After Donald Trump’s election, 4chan declared war on queer people and the American counterculture.
4chan is a lawless, unmoderated and completely anonymous online forum that frequently serves as a hub of internet troll culture. 4chan spawned the Anonymous movement when some of 4chan’s users launched an organized trolling campaign against the Church of Scientology in 2008. That movement later became known for its hacktivism against the wealthy and powerful during the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in fall of 2011.
Unlike the altruistic movements of the past, a hyper-conservative, white nationalist movement now dominates 4chan, particularly the subsection known as /pol/. The users believe, with an almost religious fervor, that their “meme magic” helped to elect Trump. More sober analysts are worried that 4chan and Reddit are radicalizing a generation by turning disaffected young white men into dangerous neo-Nazis.
Since November 8, 4chan has been linked to two seemingly disparate, but ultimately interconnected stories. One of them, #Pizzagate, is a conspiracy theory in which passing references to Italian food found in Wikileaks’ archive of John Podesta’s emails have been transformed, through 4chan’s intervention, into an international pedophile sex ring. The conspiracy involves everyone from Hillary Clinton herself to Marina Abramovic, a performance artist that became a demon summoning warlock in the minds of the far-right with the help of WikiLeaks.
Needless to say, the entire theory is a pile of hot garbage soaked in marinara. #Pizzagate is based on a kind of “Scooby-Doo” meets “The Davinci Code” approach to investigative journalism, where child rapists operate in plain sight by leaving coded language on pizza menus and hiding symbols in modern art. An initial list of “secret words” invented by 4chan (“sauce” = orgy!) set the theory in motion, after which it was fueled by everyone from Alex Jones to Tayyip Erdogan.
/pol/’s anonymous Nazi jokesters are undoubtedly keeping the story spreading and most likely operating the social media bots that help make #pizzagate and related hashtags into trending topics. It might be funny, except of course a man, armed with an assault rifle, who told police he wanted to “self-investigte” the theory, stormed into Comet Ping Pong during business hours. Comet, a real, gay-owned pizza parlor frequented by real families, is imagined to be a hub of Washington, D.C.-based child slavery.
Emboldened by their success, 4chan turned their attention to the counterculture next. The tragic fire at Oakland’s Ghostship collective, which claimed the lives of 36 young artists, has inspired police around the U.S. to crack down on squats and illegal arts spaces. Sensing an opportunity, 4chan users began collecting the addresses of similar spaces to enable them to report these communities to police, code enforcement, fire inspectors, and other authority figures capable of shutting them down.
“The Oakland fire occurred in a venue popular with leftists and degenerates,” one 4chan user wrote.
Already threatened by increased law enforcement attention, 4chan turned up the volume, subjecting arts spaces from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C to all the disturbing harassment they can bring to bear.
And though I don’t have any firm evidence, it’s tempting to link these virtual attacks to the physical attack recently suffered by activists in New York City, who found themselves ambushed and beaten by Trump supporters after a gathering at a temporary organizing space earlier this month. Whether or not 4chan users were directly involved, it’s evidence of the very real risk that “people like us” face in these times.
That’s what links #Pizzagate and 4chan’s attack on DIY collectives. The Ghostship, like illegal arts spaces around the country, attracted LGBTQIA people and, in general, society’s creative outcasts. In #Pizzagate, much of the so-called “evidence” is based on the homophobic feelings of discomfort “investigators” feel because Comet Ping Pong features queer artwork on its walls, or considers queer musicians to be “family friendly.” When Owen Shroyer, an Austin-based #Pizzagate supporter, published an “expose” on East Side Pies, a local pizza chain with a playful “Illuminati”-inspired eye logo, he focused on the stretched ears of the clerk and the names of local alternative bands publicizing their upcoming shows as “evidence” of pedophilia.
After his visit, Shroyer said he’s “gripping my gun tighter every night.”
Both these campaigns by 4chan are driven by the same racist, homophobic, xenophobic, nationalist energy that helped to put Donald Trump in office. Several people have compared #Pizzagate to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when innocent lives were ruined based on hearsay and false testimony that children were essentially tortured into producing. Some of the Satanic Panic’s victims, specifically, 4 lesbian women from San Antonio, Texas, were only recently exonerated and freed from prison after losing years of their lives to a wrongful conviction.
Their sexual orientation should not be seen as a coincidence — like the queer artists on the walls of Comet, or the pizza clerk with plugged ears — they were targeted not because they broke a law, but because they made some heavily-armed, fear-driven wretch feel uncomfortable.
In a particularly sad twist, I’ve repeatedly run across people, from former-Occupy activists to Burners, who are spreading #Pizzagate while simultaneously participating in a community that often depends on Ghostship-style DIY spaces. Make no mistake, #Pizzagate is bipartisan, however much it’s driven by the extremist right, and many participants have never heard of 4chan. If they have, they don’t understand how they’re being deliberately manipulated by its users.
Counterculture pizzagaters are participating, in a roundabout way, in their own oppression.
It’s even more disturbing to wonder who could be manipulating 4chan. Who profits from encouraging this atmosphere of fear and misinformation? What community will be targeted next?
The counterculture has frequently been a source of subversive ideas that have the potential to undermine government control. Repressive regimes from Nazi Germany to South American dictators have cracked down on intellectuals, queers, artists, and musicians during and after their rise to power.
As both a journalist and a member of many of these communities, it’s easy to see the dark places this could lead. What’s harder, traditionally, is getting the counterculture to organize in political opposition to its enemies. Almost by definition, the counterculture is anti-political, although the counterculture’s ideas frequently filter out and inspire activists.
For years, I’ve urged my fellow members of the Burning Man community to become more politically active. It’s clear to me that the weirdos of the world can no longer simply hide in our warehouses, festivals, and our cooperatives.
We must take an active role in this fight, because the fascists are at the gates, ready to tear our communities apart.
4Chan’s War On Alternative & LGBTQIA Culture by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2016/12/26/4chans-war-on-alternative-lgbtqia-culture/.
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