In recent years, the study of online radicalisation, particularly as it pertains to the far right, has increasingly begun to acknowledge the role of ‘chan culture’ – the influence of communities created on a collection of fast-paced, internet-based, anonymous imageboards known as ‘chans’.
Scholar Luke Munn has described 4chan, the largest and most popular English-language chan site, as a “waypoint” on the “dense spectrum of right to far-right spaces”, gradually encouraging users to seek out increasingly extreme corners of the internet.
Other studies, like that carried out by Savvas Zannettou et al. have emphasised the centrality of visual culture within chan sites by highlighting 4chan’s role in the production and dissemination of racist memes. Similarly, Gabriel Emile Hine et al. have dubbed 4chan as “the centre of hate on the web”, owing to its consistent capacity to originate and spread racist or provocative memes into mainstream social media; a dynamic which may be important for encouraging the spread and acceptance of extremist messaging.
Attention on chan sites was focussed further in 2019 when, on March 15th, Brenton Tarrant posted a ‘manifesto’ and live stream link to 8chan’s ‘/pol/’ (politically incorrect) board, before initiating a firearms attack across two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people.
In the wake of Tarrant’s act of violence, two similar attacks were attempted across the United States in San Diego, California and El Paso, Texas; each preceded by posts made by the shooters to 8chan’s /pol/ board.
While 8chan was removed from the Clearnet in August 2019 – later to return as 8kun – following this burst of violence, two subsequent attacks were carried out in Bærum, Norway and Halle, Germany with links to chan culture more broadly.
despite an increased focus on chan platforms in studies of radicalisation, the specific nuances of these sites remain unexplored
However, despite an increased focus on chan platforms in studies of radicalisation, the specific nuances of these sites remain unexplored. Often chan culture is regarded as inherently violent, or as one monolithic whole, disregarding the differences in climate between chan sites or individual boards within chans – many of which are dedicated to seemingly apolitical topics like video games, anime, or literature.
Similarly, research is often focussed solely on the popular and relatively lawless /pol/ boards found on many chan sites, with little attention given to boards with a more ambiguous relationship to violence or extremism.
One board which appears to closely toe the line between a community of interest and violent discourse is ‘/k/’, a board commonly found across chan sites dedicated to the discussion of weaponry.
What is /k/?
/k/ boards – also known as ‘/w/’ on some chans – are reserved for the discussion of weaponry, particularly firearms, and survivalism. Users on /k/ frequently exchange tips on how to obtain and use firearms, share tactical advice, or simply post pictures of weapons or gear they possess for others to appreciate.
Users on /k/ frequently exchange tips on how to obtain and use firearms
Communities appear to be much smaller and slower-paced than those on /pol/, with the /k/ board on 4chan averaging 11,399 posts per day in comparison to the 191,337 posts made to /pol/. *
However, like /pol/, /k/ boards have also cultivated a unique sense of subcultural cool and there are several touchstone phrases and memes shared among users, such as the notion that /k/ is a “magical place”, referring to the board’s specific brand of humour.
Researchers Robert Evans and Jason Wilson show that while 4chan’s /k/ is “hardly a bastion of sweetness and light … unlike /pol/, militant white nationalism is not the default ideological position”. Indeed, many /k/ boards explicitly ban talk of politics and current events, even outlawing discussions about gun control as being too political.
In contrast to /pol/, overt calls for violence are not commonly found on /k/, and in some cases, users appear to discourage acquiring or making weapons which could lead to mass harm. In the rare instances when users are asked for specific instructions on how to make homemade weapons, they’re generally mocked or treated with suspicion.
Many seem to use /k/ boards to discuss firearms as a subject of interest, rather than explicitly glorifying their capacity for harm, and often users who are deemed to be too invested in the ‘spectacle’ or ‘cool’ of firearms are mocked as being “LARPers” (live-action role players), who are merely playing with weapons rather than respecting them.
That is not to say that /k/ boards are in any way apolitical or avoid discussions about violence. While it is rare for a thread to start solely for the discussion of a political topic, references to political events are sometimes used as a vehicle for racist discourse.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been a regular target for mockery as part of broader discussions and anti-Asian slurs were used across the boards during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, racial slurs are common across /k/ boards, with users often describing those who appear to be unfamiliar with firearms using the ‘n-word’. Moreover, on some smaller /k/ boards, mass shooters like Brenton Tarrant are openly idolised.
In general, 4chan’s /k/ board has been the subject of increased interest following the rapid rise of the Boogaloo ‘movement’ – a loose, online network of radical firearms activists bound by a shared desire to incite civil war. Evans and Wilson traced the origins of the movement, showing that while devout Boogaloo supporters soon drifted to more mainstream social media platforms, the term ‘boogaloo’ was likely first used in reference to civil war on 4chan’s /k/.
Since its emergence, the movement has been linked to several arrests, with three alleged supporters in Nevada now facing terrorism charges. Thus, despite /k/ boards’ seemingly ambivalent relationship to politics, they are in no way neutral spaces.
Investigating the visual culture of /k/
As part of a wider investigation into chan culture, memes and the online promotion of violence, researchers used ethnography and quantitative data scraping on /k/ and /pol/ (or equivalent) boards across several chan sites between March and June 2020. Five chan sites were identified within their sample that contained both a /k/ and a /pol/ (or equivalent) board.
The top 20 most frequently occurring images across each group of boards were then collected to analyse the differences in visual culture between the respective communities. Comparative analysis of the two datasets provided some interesting initial insights into the differences between /k/ and /pol/ …
Firstly, it should be stressed that the frequency of image use was far lower across /k/ boards compared to /pol/, with the most popular /k/ meme, Carlos, shared 45 times across three /k/ boards. Whereas, Carlos ranked as the fifth most popular meme across /pol/ boards but was shared 427 times – almost ten times as much – across two boards. This disparity is likely due to the significantly smaller userbase that /k/ boards attract in comparison to /pol/ boards, which are a staple of many chan sites. Although, it may also be that visual culture is less central to /k/ communities as a whole.
Visual culture on /k/ also differs to that of /pol/, in that users are encouraged to share original photos of their firearms or weapons, whereas on /pol/ it is rare for users to share photos they have taken themselves. Images of this sort are unlikely to be posted more than once, and therefore, while an important part of community-building practices on /k/, they are not factored into these findings.
The overlap between visual cultures across both sets of boards is notable. Of the top five images between datasets, three are repeated across both boards: the Carlos meme, the Yes Chad meme, and an image of a phone screen showing an incoming call from the Based Department.
Of these three memes, none are overtly racist nor particularly extreme compared to many of the images shared on chan sites. Instead, each relies on textual context to add humour, or in some cases, to provoke the viewer.
This similarity between visual culture adds credence to the notion that there is an overarching sense of chan culture, which unites separate boards in a shared online community.
In the /k/ dataset, only the Based Department meme included an open yet subtle reference to more extreme politics, as it featured the Pepe the Frog cartoon character, an ambiguous but enduring symbol of the alt-right.
It is interesting to stress that in both datasets of the top 20 images found on /pol/ and /k/ boards, each featured four images depicting the Pepe the Frog character.
Part of what has ensured the longevity of Pepe’s association with the alt-right is the inherent deniability of wrongdoing which he encapsulates. While alt-right circles have been using images of Pepe regularly since 2016, the apparent benignity of the character means that users are easily able to deny they are using it with extremist intentions. To many, Pepe memes are viewed merely as a somewhat edgy facet of internet culture.
/k/ boards remain permissible spaces for racist language and ideas
With this in mind, it is worth noting that the only Pepe image that overtly encapsulated racism between the two datasets was found on /k/, where an image had been posted 16 times showing the character holding a sign with the ‘n-word’ on it. This depiction points to the larger culture of racial slurs present on /k/, where the n-word is used as a casual insult, often directed towards users who display unfamiliarity with firearms.
The comfortability with racial slurs as part of the fabric of /k/ boards suggests that despite their attempts to eradicate political discussions, they remain permissible spaces for racist language and ideas.
Finally, while the meaning and intent of most memes in each dataset was malleable depending on the context in which they were used, three images contained within the top 20 images found on /pol/ boards can be read as inherently antisemitic – containing visually unfavourable depictions of Jewish people.
These images took the form of various edits of the Happy Merchant meme, a “drawing of a Jewish man with heavily stereotyped facial features who is greedily rubbing his hands together”, seemingly referring to long-enduring conspiratorial stereotypes of Jewish people as greedy or presiding control over various events.
No such openly antisemitic imagery was contained within the top 20 images found on /k/, and from ethnographic observation posts containing references to antisemitism were significantly rarer – particularly on 4chan’s /k/ board – than they were on /pol/.
The findings above represent an initial analysis of the nuances of community-building and visual culture between individual chan boards and demonstrate the relevance of visual analysis, paired with ethnography, as a useful lens through which to understand chan culture.
While there may be some overarching chan culture which unites all users, individual boards should be seen as somewhat distinct communities, and should not be regarded as monolithically extremist spaces.
Boards like /k/ serve a slightly different purpose than the better known /pol/ boards and appear to be smaller communities with a more obvious focus on weaponry and advice sharing.
There are some potential risks associated with /k/ boards, in that detailed instructions on how to use or create weapons – including homemade weapons – are sometimes shared. While by no means their primary or intended purpose, /k/ boards could therefore be used as a resource by a potential actor intent on causing harm.
Some /k/ boards also appear to encourage or at least tolerate racism, as is demonstrated by the use of racial slurs in posts and imagery, although instances of antisemitism are significantly less apparent on /k/ than on /pol/.
In short, there are clear differences in tone, content, and community building practices between different chans.
Boards like /k/ have attempted to differentiate themselves from the openly racist culture of /pol/ boards, yet their murky relationship with politics and discrimination makes it more difficult to clearly distinguish between violent and non-violent content.
Further ethnographic research is needed into chan sites and individual boards with chan forums to better understand their broader relationship with violence, radicalisation, and the far right as a whole.
*Data correct at time of publication
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IMAGE CREDITS: Copyright ©2021 R. Stevens / CREST (CC BY-SA 4.0)