After an in-class discussion about fake news and online paranoia, I noticed the pen name used at the top of a particular article of fake news: Jimmy Rustling. The brief bio itself is plainly a joke (bragging about his fourteen Peabody awards and Russian mail-order bride,) making it clear that a single ounce of research would break any illusion of truth. However, the name Jimmy Rustling is itself a joke – or, more accurately a reference. Anyone familiar with the culture of some of the internet’s darkest, dankest places should recognize it immediately.
Namely, 4chan, infamous image board extraordinaire. It’s been generously called the “armpit of the internet,” and has most recently been a driving force behind Donald Trump since the beginning of his candidacy. They’re the group that co-opted a cartoon frog enough that it’s been “associated with white supremacy,” even if the original cartoonist is voting for Hillary. But how has a website with a user base solidly in the white, young, tech-savvy male demographic has swung to the alt-right?
4chan started as a website created by a 15-year-old to discuss Japanese animation, computers, and other introvert-centric topics. Since the beginning to today, every post enforces total anonymity, with exceptions only for moderators and the microscopic number of users who wish to associate their posts with their name. As more boards for different topics cropped up on 4chan, the combination of total anonymity and moderation by a few teens lead to what you might expect: mischief and murmurings centered around intense and edgy shock humor. Race, gender, abortions – anything that could get a rise out of someone was fair game. The important point is that, no matter how reprehensible their jokes were, they weren’t sincere reflections of the user base’s beliefs – it was all just shock humor fodder to them. Then, time passed.
On a website centered around anonymity using simple text and images to communicate, it’s nearly impossible to read the tone and intent of a user’s post. Over the years, the sense of irony or insincerity in 4chan’s race/sex/everything-ism faded, and now the same site that raided an online game with rumored racist moderators and attacked Fox News’ website in protest of their coverage of Occupy Wall Street is infamous for propagating mass hate speech on behalf of “God Emperor Trump”.
Tying this back into independent media, understanding the histories of entities like 4chan is important so as to avoid looking as laughably ridiculous as this old FOX News segment on 4chan (in which 4chan is framed as a terrorist organization, instead of the internet equivalent of a bunch of teens huddled around a phone, making crank calls.) Moreover, understanding the difference between a joke and a statement seems to be eluding many more than just 4chan users.
In part 2, I’ll be diving into the “news” that fools casual readers, dedicated viewers, and Chinese state media without even trying: satire – and independent media’s vulnerability.