Photo via Pixabay
The smell of ash hadn't yet cleared from the air in Oakland's Fruitvale district as fire-crews and inspectors continued sifting through the debris where The Ghost Ship warehouse once stood. It had been five days since a fire tore through the building and killed 36 people who were there for a music event, sparking debates about safety concerns and the importance of less-than-legal live/work spaces for underground artists. That's when one 4chan poster saw an opportunity—namely, to use the tragedy to "crush the radical left."
Posting on an anonymous online message board for political discussions and debates—4chan's "Politically Incorrect" (/pol/)—the contributor used all caps to call for others using their site to report art spaces and illegal venues to the authorities.
"These places are open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy and now YOU [sic] can stop them by reporting all such places you may be or may become aware of to the authorities, specifically the local fire marshel [sic]," the poster explained. "Watch them and follow them to their hives. Infiltrate social circles, go to parties/events, record evidence and report it. We've got them on the run but now we must crush their nests before they can regroup!"
The post ended with MAGA—an acronym used on the site for Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again," as the poster wished everyone "happy hunting."
The thread filled with responses.
Laced with racial slurs and memes championing the cause, commenters offered advice for how to find and target the underground spaces. "Look on college communities, facebook groups, and music forums. Try searching for keywords like queer and safespace" [sic]," a poster advised, while another instructed readers to gain the trust of those who organize events.
Others just reiterated the message of the original poster, emphasizing that these spaces are home to progressive organizing efforts, and delightedly spurred others to take on the budding campaign in their hometowns across the United States.
"These places hold Black Lives Matter meetings. These places plan protests that disrupt our cities. These places illegally house our enemies," one person wrote. "Stop them."
"Fate has presented us this opportunity to strike the left at its core and destabilise [sic] them," added another. "Don't waste it!"
Photo of interior of Ghost Ship via their website
Unlike most message boards or online community sites, discussions exist only ephemerally on 4chan, as the site limits boards to ten pages of comments. A short time after they expire, threads are automatically removed from the site. The original post about Oakland's fire existed for only a day, but nearly a week later, another emerged with broader directives.
"MAGA," the "Make America Great Again" tagline, had been reframed with MASA—Make America Safe Again—and the newly dubbed "Right Wing Safety Squad" or the "SS" (named with a nod at Hitler's "SS" paramilitary), were congratulating themselves on their progress in shutting down warehouse spaces around the country.
Paired with jeering and seemingly sarcastic calls for greater safety, commenters directed people's attention to places where organizers could be planning protests in Washington DC for Trump's inauguration:
"These are the places where a lot of the protests over the last couple months have recruited from, originated from, and that have housed people from out of town to participate in," one poster commented. "it is anticipated that on inauguration day there will be protests, these will be the places sowing drug fueled chaos. This must be quelled. To that end here is a list of addresses of DC "spaces" they need to be sorted through and shitholes discovered. DO NOT REPORT ON RESPONSIBLE BUSINESSES, research the list. report shitholes. MASA [sic]."
This type of post isn't unusual in 4chan, a site that has become the infamous online home for racist and misogynist rhetoric. But while most of what happens on the site stays there, this type of call to arms has the potential to do real damage—especially after the site's white-supremacy-supporting users have been empowered by President-elect Donald Trump.
Started in 2003 by a 15-year-old named Chris Poole, 4chan has morphed over the past decade into an influential internet subculture with 27 million monthly page-views and an increasing ability to produce IRL actions. While there are threads on just about anything, 4chan has developed a reputation for their effectively organized pranks and for conducting so-called "raids," using collective online actions to take down a specific target.
"A lot of [4chan] users realized if they pull their resources together they can wreak havoc," says Cole Stryker, author of two books on 4chan and online anonymous activism. He explains that originally the main objective was a subversive kind of fun—trolling aimed at the establishment. Over the past few years, however, there has been a shift in ideology, and an increase in support of far-right politics.
"I am old enough to remember when 4chan was actually funny," says Brianna Wu, a computer programmer who heads development at a gaming company called Giant Spacekat. "They were more of a site based on irreverent chaos. They would do things like sabotage online polls to name a scientific boat and it was ridiculous and childish but no one got hurt."
Wu knows firsthand what it's like to be targeted by the 4chan community. As an outspoken feminist involved in gaming, she was one of the many victims of GamerGate, an attack launched in 2014 through online sites like 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter against women in the gaming industry or those who reported on or reviewed it. After Wu's personal information was posted online (via a hacker tactic known as "doxing"), she received death threats and rape threats that caused her to flee her home. She has had to change her phone number numerous times and now, even years later, she is still harassed by people trying to get and post her personal information.
"One of the really sad things is these communities have taken a really terrifyingly hardcore right-wing anti-feminist, anti-inclusion turn," she adds.
Stryker says GamerGate was the turning point for 4chan, which has now become a breeding ground for the burgeoning "alt-right" movement that paved the way for neo-Nazis and white supremacists to emerge into the mainstream in support of President-elect Donald Trump.
Photo of Ghost Ship fire by Seung Y Lee
Describing what those in the community saw as a "nerd uprising," Stryker says that after GamerGate, the anger and the raiding was increasingly directed at left-wing groups they call SJWs—an acronym for Social Justice Warriors. "That is when this consciousness began to develop," he explains, "the idea that if 'we don't stand up against this wave of SJW ideology, we are going to get overrun by it.'"
While there hasn't been a documented increase in the number of 4chan raids in recent months, the actions of this group of 4chan users may have the potential for greater impact, especially if they continue to find unique strategies of attacking the left, like calling upon authorities to shut down sub-legal warehouses.
Wednesday's call to target art spaces where diverse communities feel safe—at perhaps their most vulnerable moment—could be said to be an easy task compared to previous raids, as it doesn't require anyone to do anything illegal, or any actual hacking. Instead, all people have to do is place a call to the authorities.
It is still unclear whether or not the group's efforts have been or will be successful, but that hasn't stopped them from congratulating themselves on seven shutdown spaces across the country, including Baltimore's Bell Foundry, Denver's Rhinoceropolis, and Nashville's Glass Menage, all of which were closed down after the Oakland fire.
Wu, the female programmer targeted in GamerGate, says that, based on her experience, there's little that can be done to stop raids once they are underway. She says authorities and online social sites should do more to crack down on doxers and associated internet activists, especially when their targets are already at-risk groups.
"The people who were killed in the fire in Oakland were some of the most vulnerable, and 4chan has nothing better to do with their time but destroy these communities?" she said."It's unconscionable."
Stryker says that, while many raid campaigns fail, he thinks this one might do some damage unless government officials decide to step in. "If they are calling attention to building code violations, and if those violations are actually there, I can see them causing a lot of anguish," he says. After all, these spaces are underfunded and complying with building codes isn't exactly easy.
"If authorities actually respond to these calls—and I don't know why they wouldn't in the wake of something like this Oakland situation," he says with a pause before adding, "I think this is kind of an ingenious plan that has a high potential for success."