Trolls to Terrorism

By Kendyl Brower 

Violent extremism is not a new concept for the United States. Yet, with the rise of the internet and deep echo chambers of anonymous forums, it seems as though the creation and growth of extremist groups has accelerated exponentially. Furthermore, the consequences of communities that thrive on the deep web become more apparent each and every day, threatening our safety and democracy. 

4chan, an image-based bulletin board, consists of anonymous users who discuss virtually everything with no restrictions. However, what started as a means to discuss anime and memes has sprawled into a chaotic home to boards full of sexism, racism, and white supremacy. The most popular boards are, /pol/, meaning ‘politically incorrect’ and /b/, a place with violent imagery and pornography. The board /pol/ contains homphobic, racist, and sexist comments, of which most users deem as satirical. Yet the line between satire and reality is blurred; some members truly believe the statements left in these echo chambers– and the effects are brutal. 

Namely, the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6 perfectly demonstrates the results of online extremism. Some influencers encouraged the riot on mainstream sites, such as Ali Alexander who uploaded a Youtube video on Christmas day urging people to storm the Capitol as soon as Congress finalized Joe Biden’s election to presidency. However, the main culprits are the hidden, anonymous groups on 4chan, Gab, and Parler who planned and advocated the storm. On several online forums, hashtags such as #jan6, #wildprotest, #fightback, #midnightride, all trended. One rioter, Tim Gionet, turned to the smaller site, Dlive, after his Twitter and Facebook ban. Gionet streamed his experience at the riot while anonymous commenters only ignited the flame. A viewer wrote, “Trump gave you an order! Storm the Capitol now. Hang all the Congressmen!” Fueled by Trump’s online rhetoric and encouragement, the online extremists put their plan into action, leaving 5 dead, and the American spirits severely damaged. 

The consequences of online extremism also appear with the 2016 Pizzagate incident. On a self investigated mission, Edgar Maddison Welch fired an assault rifle inside Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria to expose Hillary Clinton and John Podesta’s satanical pedophilia ring in the restaraunt’s basement. Where does a conspiracy like this even begin? The answer is 4chan. One conspiracy theorist wrote an article on, citing a proclaimed ‘FBI insider’ from 4chan who confirmed the allegations against Clinton. The article racked upwards of 23,000 interactions. This is how misinformation spreads: conspiracy news outlets and secret echo chambers are treated as primary sources and pushed into mainstream media. The pizzagate conspiracy became a central aspect of QAnon, the infamous theory that has recently become a controversial topic of discussion in American politics. Though debunked multiple times, QAnon believers continue to fervently fight for their beliefs that Donald Trump is waging a war against satanic democratic pedophiles. Supporters have participated in several acts of violence, most significantly, the attack on the Capitol. Evidently, conspiracy theories in small, anonymous communities can expand all the way into national headlines with frightening outcomes. 

On 4chan, memes can easily turn to hate symbols. In 2019, the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand resulted in the deaths of 51 worshippers. Brenton Tarrant, the man responsible for the act of terrorism claimed that Youtube, 4chan, and 8chan were better sources of information than the news. He regularly shared Reddit posts, wiki pages, and Youtube videos that promoted white nationalism, feeding into far-right propaganda. When he appeared in court, he flashed the ‘OK’ hand gesture, a nod to a popular 4chan meme. Users joked that the ‘OK’ symbol was a reference to white supremacy in order to trick the media and liberals. Ironically, this meme became a reality as the Anti-Defamation League declared it as a hate symbol of white nationalism following Tarrant’s act of terrorism. 

Multiple mainstream media platforms took action against hate speech by banning QAnon supporters and extremists; Twitter and Facebook both banned Former President Donald Trump as well. However,  radical communities can easily crawl into the hidden pockets on the internet because white nationalist agendas are only a few clicks away. Bans on mainstream platforms are only a band aid fix for a deep cut issue. The numerous acts of terrorism that stem from trolls online prompts the debate about free speech. Should we try to crack down on the radical comments and echo chambers of potential terrorism? Or is that a violation of the first amendment? The US must come to a consensus for the future of hate speech in online communities. In the meantime, we must learn to navigate the internet cautiously, straying away false narratives online that are replicated into mainstream media. Cross referencing reliable sources, checking media bias charts, and reading up to date stories are a few key steps to avoiding fake news and conspiracies.