In two decades, 4chan has evolved from a message board where people talked about anime to a casually racist but influential creation engine of internet culture, and now into a generator of far-right propaganda, a place where dangerous conspiracy theories originate, and an amplifier of online bigotry. This evolution, according to 4chan moderators who spoke to Motherboard and leaked chat logs, is in large part because of an anonymous administrator who used moderation enforcement, or lack thereof, to allow the influential website to become a crucial arm of the far-right.
4chan attracted hordes of disaffected young men who trolled various other websites, creating popular memes (many of them racist or sexist) and originating a great deal of internet culture. In recent years, however, 4chan has evolved into something actively sinister: a hive of bigotry, threats of violence, and far right ideology. This rapid and severe descent wasn’t driven solely by the mass action of disgruntled young men.
One current and three former 4chan moderators believe the process was aided along by the de facto administrator of the site, a far right supporter with the handle “RapeApe” who helped turn the site into a meme factory for extreme politics. Motherboard agreed to let the janitors speak anonymously because they said they signed non-disclosure agreements with 4chan.
Because of 4chan’s often wildly offensive content, many assume that the site is completely unmoderated. But 4chan has a corps of volunteers, called “janitors,” “mods,” or “jannies,” whose job it is—theoretically—to make sure that content on the site abides by the rules. (4chan draws a distinction between more senior “moderators,” who are responsible for all boards, and “janitors,” who patrol one or two; we refer to them interchangeably because janitors also moderate discussion.) The janitors we spoke to and a major trove of leaked chat logs from the janitors’ private communications channel tell the story of RapeApe’s rise from junior janny to someone who could decide what kind of content was allowed on the site and where, shaping 4chan into the hateful, radicalizing online community it's known for today.
Started in 2003 by Christopher Poole, 4chan was initially a place for people to discuss anime. Since its founding, the site has expanded to include discussion boards on everything from travel to fitness to video games to origami. It now claims around 22 million visitors a month. Some parts of it are also recruiting grounds for Neo-Nazi groups.
4chan’s more recent extremist element can be traced back to an infamous board: “politically incorrect,” which is listed as "/pol/" on the site. Ostensibly devoted to discussing politics, /pol/ threads often involve users calling each other racist terms, arguing for the genocide of whole nations or ethnicities, or debating about whether different concepts are “degenerate”—a Nazi term of art for material (or people) that ought to be purged. Posters there celebrate and lionize some of the most notorious mass murderers of the last decade, from Anders Breivik to Dylann Roof.
The forum has popularized iconography like Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character reappropriated by some as a racist symbol of the far right that President Trump’s son has tweeted images of. According to academic researchers, 4chan's /pol/ has become one of the most prodigious factories for content on the internet. And the boundaries of its influence spread far beyond the borders of 4chan itself, affecting everything from YouTube to Twitter to mainstream Republican politics.
The politically incorrect board wasn’t always this bad. In fact, former 4chan moderators told Motherboard that /pol/ wasn’t added to the site until 2011, eight years after the site started. For the first few years of its existence, according to two former janitors, Poole intended the /pol/ board to siphon off the racism from other areas of the site so that other users could enjoy their own, board-specific pursuits.
“It was started as a containment board,” one former moderator told me about /pol/. According to chat logs and former moderators, in its early days, moderators at 4chan removed racist posts and users from other boards while ignoring them within one board, “random” (/b/, which was supposed to be a kind of “no rules, anything goes” space. /b/ is where many early memes were born, and is where the hacktivist group Anonymous came from). Such posts also sometimes slipped by on the /pol/ board as well, even though they technically violated the rules there. “Enforcement was more active in the past,” a former moderator said. In contrast to its current far right political climate, “4chan skewed extremely progressive when it first started,” according to the mod, although the use of bigoted and misogynistic language was widespread even then.
But 4chan has changed in recent years. Several studies of the site have shown that 4chan has become more racist, bigoted, and toxic in recent years—especially the /pol/ board. Ideologies propagated on /pol/ have become linked with violence and domestic terrorism. 4chan janitors' main job is to clean up and remove child pornography, lest 4chan draw the wrath of federal authorities, but they also shape the discourse there by setting the limits of acceptable discussion. If a thread goes off-topic or starts to get too racist, the janitors have the responsibility for asking mods to delete it and potentially issue bans against specific users.
According to leaked logs and the 4chan janitors who spoke with Motherboard, the manager of 4chan’s janitors is RapeApe. Relatively little is known about him, even by the janitors who spoke with us and worked for him, although he has been supervising 4chan’s day-to-day operations for around a decade.
In 2015, Poole announced that he had decided to sell 4chan to a Japanese businessman named Hiroyuki Nishimura. Nishimura previously owned 2chan, a Japanese website which inspired 4chan. Janitors who spoke with Motherboard described Nishimura as being almost completely hands off, leaving moderation of the site primarily to RapeApe.
“[RapeApe] basically fulfills the role of an administrator considering Hiroyuki [Nishimura], the actual admin, doesn't touch the site,” a current janitor told me. Poole and Nishimura did not respond to repeated requests for comment. RapeApe responded by sending an email that contained only a single link to a video of naked muscular men dancing.
Even prior to the site’s change in ownership, RapeApe functioned as the primary judge of what constituted acceptable content on the site, as well as the person who educated the staff on what did and didn’t cross the line. As Gamergate became a subject on the site in 2014, 4chan users began harassing women in the video game industry due to what they perceived as progressive bias in reporting on games. Eventually, RapeApe tried to stop 4chan’s campaign of intimidation. “[Gamergate] is no longer allowed on the video game boards. So said [RapeApe],” one janitor informed another in the leaked chats. When other jannies protested, RapeApe rapidly shut them down: “This isn’t a democracy,” RapeApe wrote. “Gamergate has overstayed its welcome. It is starting to cause a massive burden for moderation.”
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 12: Counterprotestors to the Unite the Right 2 rally burn a Kekistan flag, a white nationalist symbol, in the middle of 15th St. NW near the White House on August 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. Image: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In 2015, an anonymous former moderator leaked an extensive chat history of the janitors from 2012-2015 to a file-sharing service. One of the former janitors included in the chats confirmed their authenticity. According to a brief message posted with the logs, the leaker was unhappy with “the direction of the site.” From those leaked logs and the current and former janitors who spoke with Motherboard, RapeApe claims to be a military veteran who served in Afghanistan as well as a voracious reader, interested in video games, guns, and Warhammer: 40,000. He often complained about his family impeding his work and was afraid they would walk in on him looking at questionable or pornographic posts as he was moderating.
According to the janitor and chat logs (as well as a deleted Twitter account two staff members confirmed was his), RapeApe is also politically conservative and racist. One former janitor described him as “a typical right winger and /pol/ dude.” His Twitter account featured him responding approvingly to Tucker Carlson clips, urging another user to buy an AR-15 rifle for self-defense, wondering whether the state would force people to be homosexual and suggesting that Twitter was “staffed by leftists” who were deleting conservative users’ accounts. In conversations with other janitors in the leaked chats, he found humor in horrifying news about riots, shootings, and the Ebola epidemic—especially when that news involved Black people dying.
But RapeApe isn’t just a typical /pol/ user who happens to run the site. According to three current and former staff members, RapeApe shaped 4chan into a reflection of his own political beliefs. “RapeApe has an agenda: he wants /pol/ to have influence on the rest of the site and [its] politics,” a current janitor said.
Alone, RapeApe couldn’t steer 4chan to the far right. But he supervises a staff of dozens of volunteers who control discourse on the boards. According to the leaked chats and janitors who spoke with Motherboard, he instructed janitors on how to handle the more bigoted content on 4chan—and dismissed them if they deleted content he likes. He took a special interest in the /pol/ board, telling a novice janitor in the chat logs to “treat /pol/ with kid gloves. So long as they obey the rules, they are allowed to support whatever abominable political positions they want.”
4chan has an extensive list of rules posted on the site and each board has its own smaller set of edicts. A little-known and rarely enforced 4chan regulation, Global Rule #3, prohibits racist content on the site. But the leaked chat logs show many incidents of moderators and janitors discussing when racism got severe enough that it ought to be banned. Indeed, RapeApe himself deleted at least one thread for violating Rule #3 early on in his 4chan career, before he became a manager.
Once he became head moderator, RapeApe began to post reminders that moderators ought to be as hands-off as possible. In the leaked logs and according to current and former janitors, RapeApe pushed his staff into a position where almost no content could run afoul of the rule against racism. Instructing the janitors, RapeApe wrote, “And remember that with racism we're targeting the intent of the poster and not the words themselves.” One current janitor told me that in practice, within 4chan’s warped, irony-poisoned culture, this meant there was no way to ban a user for even the most flagrant, bigoted language or images. They could always claim that the intent wasn’t racist, even if the content unquestionably was.
"The plausible deniability excuse for racism—I was just joking, I was just trolling—is bullshit," Whitney Phillips, an Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University and author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, told Motherboard. "Intent can matter when thinking about the things people say, but it matters very little when considering consequences. Whether or not someone says a racist thing with hate in their heart, they're still saying a racist thing and that still contributes to dehumanization and the normalization of harm. Anyway, the very criterion is absurd, as you can't assess what's in someone's heart just by looking at the things they post, especially to a place like 4chan. The only reasonable conclusion is that, whatever might have been written in the site rules, this moderator ensured that there was no policy against racism. Instead it became a pro-racism policy."
The leaked chat logs show that RapeApe didn't want /pol/ to be totally unmoderated, despite allowing racist content. He was concerned with making sure 4chan wasn’t hosting illegal material. “Mostly I just want to keep the site legal,” he wrote to the staff in one message in the leaked chats. He posted frequent reminders to the channel to “take it easy” and ignore, rather than ban, racist content. In the leaked chats, RapeApe quotes judicial decisions on whether photos depicting animal abuse are illegal, concluding that they only rise to that level if the abuse is sexual in nature. In another case, he reluctantly told a janitor to delete some revenge porn, though not without belittling laws against it.
Nishimura’s purchase of the site in 2016 and RapeApe’s ascension to de facto administrator of 4chan coincides with an incredible 40 percent spike in the volume of racist and violent language on /pol/. Other, comparable sites and communication channels also pushed towards extreme conservatism independently of 4chan, so RapeApe and /pol/ certainly aren’t the only reasons why 4chan slid towards the far right. Some experts credited 4chan’s evolution to Donald Trump’s overtly-racist political campaign, others to an influx of new users, and still others to active interference and recruiting of 4channers by Neo-Nazi elements.
While other websites also host increasing amounts of violent and bigoted language, 4chan is an outlier even compared to other internet gathering places filled with similar ideologies. A VICE News analysis found that there was more hate speech on /pol/ than in the comments on one overtly Neo-Nazi site, the Daily Stormer. Mass murderers have posted manifestos on 4chan. White nationalists have used the site to coordinate protests.
When one Neo-Nazi group polled their supporters to discover how they came to the movement, /pol/ was tied for the most common gateway. Gab, another far right hotbed, contains about half the rate of hate speech as /pol/, and 4chan has 20 times more users. The only popular websites more toxic than 4chan are its much smaller offspring sites, like 8chan, now 8kun.
According to one current and three former janitors, RapeApe’s push for a hands-off approach combined with his preference for janitors who shared his political beliefs has shifted the website further into the extremes of bigotry and threats of violence in which it now operates. “He wants 4chan to be more like /pol/,” said one former janitor.
Over time, /pol/ has come to dominate the public perception of 4chan, overshadowing the quieter, less vile topic areas which make up much of the activity on the site. /pol/ is regularly the most active board on the site, but even so, it makes up a small portion of the total posts. Under RapeApe’s management, however, /pol/’s bigotry has metastasized.
“[W]hen RapeApe took over fully after [Poole] left, he put in a ‘laissez-faire’ policy of moderation, knowing exactly what would happen, that right wing ideas would dominate the site thanks to /pol/ spilling over onto other boards,” said a current janitor.
The /pol/ forum often hosts threads in which users talk about flooding other, unrelated boards with racial slurs and bigoted imagery. These “raids” expose users who were on 4chan to discuss other subjects to its unconventional, far-right politics. Posters who logged on to the site to chat about sports or browse pornography could find themselves learning about Neo-Nazi ideology instead. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University and expert on far-right extremism, describes this phenomenon as “gateway content.” Simply by exposing people to hate speech, psychologists have found that it’s possible to desensitize them to further hate speech and dehumanize outgroups. By raiding other boards and giving users a taste of their ideology, /pol/ diehards hoped to bring them into their fold.
In one incident from the chat logs, when a moderator tried to clean up such an “invasion” of the science board, RapeApe wasn’t having it. Rather than delete the thread a janitor described as planning a raid, RapeApe argued that they weren’t doing anything against the rules. “Are they actually vandalising or defacing anything, or harassing people?” RapeApe added: “Because if they're just posting things, that's not really a raid.”
Current and former janitors say that one moderator named Modcat was fired for disagreeing withRapeApe's laissez-faire moderation policy.
“Some jannies got in trouble for overusing [global rule 3, against racism],” said one former janitor.
An analysis of the archives of the anime board (/a/) Modcat used to patrol, derived by scraping its past threads, shows that Modcat’s departure and replacement with another janitor had consequences on the language used there. Motherboard used a 4chan archive and wrote a program to scrape data from the board over the last five years, counting the number of instances of common hate speech terms against Black, Latino, Jewish, and LGBTQ people each day, as well as Neo-Nazi slogans. This program scraped text only and so did not include instances of speech within images, a common medium of communication on 4chan. Immediately after his departure, according to former moderators, /pol/ users raided the board, spamming Neo-Nazi slogans like “sieg heil” and “heil Hitler” in about one in every 50 posts. (Use of these terms had been negligible before Modcat left.) Even after the initial raid on /a/ subsided, there were long-term effects on the forum. During Modcat's brief tenure, the anime board had hate speech in only about one in every 50 posts overall. Since his departure, that has risen to about one in every 30 posts.
Leaked chat logs demonstrate other instances of seemingly politically-motivated firings. Not long after a janitor named yetsturdy argued that the use of terms like the n-word and stereotyped depictions of Jews violated 4chan’s rules, they were fired. (Leaked chat logs show janitors suggesting that his firing was due to arguing with another janitor). A janitor who described himself as a “lefty” in leaked logs was let go ostensibly for losing his anonymity, although another 4chan staff member with far right politics is open about his identity on Twitter and publishes newspaper editorials under his real name.
Others in the leaked janitor chats noticed the firings of their colleagues. One even alluded to RapeApe’s apparent agenda, asking him directly: “with all these janitors quitting/getting fired, is… is /pol/ winning?” (In the chat, RapeApe quickly denied that it had anything to do with /pol/’s political agenda, saying that the fired janitors had violated clear rules.)
Five years later, the politically incorrect board’s conflict with the rest of 4chan has been settled: /pol/ won. After years of declining volume both there and on the site in general, /pol/’s activity (in terms of the number of users and posts) is on the rise once again, according to a site that tracks 4chan. Jumping upwards in May 2020, /pol/ boasted the highest number of posts per day since election day in 2016, when ecstatic users celebrated Trump’s victory by calling for a second Holocaust and harassing journalists.
/pol/’s surging popularity coincides with a boost for the rest of the site as well. According to SimilarWeb, a company that tracks web traffic, 4chan has risen to become one of the top 400 sites in the United States in terms of engagement and visits. The domain now rivals or exceeds major news sites in terms of the number of visitors: it gets more traffic than abcnews.com, for example.
And the /pol/ channel continues to create massive amounts of right-wing content. RapeApe’s “meme factory,” as he described /pol/ in one leaked chat log, is chugging along smoothly. “[RapeApe has] basically fulfilled his intentions,” a current janitor told me. “[4chan] exists as a fully developed political tool used for propagating memes and propaganda.” 4chan’s content sometimes spreads beyond its esoteric corner of the internet into the mainstream discourse, using a well-established pipeline running through Reddit and Twitter into more popular channels.
Journalists have chronicled the outsized influence 4chan has had on our culture and created many theories to explain its slide into racist extremism, connections to the rise of Donald Trump, and a surge in white nationalist movements around the world. Disaffected young men across the globe have participated in creating a hateful melting pot of conspiracy theories, bigotry, and hate speech with a massive, global audience.
We can’t know exactly how much impact the rhetoric on the site had on the world or the full extent of its influence on the broader political landscape. But we can dispel some of the mystery about how 4chan became filled with hate. Like every other platform, 4chan’s evolution stems in part from the choices made by its administrators about what speech is acceptable and what is not. Facebook allowed Holocaust denial content until Mark Zuckerberg decided not to; Reddit allowed its Donald Trump-focused subreddit to popularize 4chan’s content until it shut it down. 4chan became the dangerous cesspool we know today because of the choices of a site administrator who wanted to amplify far right content and an owner who doesn’t care.
The internet is one of the most powerful technologies the world has ever known, but why that power so often results in dehumanizing and hurting people is not as mysterious as we sometimes assume. It is the direct result of the choices people with control over internet platforms make.