When Washington DC police raided a fifth-floor apartment building on April 22 in search of a man who allegedly shot four random people, they found Raymond Spencer dead by his own hand, a cache weapons and ammunition and a poster with a tongue-in-cheek white supremacist meme.
The poster invoking the meme, popular on extremist online forum 4chan, was a stark reminder that the attack blamed on Spencer, 23, was just the latest mass attack of unborn victims of the ugly extremist culture of bulletin boards unregulated electronics such as 4chan.
This particular forum spawned QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that sees Donald Trump battling a cabal of left-wing pedophiles, before moving on to its even more extreme cousin 8chan. QAnon was particularly effective in fabricating the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump, inspiring the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. A bipartisan Senate committee linked seven deaths to the attack.
Alek Minassian, 25, posted a Facebook update with a direct reference to 4chan and its extreme misogynistic community of so-called incels, short for involuntary celibates, before launching a deadly vehicular rampage in Toronto in 2018. And after New Zealand police arrested Brenton Tarrant, who shot and killed 51 worshipers in Christchurch mosques, cited 4chan and 8chan as direct influences.
Seemingly pure luck, Spencer’s recent attack in Washington was less costly in terms of lives. But it was still a stark reminder of the number of extremists online and the movements they sympathize with that can be traced back to 4chan or 8chan, said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. .
“The channels – 4chan, 8chan, etc. – are some of the most despicable places on the internet,” Segal told the Guardian. Trolling, humor, calls for violence: it “seeps outside the message boards”, he added.
Spencer’s case has some chilling aspects. He fired 200 rounds from a makeshift sniper’s nest, wounding a man, two women and a 12-year-old girl. It had 800 extra rounds concealed.
Just two minutes into filming, someone with the username “Raymond Spencer” logged into the normally anonymous 4chan and started a new thread titled “shool [sic] shooting.” The newly posted post contained a link to a 30-second video of footage captured from Spencer’s digital rifle scope. The clip played images and sounds of the barrage of bullets slamming into cars and smashed windows in an adjacent school while maiming four strangers.
Even when police stormed the building where Spencer had been hiding, with officers maneuvering past a surveillance camera he had set up in the hallway and was monitoring, Spencer continued to post on the bulletin board.
“They’re in the wrong part of the building right now looking,” he posted at one point. A few minutes later: “Waiting for the police to catch me.”
While he waited, Spencer logged on to Wikipedia to alter the entrance to the Edmund Burke School, which he had just opened fire on.
“Based man shot school on April 22, 2022,” the edit reads, using a message board term derived from the word “based,” which is 4chan slang for someone accepting. the council’s distorted worldview. “The suspect is still at large.”
Police believe Spencer committed suicide as officers entered his apartment.
Like those who have carried out other domestic terror attacks that have rocked the United States, Canada and New Zealand in recent years, Spencer situated his mass shooting in a tangle of tongue-in-cheek memes and 4chan jokes.
On a poster that hung in the apartment where Spencer died, there was a cartoon of a black man with an enlarged head. It’s a deeply ironic reference to the theology of the Nation of Islam – which holds that a black scientist named Yakub created the white race over 6,000 years ago. 4chan co-opted the concept more recently, caricaturing it in the process, to justify its own white supremacist ethos.
Anti-extremist groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have warned for years that 4chan and 8chan will continue to inspire nationwide terror attacks. Cassie Miller, a researcher at the center, analyzed a self-selected survey of users of a white supremacist web forum. She found that almost 25% said they consider themselves radicalized – or, in their words, “redpilled” – by the culture of 4chan and 8chan.
He was tied for the most reported path of radicalization.
While the far-right online ecosystem has grown significantly since then, the edgy humor and racist politics of “chan” culture continue to prove influential, especially among younger users.
Chans “normalize the kinds of stories and grievances that are dangerous,” Segal said. They form a kind of “encouragement section” for violence.
Even 8chan founder Frederick Brennan blamed the site for an increase in mass shootings and unsuccessfully called for it to be shut down.
Brennan left the site in 2016, leaving management to its new owners: Jim Watkins and his son Ron. The pair, who have since been identified as the likely puppeteers behind QAnon, have rejected more active moderation and leveraged the site’s extreme free-speech ethos for their own political ends – Ron Watkins is currently running in a Republican congressional primary in Arizona.
There are few good solutions to counter the radicalizing influence of these forums, Segal said. Owners like Watkins didn’t want to clamp down on hate speech; each time one web hosting company removed them, another stepped up; and law enforcement is simply ill-suited to monitor and investigate the flood of hate on the platforms.
It will take a “whole of society approach,” Segal said. “Anything that normalizes hateful ideology…needs to be addressed.”