May 1, 2021, 2 p.m.
"Dollars" is humble when asked what impact his forum had on visitors to 4chan or 8chan. "I think a solid 15% could learn something, think twice."
He gets a little more bullish: "Maybe up to 30%."
Wanting to remain anonymous for his own safety, Dollar is a veteran of some of the most controversial websites on the internet. For more than 15 years, 4chan and its descendants have been known and ultimately infamous for occupying prime internet real estate. The picture boards provide all kinds of fellowship to millions of young men (and some women) around the world. From porn to politics and anime to the occult, users can anonymously chat and share pictures with one another on the picture boards.
4chan and the other "chans" are interwoven with the chaotic history of the internet. This is where the activist group Anonymous began. They produced cat memes and child pornography alike. 4chan was the birthplace of the QAnon conspiracy movement, while 8chan was instrumental in the growth of the sprawling cult. Both have helped to promote the incel movement ("involuntary celibacy").
When 8chan became the hot spot for mass shooters and domestic terrorists to upload their manifestos and crimes, there were calls to take the site offline – by whom, exactly, it wasn't clear, but a debate quickly erupted over the US repeal – Internet Act Section 230. And there was free speech by those who may find the language in the chans obnoxious but feel it should be protected. The tug of war continues.
But it was the online citizens who pressured ISPs to cut 8chan that ultimately proved to be the most effective. A time long.
The game book has now been replayed for a number of problematic online websites: the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, the Twitter clones Parler and Gab, and a constellation of QAnon fan sites.
Each has been targeted and taken offline, then reappeared with the help of an ideologically friendly web host that is sometimes outside of American jurisdiction. And they still produce angry, radicalized young men.
Dollars might have part of the answer to that – and it comes from 8chan itself, from a board that was a mainstay of the site until last year: Bunkerchan.
What 8chan is to right-wing extremist politics, Bunkerchan is to Marxism and left-wing causes. Dollars, who runs Bunkerchan, and his comrades raise an interesting possibility: can an old-fashioned political debate prevent online radicalization?
In recent years, when commentators expressing racist, xenophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, and conspiratorial beliefs became increasingly banned or unwanted on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, they found refuge at 4chan and 8chan. Although the websites used to be a bit politically different, today users who are not interested in right-wing politics have fled, which has only reinforced ideological uniformity. The / leftypol / board lasted longer than most, but the increasing toxicity, coupled with a series of business interruptions, eventually led them to create their own website: Bunkerchan.
Bunkerchan looks pretty close to its predecessors. The big difference is the logo: two wreaths surround three gray towers with a red and black star above them. "Welcome to Albania," says the landing page. Dollars explains that the slogan is a reference to Enver Hoxha, the longtime leader of the communist state amid an ideological dispute with the Soviet Union. Hoxha built over 170,000 bunkers across Albania to protect itself from outside invasion, and the bunkers are now a popular meme on internet forums on the far left.
In some ways, Bunkerchan is just the left answer to 8chan. But the differences are great.
“Our rules are very specific. Easy-to-use spam posts are breaking the rules, as is trying to wrap reactionary ideas in pro-worker language, "said Dollars. In practice, these rules mean that anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other offensive posts – not unheard of among online theorists for far-right armchairs – are conspicuous and unusual. "But if you are a / pol / user, even a Nazi / fascist, we will discuss you seriously and try to convince you that you are wrong."
In 2018, researchers set out to test the effects of online political bubbles. They went to Reddit to analyze two different subreddits: r / The_Donald for supporters of Donald Trump and r / HillaryClinton. Researchers found that both channels enforced their homogeneity – criticism of the preferred candidate was effectively banned.
The researchers found that the users in their clubhouses were very happy. "In general, supporters appear to be more open, cheerful and comfortable in politically homogeneous environments than when interacting in overarching communication spaces," they wrote.
Yet users did not stick to their safe spaces. Over three-quarters of r / HillaryClinton users and more than 60 percent of r / The_Donald posters stayed active on subreddits of general interest, which meant moving around spaces that weren't clearly aligned with their worldview. This included subreddits where both the Trump Stans and the Clintonistas could meet.
"We find that only a minority of users engaged in politically homogeneous communication limit their participation exclusively to such environments," the researchers concluded.
The finding makes sense. It is quite difficult to completely isolate yourself from all strange thoughts online. You can't seal off the comments section of your favorite video or filter out the responses to a funny tweet by ideology.
When the threat of digital cocoons became a real problem, companies took steps to combat this trend. YouTube tinkered with its algorithm to prevent conspiratorial and extremist videos from being recommended. Facebook has increased moderation for all groups, including private ones. Twitter encourages users to follow accounts from outside their narrow worldview. The Reddit homepage has a diverse network of interests and topics, etc. All of this came fairly late and only under immense public pressure, but it's hard to ignore the deflationary impact this has had on digital extremism.
But while users, even radicalized ones, are naturally exposed to mainstream culture and competing viewpoints on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, Gab or 8chan users constantly feed on information that validates their ideology. The consistency of the hard-right philosophy is not a bug on these websites. It's a design.
Half of the deplatformation of these sites brings with it a whole new problem. "Well, now they're in these closed ecosystems, mostly talking to themselves," said Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor of religion at Queen's University and researcher on radicalization and extremism.
"I think part of the challenge for the people who work in this field is getting the public to accept that it has to be all or nothing."
The West is beginning to learn this lesson by frustratingly trying to deprogram the Islamic State recruits. "Many programs have shown some degree of success," said Amarasingam. "But it depends on how you define success." Even if someone breaks the grip of an extremist ideology, they can fall apart while in the same chat rooms or watching the same videos. They show a penchant for falling into the same rabbit holes.
Dollars and his comrades aren't the only ones trying new tactics. When Natalie Wynn first started on YouTube, she said it was mostly "center-right content that was rapidly racing towards far-right nationalism".
Wynn has been dubbed "YouTube's Oscar Wilde". An aspiring philosopher who graduated as a Ph.D. She has a large following thanks to her lengthy, entertaining, and sharply written monologues on politics, gender, and extremism.
While YouTube has always been the go-to place for prank videos and music videos, its early political culture was idiosyncratic. It was a popular home for atheists and biologists to take up the growing debate about the role of religion in American life. There have been some left-wing and feminist vloggers, but it has been difficult to pinpoint a particular YouTube ideology.
"It started with 'We destroy creationists with facts and logic," said Wynn.
Then came Gamergate. Video game fans launched a crusade against women in the video game and media industries under the less convincing slogan "Ethics in Journalism". The campaign provided cover for a surge in anti-feminist agitation, as evidenced by the rise in right-wing content on YouTube. Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Steven Crowder, Lauren Southern and Milo Yiannopoulos saw their stars rise amid Gamergate's counterculture.
Wynn said the new ethos is, "We destroy feminists with facts and logic."
When YouTube became home to a rising club of young, smart, reactionary identitars, the platform suddenly became less friendly to those who didn't fit into the new order. Feminists and liberals were suddenly undesirable. Videos that didn't fit the new YouTube doctrine received thumbs down and were littered with nasty comments.
"A lot of them didn't take long," said Wynn. When she created her YouTube account ContraPoints in 2016, Wynn said, "There wasn't anyone really interviewing these people."
Wynn approached that as a challenge. She tried to emulate the tactics of these reactionaries – the humor, the lean editing, the lack of political correctness. She would use it for her own benefit. The only twist is that Wynn, a socialist trans woman, would trace it back to those who popularized the format. She began posting videos that decipher the symbolism of the old right, provide clear explanations of the usefulness of gender pronouns, and rail against capitalism.
"Instead of destroying Jordan Peterson with facts and logic," she said with a laugh, "I am seducing Jordan Peterson with facts and logic."
Wynn discovered that the spectators who flocked to Peterson, Shapiro, and the whole crowd weren't ideological purists. "So much of what they hate about feminism or any liberation movement is constipation," she said. "They like being the nervous guys." So Wynn set out to "be more nervous than she".
Instead of berating or verbally abusing her viewers, she made them laugh at themselves.
"If you can entertain them, they've gone from being laughing at a trans person to being conversing at a trans person," said Wynn.
She said most of her early users were likely on the right wing of the spectrum. They were on YouTube to validate their own worldview only to be disturbed by ContraPoints.
Wynn, with over a million subscribers, didn't outperform some of the larger right-wing YouTube personalities, but she and others like her have ushered in a more diverse political culture on YouTube. "When I really think back to how it was in 2016, it has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," she said.
"There's practically an industrial complex now that Jordan B. Peterson is immersed in," she jokingly added.
Now she and Ben Shapiro could be competing for the same eyeballs. "It's a free marketplace of attention," she said. And that has a moderating influence on everyone.
"2020 was an interesting online experiment," said Wynn late last year. "For many people, online is increasingly everything." This means that the competition for viewers has become even tougher.
This search for views, which in turn corresponds to advertising dollars, has made YouTube a restricted area for anyone who has not attributed the reactionary, anti-feminist, anti-trans and anti-left movements. It may not now perfectly reflect the diversity of the political spectrum, but it is not quite as monolithic as it was before.
"It's a test of how an ideology can become a mutant," said Wynn.
The most common thread on Bunkerchan isn't when its users read Marx or educated themselves about the class struggle. It's about finally realizing how toxic their previous tamped spots really were.
"I can't tell if I changed or 4chan changed," one user wrote. They said that they joined the board in 2010 and, like a frog heating water, did not notice the steady shift of sound that surrounded them. "It's a strange mix of hostility and boredom," they wrote. Looking back on their former clubhouse, 4chan, they said it "now feels like an explicit Nazi site".
One user shared his own obsessive, extremist political journey through the “right-wing pipeline” of “Holocaust denialism, the Jewish question, cultural Marxism” – all during her school days.
The user, who claimed to be both black and on the autism spectrum, said he stumbled upon / leftypol / and "realized that liberals are not leftists". It was easier to demonize socialists and liberals as they could avoid them entirely on 4chan.
What these stories share, however, is that it wasn't a thoughtful Facebook post or Twitter thread that broke their 4-channel or 8-channel addiction: it was Bunkerchan. It seems that many were waiting for an alternative to meet them where they were already. Bunkerchan and 8chan are no longer on the same website, but they are still kindred spirits. Almost neighbors. From the infrastructure of the site to the edgy humor, Bunkerchan feels like 4chan. Just without the Nazis.
Bunkerchan users still occasionally use 8chan and 4chan – sometimes out of mischief, like a user who managed to become a moderator of a QAnon board by banning swastikas and putting in word filters to remove racial slurs.
"Part of that was that we felt it was our responsibility to try to influence / pol / users who would drop by our site," said Dollars.
This is the kind of ideological disturbance that cannot come top-down. Moderation may keep a platform free of beheading videos and appeals to violence, but it doesn't change much in the opinion of the person posting that content.
"There will always be forums for these people, they will find a way, and their censorship only flows into their suppression narrative," said Dollars. "We're trying to show that there really is another way, and that comes from principles."
This type of dialogue with fascists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis has become unpopular in recent years, and for good reason – often engaging with extreme beliefs is a surefire way to make them appear less extreme and to spread the hatred to a wider audience pack.
However, this is not prime time for CNN. This is a confrontation with fascists on their home turf.
It's something that Wynn briefly summed up in one of her ContraPoints videos: "(Fascists) don't care about" diversity of opinion "- in fact, they are actively against it."
As Wynn noted in this video, which has now been viewed over 2 million times, the debate about Nazis and fascists need not be about legitimizing their views. "Don't host debates with them on your YouTube channel," she encouraged her viewers. But she said, "If you're just an average person without a big platform, you can actually debate, and you should debate. … Let them hear from a different perspective."
Fighting the rise of online extremism requires a variety of tactics. Moderating and monitoring major social media websites is required. In some extreme cases, deprogramming and anti-radicalization efforts are required. However, it is necessary to get them to hear a different perspective.
It won't always be perfect. Those who want to rage against the machine will not be seized by calm appeals from US President Joe Biden – sometimes they have more in common with a web forum that turns an Albanian dictator into a lion. It is a form of harm reduction to steer a deep-seated discontent with Western society from race war to class war. Or really, whatever alternative may come before them.
"A big part of what / leftypol / does is toss a wrench into the narrative that / pol / built for itself," said Dollars.
Right now, these users are out of sight and out of their minds. You can be left to your own devices and slide some of the self-radicalization down further. If we are to fight online radicalization, we must find a way to break these chains of self-victimization. And so could Bunkerchan and his allies.