The imageboard 8chan is now known as the website where mass killers in New Zealand and El Paso shared their racist ideologies, but it didn't start that way. It began as a haven for free speech — or at least that's what its founder believed it to be.
Fredrick Brennan created 8chan in 2013, when he was 19. It was a lot like 4chan, another imageboard created by another teenager 10 years earlier, but it allowed users even more freedom.
The original premise for both was simple: Users could upload photos while others commented with text or images of their own. Everyone was anonymous. Posts were deleted after a few days. The effect was that no single user could become famous. Everyone had equal power.
But it also meant that if you missed a day, you missed a meme. The lack of archives rewarded the most obsessive users. It created a cultlike subculture. 4chan became known as the dark heart of the internet — a place to find weird porn, graphic violence, the darkest jokes. 8chan went even darker.
To understand how a person could be angry enough to create a place like 8chan, you have to understand his life. Brennan has osteogenesis imperfecta, a congenital disease that makes bones curved and weak. Brennan says he has broken a bone more than 100 times.
“Everything about him — just the way he presented himself — on the inside, you could tell he was a broken child.”
Brennan couldn’t walk, and he played on the ground as a kid. But by age 13, his right arm had broken so many times that he risked losing the use of it, so he decided to stay mostly in his wheelchair. The internet was an escape. He discovered 4chan when he was 12. “I was mesmerized,” Brennan said. “4chan was nothing like anything I’d ever seen.”
He found a perverse satisfaction in seeing people using words like crippled. No one had ever called him that, but he thought, “This is what people are really thinking, and they’re lying in real life.”
He decided to retreat into the online world, where he initially kept his disability secret. “When I started using 4chan heavily, my whole life became about the internet,” he said. “And my real life stopped mattering to me.”
Fredrick had a difficult relationship with his father, and when he was 14, his father put him and his younger brother, who is also disabled, into foster care. “I just reached my breaking point,” David Brennan said.
The brothers ended up in a group home. Their caseworker, Melisa Rehrauer, said she knew Fredrick was very smart the day she met him. But he didn’t want to be looked at, and he let his hair hang in his face. “Everything about him — just the way he presented himself — on the inside, you could tell he was a broken child,” she said.
They weren’t allowed to go online in the group home. So Fredrick saved his money and bought an iPod touch. He then cracked the Wi-Fi. The device was clumsy, “but it was mine and I could go on 4chan and nobody could know,” he said.
“You have to be a free speech absolutist if you want to be an 8chan admin because if you're anything else, you're gonna get burned at the stake.”
Rehrauer helped the brothers move back in with their mom when Fredrick was 16, and he continued essentially living online. In 2013 he became the administrator of Wizardchan, a site for adult male virgins. A woman reached out to Fredrick, saying she had a devotee fetish, meaning a fetish for people with disabilities. She flew to New York to meet him.
Being with her improved his self-esteem, he said, but that in turn damaged the relationship, because her fetish was for him to be sexually shy and insecure. Brennan later told friends in a group chat that he’d taken her to get an abortion, and that it was therapeutic, because “I wanted to have been aborted as a baby.”
The relationship, in his telling, did not end well. But the woman had given him a set of new experiences that would shape the rest of his life — particularly psychedelic mushrooms. The mushroom trip was the first time he accepted the fact that he would always be disabled, and that it was OK. As he was coming down, he dreamed up 8chan. Days later, Brennan set it live.
The site was a modest success until Gamergate. Gamergate was the moment in 2014 when internet trolls figured out how to act as a political movement. They claimed to be demanding “ethics in video game journalism,” but the core of their activism was harassing female game developers and critics. They threatened women, posted their personal information online, and sent SWAT teams to their homes.
After a few weeks, 4chan banned Gamergate. Brennan seized the opportunity. “I looked at Gamergate very cynically,” he said. “I didn’t care about the ethics. And I didn’t care about the women ... I just cared that this is bringing users to my site.”
It worked. And Brennan stepped into the persona of internet bad guy, lord of the trolls. 8chan was a truly free public forum, with no limits except what was illegal. Ideas would do battle, and the best would rise to the top. Asked in an October 2014 interview if 8chan was a safe haven for nihilism and misogyny, Fredrick responded, “Imageboards are a haven for all of the terrible things you listed, and that's exactly what makes them such wonderful places. I wouldn't change a thing … It is humanly impossible for us to monitor everything,” and the law said he didn’t have to.
Fredrick says now, “You have to be a free speech absolutist if you want to be an 8chan admin because if you're anything else, you're gonna get burned at the stake.”
Further establishing his free speech credentials, he wrote an essay advocating for eugenics for the premier neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. He said people with genetic diseases should be paid to be sterilized. “I suggest we start with the ones that cause osteogenesis imperfecta: COL1A1 and COL1A2,” he wrote. He noted that he wasn’t a Nazi, but the Daily Stormer was the only site that would publish the essay.
“Here's how I see it,” Brennan said. “At the time, the whole world hated me. Who could blame them? I was technically not breaking any laws, but something about what I was doing felt wrong to almost everyone. I feel like I wrote the article to say… Yes. you hate me and 8chan, but it's your shitty capitalist structure and milquetoast fear of genetic science that brought me here.”
In 2014, Brennan sold 8chan to an American businessman in the Philippines, but he stayed on as a site administrator. He moved to Manila, where he could afford a home health aide. In April 2016, Brennan quit 8chan but kept working for the company that owned it. In December 2018, he quit that too. He’d started going to church with his aide, and met a woman there. He converted to Christianity, and they married on Valentine’s Day. In recent months, 8chan got around 15 million unique visitors each month, according to Similarweb.
Brennan began denouncing 8chan in March after a gunman killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques after posting a white supremacist manifesto on 8chan. But when we spoke in Manila in May, he still wasn’t sure that if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have founded it. When the El Paso shooting happened in early August, the third mass shooting this year in which the gunman shared his plans on 8chan, Fredrick began more explicitly calling for 8chan to disappear and never return. This drew attention from media worldwide, and from trolls.
They tried to post his address, and sent him images of him being pushed down the stairs. “I didn't create online harassment,” he said. “This has all been going on way before I came of age, but in a way, I kind of deserve it, don't you think?”
Animations by Cartuna.
This segment originally aired September 4, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.