Categories
Identity in Communities and Networks

Anonymity And Identity On 4chan

Abstract

4chan is a series of anonymous, anything goes forums. 4chan, unlike Reddit and other forum sites, enables users to create and share content without having to create a profile. 4chan was created in October 2003 by Christopher Poole, Poole wanted to create a site that emulated the anonymous behaviour of the Japanese website 2channel. 4chan can be referred to an enthusiast forum, these sites are different from normal social media sites. Instead of having your real name and photo as your profile, you can create any identity a user wanted. Enthusiasts loved taking different personas because it made them anonymous on the internet, and therefore not judged by their hobbies in real life (Smith,2015). This also meant that users actions online where not judged as well. 4chan’s thread board works by deleting previous posts based on their specific ratings, less time for R-rated boards, and more for G or PG ones (Dewey, 2014). This makes it difficult to find a specific thread once you leave the site, as the whole idea is to see fresh content every time you visit the site.

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the positives and negatives of online anonymity. I will be relating a majority of my points towards 4chan, as it’s a good example to show both sides of the argument. I argue that anonymity on the internet is an important right for everyone who uses the web, but I recognise the negative aspects of anonymity when used incorrectly.

Keywords: 4chan, Anonymity, forums, web crime, enthusiast, identity, internet security, freedom of speech, /pol/, /b/

Anonymity and the Internet

Full Anonymity can be best described as an online persona that has no relation to your real identity. Normally “one body means one identity” (Judith.1996),the virtual world is different. One person has the power to create as many virtual identities as they want, if one has the time and energy. Or in many places on the internet, have no identity at all. Anonymity can sometimes be confused with pseudonymity. Pseudonymity and Anonymity are somewhat similar, pseudonymity simply means that you’re not using your real or legal name to identify yourself.

As the internet grew and developed, online security and privacy became an increasingly important discussion, as more and more people became aware of the possible risks associated with the use of the web. Recent stories about hackers accessing major social media platforms (Winder, 2019), was a real scare for many people, as Facebook and majority of big social media platforms encourage users to create profiles based on their real identity’s. Facebooks founder Mark Zuckerberg had said previously in an interview “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly, having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”(Mark. 2010). 4chan’s creator Christopher Poole had the complete opposite opinion, and argued that “anonymity allows users to reveal themselves in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way” (Christopher. 2011).

Although 4chan doesn’t require users to create an account, 4chan admins have the ability to view certain users IP addresses. In regards to privacy, IP addresses won’t expose your identity, as an IP address is simply a set of numbers which identifies your router. 4chan maintains this anonymity by only allowing 4chan admins access to this information when needed, unless court ordered by a governing official. Even if a user with malicious intent was to obtain your IP address, the information attached to the IP is vague. At best this user could only obtain the ISP you use, or which city or state you live in. Generally, the only way someone could gain access to your information is from a malicious link that downloads a program onto your computer.

Anonymity can be applied in many ways across the internet, some more subtle than others. One example of this is the ‘Guest’ feature. A large majority of sites offer this feature for users to browse and sometimes upload content under the name of ‘guest’ without having to create an account on that platform. Soundcloud is an example of this, as user’s tracks can be played by anyone, and all ‘plays’ are counted, even if they don’t have an account.  

Internet Anonymity: Reasons for

Internet anonymity brings a sense of freedom for many users on the web and 4chan (Kimberly. 2007). “The ability to express emotions and or behaviours that could be considered anti-normative can be healthy for an individual. It may allow for an individual to take a different perspective on life and change their behaviour for the better” (Kimberly.2007). 4chan users have the freedom to post wherever and whatever they want, in some cases this can be used negatively, but for many users this can be viewed as an escape. For instance, groups that would usually feel uncomfortable about sharing their ideas or thoughts, have the ability to post content without the fear of possible negative criticism. “Anonymity brings a feeling of connection with others of similar views or idea without the possibility of scrutiny” (Kimberly.2007). This can be a powerful platform for many groups, one example is the LGBTQ community forum on 4chan. Users who are a part of this community have the possibility to share their personal stories and emotions, which can be a great relief to these individuals. This could possibly lead to an increased amount of “self-acceptance and subsequent empowerment to come out to friends and family” (McKenna & Bargh, 1998).

Anonymity allows users to control their privacy and their online identity’s. Privacy can be referred to as “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (Alan, 1970). Generally, when applying for a job nowadays, employers use the web to do background checks on potential employee’s social media accounts. A study done by an employment website called CareerBuilder, conducted a survey where they interviewed more than 1,000 HR professionals and hiring managers about the importance of using social media when screening potential employees. More than 70% of respondents claim they use social networking sites to search for potential job candidates (Ranosa,2019). While 57% of those who conducted social media screenings, discovered content that caused them not to hire a candidate (Ranosa, 2019). This is a strong reason why many are fighting for anonymity, the idea of being able to express your ideas and thoughts and explore your interests anonymously, without the possibility of it affecting your employment.

An example of this is a twitter user named Naomi H. Naomi received an internship position at Nasa around August 2018. Naomi, being extremely excited about the position, decided to write a tweet to inform her followers about her recent achievement. “EVERYONE SHUT THE F*** UP, I GOT ACCEPTED FOR A NASA INTERNSHIP” (Naomi, 2018). Her tweet gained a large amount of attention as one of Nasa’s former engineers, and a current member on the National Space council board, Homer Hickman, retweeted, condemning her language. Naomi continued to brag about her position, unknowingly being observed by a figure high up in Nasa’s council board. Naomi would eventually figure out Homer wasn’t joking about his position; she deleted her tweets and made her account private. She would later lose that position at Nasa.

This divided twitter, as users posted tweets in support of Naomi, “I feel kind of bad for Naomi, who wants to get their tone policed by old white men on the internet?” (@Thaily Brimstone, 2018). Hickman later addressed the situation, saying he had talked with the people responsible for internships and that he had asked that she remains in the Nasa internship program. Although this ended well for Naomi, there have been countless other examples of individuals losing their jobs due to their web activity. If Naomi or any of these users posted these comments anonymously, they could have avoided this confrontation all together.

Anonymity is an important element towards the idea of “Freedom of knowledge and information”. A group by the name of Anonymous became extremely popular on 4chan and the internet, for their views towards anonymity and the idea of “free speech & Information”. These individuals mask themselves behind a famous and well-known Guy Fawkes masks. “Anonymous is just one of the many manifestations of anonymity” (Stryker, 2012), these individuals cover their faces when in public, similar to how they are online. Anonymous is an amorphous collective of hackers and trollers who were born on 4chan (Stryker,2012), where they launched attacks at certain individuals or groups for a laugh. Over their years of operation, Anonymous have tended their aspirations towards more political, antisurveillance ideology’s.

In 2010, Mastercard refused to let users donate to Wikileaks, a site famous for leaking confidential information about governments actions and future projects. Anonymous, similar in views with Wikileaks, orchestrated DDOS attacks on Mastercard’s site, temporarily taking it offline (TechCrunch, 2010). Anonymous continued to attack PayPal and other financial institutions, which refused service to Julian Assange (Wikileaks Founder).

Anonymous have also aided in the fight against child pornography. In 2017 an anonymous hacktivist targeted a large database on the dark web. Freedom Hosting II, was the largest host of dark web sites that could only be accessed through Tor. This vigilante managed to take down 10,000 dark web sites containing child pornography (Newsweek,2017). More than 50% of files on Freedom Hosting II contained child pornography. This operation was notable, as it affected more than 20% of the dark web.

Internet Anonymity: Reasons against

While 4chan is great for allowing supressed groups to express their emotions and thoughts behind this ‘mask’, it also allows individuals and groups with extreme right-wing political and racial ideology’s, a platform to express their ideas. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down, people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors” (R. Zuckerberg, 2011). One example of this is a 4chan thread board called /r9k/. In 2015, a user posted an image of the popular meme frog called ‘Pepe’ holding a gun (Levy,2015). This image was accompanied with text saying “Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest”. Users immediately started replying, some in support of his post. “It’s either you kill me or my parents do, I’ll be waiting lad” one user posted. The next day 10 students were brutally murdered, as a gunman opened fire at a community college in Oregon. This was a similar situation for the recent Christchurch shootings.

8chan, a site that functions very similarly to 4chan, came under attack from the government, as it tried to crack down on far-right extremist’s threads and groups that function on these sites. Brendan Tarrant, the man responsible for 51 people dead in the mosque shooting in Christchurch, used 8chan to post his views and ideas with fellow right-wing activists. Tarrant, had amassed a ‘cult’ like following (Paul, 2019). One user by the name of John Earnest, in support of Tarrant, went away and committed his own separate crime, graffitiing pro-Tarrant messages on a mosque, before attacking and killing one person in San Diego (Paul, 2019).

/pol/ is thread created on 4chan for users with extreme political ideas to share and communicate with other users who share similar ideas. The thread, called politically incorrect, has come under a lot of media attention, as a majority of posts relate to Neo-Nazism and white nationalism (Emiliano, 2016). In 2015, 2 men opened fire at a Black Rights Matter protest, injuring 5 protestors. After the shooting, a video emerged of two armed men, filming themselves as they headed towards the Black Lives Matter protest. In the video these men are heard saying “we’re going to shut the camera off in a little bit, we just wanted to give everyone a heads up on /pol/” (Cristofaro,2016). These 2 men were identified as frequent contributors to the /pol/ thread. Since then, 4chan has taken down /pol/. Although this doesn’t remove the problem, as users move to other 4chan threads or similar sites like 8chan (Cristofaro,2016).

4chan’s /b/ thread has become famously known for ‘Trolling’. Trolling, is the “art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, the most essential part of trolling is convincing your victim that either a) truly believe in what you are saying, no matter how outrageous, or b) give your victim malicious instructions, under the guise of help” (Glen,2012). Trolling on the internet and 4chan can range from a light-hearted prank, to targeted bullying on specific groups or individuals. One of 4chans more mischievous pranks was on iPhone users. Back in 2014, trollers on 4chan posted a photo-shopped edit of an up-and-coming addition to the IOS8 software (Radulova,2014). This advertisement promoted a new ‘wave’ option, that was said to charge users phones in any household microwaves. A number of iPhone users proceeded to destroy their phones, immediately flocking to twitter in anger, posting images of the results. The fake advertisement caused so much controversy that the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) and Apple had to address the issue on Twitter.

A large group of /b/ users trolled a deceased teenagers memorial page on Facebook, back in 2013. Hannah Smith, a UK teenager, committed suicide due to comments she received on an anonymous question and answer site Ask.fm. Hannah is the seventh teenager to commit suicide after being bullied on the site (Alfonso,2013). A user on /b/ posted a thread asking fellow users to ‘fire up’ fake accounts, posting vulgar comments, saying how they thought she “deserved it anyway” (Alfonso,2013). This added to the pre-existing negative stigma of Anonymity, Smiths parents have requested that Ask.com be taken down.

Conclusion

While I understand Anonymity and Pseudonymity can be used negatively by those who use it to hide their crimes or ugly comments, there are groups of users who use anonymity to free themselves from societal norms and views. Groups that use anonymity inappropriately seem to be the majority of stories that make the media, shining a negative light on those who use it properly. Anonymity is essential on the internet if we are to keep a part of the internet where we are free to explore ideas without scrutiny. “Anonymity lets you be a different person, but it also allows you to be who you really are. That’s precious, let’s not give up without a fight” (Stryker,2012).

References:

Caitlin Dewey. (2014, September 25). Absolutely everything you need to know to understand 4chan, the Internet’s own bogeyman. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/09/25/absolutely-everything-you-need-to-know-to-understand-4chan-the-internets-own-bogeyman/

Noah Smith. (2015, May 2). A quick history of 4chan and the rightists who killed it. Noahpinion. https://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-quick-history-of-4chan-and-online.html

Judith S. Donath. Identity and deception in the virtual community. (1996). Sociable Media Group – MIT Media Lab.

Winder, D. (2019, September 6). Unsecured Facebook databases leak data of 419 million users. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/daveywinder/2019/09/05/facebook-security-snafu-exposes-419-million-user-phone-numbers/#6ec0d921ab7f

Mark Zuckerberg & David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect, 2010

Christopher Poole. (2011, March 13). 4chan founder: Zuckerberg is “totally wrong” about online identity. VentureBeat. https://venturebeat.com/2011/03/13/4chan-moot-christopher-poole-sxsw/

Kimberly M. Christopherson, Computers in Human Behaviour, Volume 23, Issue 6, Pages 3038-3056, (2007)

McKenna and Bargh, Coming out in the age of the Internet: identity “demarginalization” through virtual group participation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (1998)

Alan.F. Westin. Privacy and Freedom. Bodley Head, (1970)

Ranosa, R. (2019, October 29). How recruiters check for red flags on social media. HR News & Analysis, Human Resource Management | HRD America. https://www.hcamag.com/au/specialisation/hr-technology/how-recruiters-check-for-red-flags-on-social-media/189899

Jacqueline Weiss, (2018), Business Insider. Woman loses NASA internship after swearing on Twitter at a national space council member. ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/a-woman-lost-a-nasa-scholarship-after-getting-into-twitter-beef-with-a-member-of-nasa-s-space-council

Stryker, C. (2012). Hacking the future: Privacy, identity, and anonymity on the web. ABRAMS.

Alexia Tsotsis. (2010, December 8). 4Chan takes down Mastercard site in support of WikiLeaks – TechCrunch. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2010/12/08/4chan-takes-down-mastercard-site-in-support-of-wikileaks/

Anonymous took down a fifth of the Dark Web by targeting child porn. (2017, February 11). Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/anonymous-hacker-dark-web-child-porn-operation-553014

Galperin, E. (2011, October 6). Randi Zuckerberg runs in the wrong direction on pseudonymity online. Electronic Frontier Foundation. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/08/randi-zuckerberg-runs-wrong-direction-pseudonymity

Levy, M. (2015, October 2). Oregon shooting: Chilling message on 4chan warned of college massacre. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/world/oregon-shooting-chilling-message-on-4chan-warned-of-college-massacre-20151002-gjzjri.html

Paul Marley. (2019, September 5). Accused Christchurch mass killer Brenton Tarrant emerges as far right extremist ‘hero’. The Australian. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/world/accused-christchurch-mass-killer-brenton-tarrant-emerges-as-far-right-extremist-hero/news-story/c8c2db7861252527f4587026ff05ab63

Emiliano De Cristofaro. (2016, November 8). 4chan raids: How one dark corner of the internet is spreading its shadows. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/4chan-raids-how-one-dark-corner-of-the-internet-is-spreading-its-shadows-68394

Glen Coco. (2012, May 10). Why does nobody know what ‘Trolling’ means? Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ppqk78/what-trolling-means-definition-UK-newspapers

Radulova, L. (2014, September 26). IPhone users fall for prank claiming microwaves can charge their phone. Mail Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2768976/Emergency-services-forced-step-iPhone-users-fall-internet-prank-explains-use-microwave-charge-phone.html

Fernando Alfonso. (2013, March 2). 4chan is trolling a dead teen’s memorial page. The Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/4chan-hannah-smith-suicide-facebook-trolls/

7 replies on “Anonymity And Identity On 4chan”

Hey Kieran,

I really liked how you presented both the positive and negatives toward online anonymity. In particular, how it can encourage radical behaviours like trolling and bullying, as well as positives in regard to users’ privacy and their ability to freely express themselves without fear of being scrutinised.
I am interested in whether you agree more with Zuckerberg or Poole’s opinion on online anonymity? Or if you can see both sides?
My paper also explores the affects of online anonymity, with a focus on how it influences users’ self-disclosure on social platforms. It would be great if you could check it out and leave a comment! https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/the-relationship-between-online-anonymity-and-self-disclosure-of-users-on-social-platforms/

Hey Ruby,
Thanks for reading my paper and taking the time to comment!
In regards to my opinion for which side i am on for Anonymity & Pseudonymity, it would have to be Poole’s.
While i can recognise points for Zuckerburgs argument on Anonymity (in regards to web crime & child pornography), I feel that being able to control your identities online and having the ability to manage how much of your personal information is shared on the web is too important nowadays. Especially now that a large majority of the web requires you to identify your true self.
I will definitely give your paper a read, its cool to see other students talking about Anonymity, as i am really interested to see other students opinions!
-Kieran

Hi Kieran

I enjoyed reading your paper. As someone who has never used 4chan, I learnt a lot about the platform and its users.

In your section Anonymity and the Internet, I found it interesting that you asserted that “one body means one identity”. Having read Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I might suggest that one body actually means multiple identities dependant on the context. What are your thoughts on this?

My paper also focusses on anonymity and pseudonymity, but with discussion around Facebook’s real name policy. I’d love to hear your opinion if you feel like giving it a read: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/15/authentic-selves-how-facebooks-push-for-real-names-causes-users-wishing-to-explore-their-identity-to-invest-in-alternative-platforms/

Hi India,
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my paper, I hope you enjoyed it.
In regards to ‘one body means one identity’, I agree that in some certain situations one self could have multiple personalities in regards to the web.
What i was more referring to is the normality of one identity to one body outside of the web, trying to uphold multiple identities and traits throughout different social groups is exhausting, this can often lead to context collapse as well.
I will definitely check out your paper as i am really interested in the argument for Anonymity & Pseudonymity.
Thanks!
-Kieran

Hi Kieran

I see, I’m more clear on what you mean now. I’d still disagree in terms of one body equating to one personality/set of traits outside of the web.

For example, I would not swear in front of my 12 year old sister but swear around my friends. This personality difference doesn’t exhaust me, it just seems to occur naturally.

I’d say online is where the real context collapse arrises. Following on from the previous example, I will not swear in my Instagram story that my friends view as my sister is also following me. So context collapse online restricts me.

Thank you

Hi Kieran,
Your paper is really interesting and worth reading. I totally agree with your argument that everyone has the right to use anonymity on the web. You are right that there are some negative aspects.

I think that anonymity enables you to explore many things without any disturbance or the fear of being observed every time. But which side do you personally support the most?

My paper focuses on the attention economy of social network like how the users are representing themselves on social network to gain attention. I invite you to have a look and share your honest opinion.
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/attention-economy-the-future-of-social-networking-sites/

Hey Katoosia,

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my paper, i’m glad you enjoyed it.

This argument is definitely a tricky one, as there are valid points for both sides. Personally i agree with Christopher Poole’s opinion, the idea that Anonymity and Pseudonymity are essential on the web.

What i find interesting is that people act differently when they are aware that their being observed. What i love about Anonymity is that it allows us to explore our personal thoughts and ideas, without that feeling of being observed at every step.

But i completely agree with removing an individuals right to Anonymity on the web, if they are involved in web crime or child pornography.

Thanks again!
-Kieran

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *