Written by Nina Mohammed Bagher Beik
To give us some direction, this week we got a prompt to help us write our first blog post. The prompt was: ‘What is your earliest memory of digital media’ and that instantaneously took me back to my memories of the ever so present epic gamer message board that goes by the name GameFAQs. GameFAQs, for anyone unaware, is an online forum where users can ask questions about games and discuss them in general. An innocent enough concept, however, one that sent me into quite the spiral. A spiral started with my nostalgic childhood memories, recounting the times I would go on GameFAQs to find out why I kept dying in Crash Bandicoot. The same spiral which ended in mass murder. For that is the dichotomy of online forums. They range from harmless wholesome communities to misogynist and violent incel forums. In this blog post, I will present the darker sides of online forums from my perspective as a Security Studies student.
Within the field of security, digital media is a growing area of interest. Message boards, especially, have been a main focus. The reason for this being the connections that several high-profile mass shooters have had to deeply toxic online forums. You have the infamous example of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014. Elliot was an incel who was active on a number of forums. One of the most disturbing forums Rodger actively took part in was PUAhate.com. The website was part of the ‘anti-pickup-artist-movement.’ The users believed that the notion that any man could ‘pickup’ any woman was misleading and deceitful. Now, do not get it wrong, they did not believe this because they were such upstanding men that were simply disgusted by the way many ‘pickup artists’ present women as objects with no free will! Nay! They were incels. They were incels who had tried every trick in the pickup artist book but still did not have any luck with women. And the website was more about hating women than it was about hating pickup artists. It was an echo chamber for someone like Elliot. All his harmful, violent ideas and beliefs were supported and encouraged. So, why would he believe anyone else? Why would he listen to his therapist when he had a community of people who just so perfectly played into his confirmation bias?
Aside from infamous people, there are also infamous message boards. In 2019 alone 3 mass shootings took place that had connections to 8chan. 8chan is a website where users can anonymously post, well, whatever they want really. The shooters behind the El Paso massacre, Christchurch, and the attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue all used 8chan to spread their ideas. These attacks were met with celebrations on 8chan. The site was meant to be a place where people could voice their opinions anonymously and without any restriction or censorship. Despite that, the extremism on 8chan got so bad that the founder of the site was pleading for it to be taken down. Fellas, don’t you just hate it when the message board you made specifically to house controversial opinions suddenly starts encouraging murder and terrorism? Anyway, do not think this is all 8chan is known for either. Here is a list of words often associated with 8chan: white supremacism, neo-Nazism, alt-right, racism, anti-Semitism, child pornography, hate crime, mass shootings. Ah, was that not a run-on sentence you wish you had never read? 8chan has been taken down several times, however, it always returns one way or another. The site is currently up and running under the name 8kun.
There are so, so many more examples to go over. Each example could be an entire case study on its own. Anyone that has been in any sort of online community would know that it is fairly easy to get wrapped up in them. And that can be an extremely dangerous thing when said community is built on hateful beliefs. This is not a piece arguing against forums, I do believe the majority of them are absolutely fine. Forums are simply fascinating as they, more so than other forms of digital media, they feel like entirely different worlds. With each its own unique culture and social norms. They are microcosms that reflect both the good and the bad that humanity has to offer. I often think about how big of an impact such message boards have had on people like Elliot Rodger or the Christchurch shooter. Would they still have carried out their attacks if they did not know they had a community, however niche it might have been, supporting them? It is unlikely I will ever receive the answers to such questions, but I simply cannot help but ask.
Anyway, I miss playing Crash Bandicoot.