,000 from tax-payers in their lifetime, and that the Jews and the elite were behind this.
Much like the Incel’s repackaged misogyny, this bullshit isn’t much of an upgrade from the racist propaganda that was spread throughout the 20th century. The alleged Buffalo shooter cribbed an absurd amount of pseudo-scientific nonsense from 4chan, including actual phrenology, to back up his racism and justify his alleged mass killing.
So much of this begins before these users even fully develop a sense of self — often before they’re even done with puberty. 4chan normalizes racism and sexism, destroys your self-esteem, and envelops you into this world where white, straight men cannot win, and are being crushed by a system that is working against them. That is particularly damaging for teens who have mental health issues or who are on the autism spectrum.
4chan radicalizes, but it goes beyond that.
Step two: Mobilize
4chan has a guns board.
It’s certainly not the only place that the alleged Buffalo shooter consulted as he contemplated his tactical outfit, but it was one of them.
On /pol/ and the Incel boards, it’s not unusual to see posters openly contemplate the most effective way to mount a domestic terror attack. They may well claim it to be steeped in irony and gallows humor, but it has clearly informed the design of some of these attacks. Amid bullying taunts and the constant drumbeat of racial slurs, posters contemplate the best way to maximize casualties — vehicle ramming attacks vs a mass shooting; which firearm to use; picking a soft target; etc.
“If you go ER,” one user wrote in 2017, referring to Elliot Rodger, who shot and killed six people on a rampage in 2014. “You’ll basically be immortalized and live on forever since people will speak about you for decades.”
They’ve even made rap videos glorifying the domestic terrorists (“Hop over the curb like I’m Alek Minassian … while I run over pedestrians.”)
When the Islamic State published magazines calling for terror attacks against civilians, we collectively panicked. When Incels and far-right extremists call for terror attacks on 4chan and its sister sites, we ignore it.
Step three: Deflect, deflect, deflect
The persecution complex that permeates 4chan also means it is incapable of accepting responsibility for its influence, or being the subject of scrutiny.
Any attempt to make those connections is constantly met with the same refrains: We were just kidding, you don’t understand 4chan, stop trying to censor us.
Coupled with that implicit recognition that one of their users did do something horrendous is a pathological denial of reality. On 4chan, there are two types of mass shootings and domestic terror attacks: Those who can be tied to Antifa, ISIS, or Black Lives Matter; and those that were planned by the FBI.
Point to any 4chan post that calls for violence — that’s a “glowie,” or undercover FBI agent. If an attack goes ahead, it was a false flag, staffed by the feds with crisis actors. If the evidence is undeniable, then the killer was induced to commit the act through the MKULTRA mind control program.
4chan also sows as much misinformation about these shootings as they possibly can. The alleged Buffalo shooter even included images of Sam Hyde in his deranged manifesto, claiming they were photos of him. After the horrific shooting in Texas this week, 4chan spread the idea that the shooter was transgender.
This is an insular world where the self-pity and societal derangement is so thick that it deflects any inkling of personal responsibility. They respond to tragedy with more trolling.
It’s time for consequences
When it’s folks with brown skin committing violent acts in the name of religion, our national security regime spares no expense and shreds any civil liberty in its way to address it. We built a surveillance regime, a system to track illicit financing, and a whole range of criminal prohibitions to prohibit not just the violent action but the rhetoric that leads to radicalization.
When the perpetrators are white, committing these attacks in the name of a political philosophy, we shrug our shoulders and insist that there’s nothing more to be done. Domestic terror task forces have been disbanded in America in the past decade out of fear that it offends the sensibilities of arch-conservatives.
We don’t need a Patriot Act for far-right extremism. (We don’t need a Patriot Act, period.) But we need to introduce consequences, and disrupt the radicalization pipeline that pushes people to the brink.
We should start with 4chan.
Banning the website will not work, and shouldn’t be on the table. But we should start treating its owners and operators like the bad actors they are.
As I wrote in WIRED this week, we don’t even fully understand who owns 4chan. We know it was sold to Japanese tycoon Hiroyuki Nishimura in 2015, but not much beyond that. I obtained documents that show a Japanese telecommunications firm and a multinational toy company were part of the acquisition deal. Let’s start with them.
In the United States, Section 230 means a company can’t be held legally liable for the content on their platform, but it has limitations. Congress has carved exemptions into the section to prevent copyright infringement and sex trafficking.
That exact proposal was laid out in 2019 in the Brooklyn Law Review. “It is time for Congress to revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to preclude applicability of the liability shield in cases arising under the Anti-Terrorism Act,” wrote lawyer Jaime Freilich. Social media companies should no longer be able to claim to be hands off when their platforms are known to be radicalizing domestic terrorists, she added. “The families of the victims of terrorist attacks deserve a form of legal redress when the attackers are indoctrinated through social media.”
In the Fordham Law Review, Alexander Tsesis argues for the “Justice Department to file criminal complaints against companies for violating the true-threats statute or material-support statute. Criminal liability could include monetary fines, orders for internet information providers to maintain records of IP addresses and contents found on foreign terrorist webpages, and takedown orders.”
Companies need to start unplugging from the companies that continue to profit off this. Japanese toy company Good Smile has licensing deals with Disney and Warner Brothers. Those companies know that Good Smile is part owner of 4chan, and have known for the better part of a year. They, apparently, don’t care.
Despite the paranoid delusions of 4chan’s users, there is also scant evidence that law enforcement maintains any kind of active monitoring of the website. Certainly, the FBI is happy to purchase expensive kit to monitor Black Lives Matter activists’ Twitter feeds, but apparently aren’t as keen on the vile extremism of 4chan.
We can tackle the violent extremism of 4chan without decimating free speech in the process.
I spent a ton of time this week delving deep into 4chan’s ownership structure for WIRED. Give it a read and tell your friends.
I’ll be back with a new edition of Bug-eyed and Shameless next week, and I promise the material will be a bit lighter.
Bug-eyed and Shameless won’t be free forever. But it’s free for now.