When and how to use 4chan to cover conspiracy theories
It’s where the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories were born. It’s where people regularly coordinate hoaxes to try and trick the media into reporting them.
And, heading into this fall’s U.S. midterm elections, anonymous message boards and apps like 4chan, 8chan and Discord could be valuable resources for reporters.
Of key importance in tracking down viral political hoaxes are sites like 4chan, where conspiracies often first bubble up. With that mind, here are a few tips for using anonymous message boards to cover conspiracy theories.
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1. Remember that a lot of people are in it for the “lulz.”
This is perhaps the biggest takeaway about messaging boards like 4chan: Most participants are making content to get laughs and attention. Often, the things are legitimately funny, depending on your sense of humor (Rickrolling and LOLcats emerged from 4chan, for instance).
Other times “the lulz” are achieved by far more unsavory means.
After a Starbucks employee called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia store, 4chan users peddled a hoax that the company was giving out free coffee to people of color. The prank, which even included a photoshopped flyer, went as far as Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News.
While news organizations may be tempted to cover every single wild conspiracy theory, that usually just plays into what trolls on 4chan, 8chan and Discord want. Getting mainstream news coverage is a primary motivation for conspiracists on 4chan.
“Any time you see the word 4chan, or think the word 4chan might be involved in any way or form, and that includes 8chan … you have to assume that whatever you’re seeing is bullshit,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication, culture and digital technologies at Syracuse University. “It’s either not true or somehow part of a broader trap.”
2. Identify which sources might be the most helpful.
Not all 4chan boards are created equal.
Ben Collins covers online extremism and misinformation for NBC News. He told Poynter that, when deciding how to cover anonymous message boards, it’s important for reporters to remember that almost every post on 4chan gets taken down eventually. The most useful resource for browsing the site is 4plebs.org, a searchable archive of posts, he said.
And, when combined with Google, it can be an easy way to surface conspiracies that users plan around specific events.
“Say we’re trying to find out during a mass shooting if someone has mentioned that area in the days before. We do that Google search, the area of the neighborhood and the motive and see if that comes up,” Collins said. “That’s just standard practice now.”
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Beyond event-specific content, he said the Politically Incorrect board on 4chan is probably the most relevant to reporters looking for election misinformation. But for those just starting out, aggregators on Reddit are journalists’ best bet for staying on top of potential hoaxes.
“Reddit and 4chan are probably the most important part of the information war,” Collins said. “There are no people being manipulated on these platforms, but they know that they can target people in manipulatable spaces. To me, these are much more important places to focus on.”
3. Be skeptical about everything.
It’s not great to choose cynicism as your modus operandi while reporting. But on 4chan, it’s a survival tactic.
“Be 100 million times more skeptical than usual with 4chan,” Collins said. “The point of the site is to troll people.”
When a reporter finds misinformation floating around the internet, it can be beneficial to trace it back to its source — which is often an anonymous message board or app. But there can be a lot of false flags, conspiracies and rumors that aren’t backed up by anything more than feelings.
Collins recommends that reporters find other places to confirm a rumor before they start writing about it. Call people in real life, don’t use 4chan as a primary source — even when other media outlets do so — and confirm everything.
“If they are giving explicit directions that are being used in other parts of the web, and it’s replicable, then that's a good way of doing it,” Collins said. “If people are just saying stuff on 4chan, it doesn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t use it in that capacity; I wouldn’t use it as a town square.”
4. Be choosy about what you decide to cover.
Since conspiracists regularly try to game the media into picking up their hoaxes, it’s important for journalists to practice discretion when navigating online forums.
“If something ever happens on the internet, these participants know that journalists are going to 4chan, they’re going to go to these spaces to see if there’s some connection,” said Phillips, who wrote a report for Data & Society titled “The Oxygen of Amplification.” “Then they coordinate off-site to decide what the false flag is. They try to decide what they want journalists to see.”
One prime example is QAnon. The bizarre, pro-Donald Trump conspiracy theory basically posits that the U.S. government has been secretly investigating Democrats and the Justice Department will soon reveal compromising information. And it’s gone from 4chan to Trump rallies, in part due to the attention it’s received in the media.
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While Phillips said she understands why publishers start reporting on things that become newsworthy, journalists should avoid amplifying baseless hoaxes in headlines and letting adherents speak at length about their false beliefs to avoid giving them more oxygen than they deserve.
“If you are seeing something that has a connection to 4chan one way or another, it’s because they want journalists to see that,” she said. “And if that’s something they want, you have to be suspect of that.”
5. Spend some time scoping out boards that might prove useful in your reporting.
Should reporters constantly scope out sites like 4chan for potential political misinformation?
Probably not, Phillips said — it can be a timesuck and is rarely valuable for news coverage. If they must, reporters should just be generally aware of message boards or communities that have the potential to produce misinformation related to their beats, Collins said. That way, once a conspiracy or hoax makes the jump from the deep web to more mainstream outlets, they will be better suited to report the story.
But that recommendation comes with caveats. Some boards have a vetting process where they ask users questions before letting them in.
If you have a marginalized identity, be careful about the ways you answer or ask questions in boards that could use it against you. And keep in mind that much of the content on 4chan, 8chan and Discord is blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic (Collins said 8chan is “twice as worse as 4chan in every way”), so it can be jarring to look at for hours on end.
6. Get meta with it.
If you must use something from 4chan, 8chan or Discord in your reporting, the most important thing to do is add context.
“You have to go meta,” Phillips said. “I know journalists don’t like doing this, but you have to acknowledge how the reporting fits into the cycle amplification — that can’t just be a backstage conversation.”
Instead of quoting something from an anonymous message board, summarize what was said, how it was said and what kinds of users are amplifying those messages. Then, explicitly tell your readers exactly how those kinds of users try to game the media so that they have the full context of the story — and avoid amplifying misinformation themselves.
An important part of that is taking the sensationalism out of your reporting, Phillips said. Instead of focusing on the crazy things you’ve observed on 4chan, focus on the things you don’t know or can’t confirm. Be clear with your audience whether a piece of content is being pushed by verifiable believers or just a group of trolls on anonymous message boards.
“Just by touching a story — just by engaging — you’re making it live longer,” she said. “Do everything you can to reroute, take back the narrative from these manipulators who just want things repeated wholesale. Do the thing they don’t want you to do: be thoughtful and reflective.”