Heroes and villains: 11 instances of 4chan vengeance played out in real life

What happens on 4chan hasn't always stayed on 4chan -- for better and worse

The Internet has produced some very questionable communities, and no such list would be complete without mention of 4chan. In its 12 years of existence, the site has been the source of brilliant, twisted genius and gross depravity.

Back in 2003, a then-15-year-old Christopher "moot" Poole established the site based on a Japanese message board called 2chan. Poole, a fan of Japanese pop culture, wanted to set up an American version of 2chan since he didn't understand Japanese. (In September of this year, Poole sold his site to the creator of his inspiration, Hiroyuki Nishimura, founder of 2chan.)

[ See also: A brief, irritating history of trolls ]

2chan and 4chan operate the same way. There is no membership. Everyone is anonymous. You can't start a thread without a photo, and most boards are dedicated to images or a specific subject. Nothing is archived. Threads expire all the time, and if you don't save it, it's gone forever.

There are boards covering everything from anime and manga to fitness, fashion, art, and the supernatural. The most out of control and notorious board, though, is the Random board, known as /b/. The site was also the unofficial home base of the hacktivist group Anonymous, which has been on both sides of the fence when it comes to controversy. Denizens of the board refer to themselves as "/b/tards." Visiting /b/ means being grossed out, offended, and insulted, with occasional bursts of laughter. It is rarely boring.

Its notoriety has seen 4chan be profiled in the Washington Post, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It was the subject of a book and was even the subject of an MIT research paper (PDF).

However, what happens on 4chan hasn't always stayed on 4chan. The site has been involved in real-life issues multiple times, for good and for bad, in ways, it’s fairly safe to say, that no other site has. Here are 11 examples of the light and dark sides of 4chan.

Good – A Birthday Party for an old man

In September 2010, a 4chan anon saw a flier around his town of Ashburnham, Mass., that read "Wanted: People for a Birthday Party." So /b/ decided to make the birthday of 90-year-old World War II veteran William Lashua memorable, and the effort quickly spread across Gawker, Buzzfeed, Reddit and Facebook.

4chan users found the address of the American Legion hall where his party was held, and he received not only dozens of cards, but more than 100 calls from places like Switzerland, Japan and Sweden wishing him well. The party and many birthday cards were captured in a YouTube tribute video.

As it turns out, the anon misunderstood the flier and Mr. Lashua did, in fact, have family and friends to celebrate his birthday. Mr. Lashua’s grandson would post to Reddit that while he appreciated their kindness, his grandfather had a large family, was a foster parent, and was well liked in the community.

Bad – Bullying Jessi Slaughter

This one shows how quickly things can get out of hand. In 2010, eleven-year-old Jessi Slaughter (Jessica Leonhardt) had posted a series of YouTube videos critical of 4chan and its content. 4chan hit back, and Slaughter posted another video complaining about being harassed by members of the site. That only made it worse.

Anonymous soon uncovered her personal information, including her address, home phone, and her Twitter account. People soon began flooding the Leonhardt household with prank and hate e-mails. She posted a tearful video detailing the harassment and her father Gene got involved, promising to bring the law down on the cyberbullies.

Within a year, Gene would be dead and Jessi was in foster care and therapy following suicide attempts. She has since returned to YouTube as Damien and announced she is transgendered.

Good – Anonymous takes down a pedophile site

A common source of depraved fun on /b/ is to post child porn late at night, when the moderators who try to maintain order aren't as active. But Anonymous wasn't having it with Lolita City, a child pornography site running in the darknet, a section of the Internet not readily accessible to most of us.

[ Related: 8 of the most unsettling things you'll find on the darknet ]

The takedown was part of Anonymous’s Operation Darknet, aimed at taking down child pornographers operating on the Tor network. In 2011, Anonymous went after the hosting service Freedom Hosting, which it said had more than 100GB of child pornography. Not only did they take down the site, they posted the account details of 1,589 users from the site’s database online as proof.

Bad – The Fappening

This is another incident that originated on 4chan, as did its title. The Fappening refers to a leak in Apple’s iCloud service where almost 500 nude and semi-nude private photos of more than 100 female celebrities, and actress Jennifer Lawrence in particular, were plastered all over the Internet, starting with 4chan in late August 2014 and spreading to Imgur and Reddit.

4chan administrators knocked down threads as fast as they could, but controlling 4chan is an impossible task. Some topless pictures of gymnast McKayla Maroney were underage and Reddit threatened anyone posting that picture with permanent banning.

There was a second and third wave in September. One Chicago man’s home was raided by the FBI and lots of evidence seized, but as yet no one has been charged.

Good – The Steubenville Rape

In August 2012, an unconscious and intoxicated 16-year-old girl was raped at a raucous party in Steubenville, Ohio. The rapists, football players at the local high school, videotaped their actions and posted the videos to Instagram and YouTube as well as sharing them among themselves. The videos were quickly taken down, but not before others saw them and saved them. When nothing was done because police couldn't get any witnesses and there was a sense that teachers and coaches were protecting the guilty, Anonymous stepped in.

Anonymous dumped the personal info of every member of the football team and others involved, like the coaches, the principal, and more. It also released a video of the rapists laughing about their actions.

Very quickly, the whole country was talking about Steubenville. And two star football players were charged with rape and kidnapping.

Bad – GamerGate

4chan was one of many sites, including Reddit and 8chan, involved in GamerGate, which blew up in August 2014 and involved the harassment of several feminists in the video game industry, including game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu and activist Anita Sarkeesian.

The harassment included doxing (publishing home addresses), threats of rape and murder and the threat of a mass shooting in protest of a speech featuring Sarkeesian, who bore the worst of the attack. Critics of the GamerGate behavior were victims of “swatting,” where a false claim is made to the police. 

Good – Animal rights

In February 2009, a YouTube video of a 14-year-old boy torturing a cat caught the attention of /b/, which promptly tracked him down and turned him in to the police. In August 2010, /b/ hunted down a woman in England caught on closed circuit video tossing a cat into a trash bin. That woman became an international pariah.

But all hell really broke loose in August 2010 when a video on LiveLeak surfaced showing a young teen girl gleefully hurling a batch of newborn puppies into a rushing river. The video went viral and film director Michael Bay offered a $50,000 reward for the girl's arrest and conviction.

/b/ went to work and quickly identified her as a resident of a city of Bugojno in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She quickly confessed to the Internet at large and claimed they were stray puppies and were sick, so her grandmother advised her to throw them in the river because it would be a fast death. Police questioned her but she was not charged because she was only 12 years old.

Bad – #CuttingForBieber

4chan is notorious for pranking musicians and it really hates Justin Bieber. In 2010, it tried to get him sent to North Korea after Bieber set up a website where fans could vote for where he should play next. Then in 2012 it spread the hoax that Bieber had cancer and encouraged his almost entirely female fan base to shave their heads in solidarity with him, a common move to support cancer sufferers.

Then in 2013 came the real doozy. After the entertainment gossip site TMZ posted a picture of pop singer Justin Bieber smoking marijuana, a thread on /b/ encouraged users to create Twitter accounts and post images of scarred wrists and arms with the hashtag #CuttingForBieber to create the rumor that Bieber fans were cutting themselves in reaction to the revelation he was smoking pot.

Thankfully, it never took off because the media coverage was so fast and fierce that the prank was quickly exposed.

Good – Busting the Burger King worker

People bored at work post on 4chan all the time but it takes a special kind of stupid to post yourself doing something dumb at work and then post it on /b/ because they will track you down.

In July 2012, a 4chan user and Burger King employee posted a photo of himself standing on bins of lettuce and posted it with the caption "This is the lettuce you eat at Burger King."

Unfortunately for him, his pictures had GPS data, so disgusted /b/tards set about tracking down the origins of the picture. Very quickly they tracked it down to Mayfield Heights, Ohio, and even found the exact store. Emails and phone calls to the store and local media quickly followed. The employee and the shift manager on duty at the time were both fired.

Bad – Jake Brahm

As the Burger King worker proved, not every /b/tard is smart or clever. Take, for example, the story of Jake Brahm , who posted a threat on /b/ that on October 22, 2006, seven dirty bombs would be detonated outside of football stadiums during their games, and that Osama bin Laden would claim responsibility and it would ignite a war between the U.S. and Middle East.

Very quickly this got around the Internet and was reported to the FBI. Since the cities listed all had football games planned, they all went into overdrive. Since Brahm did not use a proxy server, he was easily traced back. He got six months in jail followed by six months of home arrest plus he had to pay large fines to several NFL teams.

Good – The KKK Expose

Anonymous decided to be good guys in October 2015 by attacking the KKK's online presence and exposing the personal information of more than 1,000 members on November 24, one year after the Ferguson, Missouri protests over the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.

The group began its targeting of the Klan a year ago and released some identities. The group now claims it has the identities of 1,000 members from things like the KKK's main Twitter account and other social media sources.

In a statement released last week, Anonymous said "We are not attacking you because of what you believe in, as we fight for freedom of speech. We are attacking you because of what you do to our brothers and sisters.”

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