4Chan is the worst place on the internet, but we should defend its right to exist

Many are celebrating that the notorious anonymous forum is in financial trouble, but are they right to do so? 

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“I am raping Amelia’s eyes RIGHT NOW with these words, forcing her innocent little eyes to look over my handiwork, wanting her to know that when she gets to the end of this sentence I will spilled [sic] my seed all over a printout of her doughy, 6/10 at best face.”

This is just one of the many messages posted about me on 4Chan after I broke a story about how some of its users were replacing racial slurs with the words “Google” and “Skype”. Its tone will not be particularly shocking or striking to anyone who has visited the anonymous online forum, which has previously goaded a man live-streaming his suicide attempt, hidden pornography in Hannah Montana clips and uploaded them – in their thousands – to YouTube, and repeatedly sent pictures of a girl’s decapitated body to her father after she died in a car crash. In the thirteen years 4Chan has existed, multiple users have been arrested for cyber-bullying and sharing child-pornography via the site.

But now 4Chan is in a different kind of trouble: financial. The site’s owner, Hiroyuki Nishimura, posted on its /qa/ – question and answer – board to disclose that he can no longer afford to keep the site running as is. “We had tried to keep 4Chan as is. But I failed. I am sincerely sorry,” he wrote. His plans to reduce costs include closing some of the boards, introducing more adverts, or charging users, but it is not yet apparent what will happen to the site.

It most likely won’t die – or at least not yet. But this hasn’t stopped many – most notably Brianna Wu, a videogame developer who argued with 4Chan users during GamerGate – celebrating its demise. And shouldn’t we join in? After all, doesn’t the death of 4Chan pave the way for a happier, nicer internet?

The problem is that 4Chan isn’t one homogenous entity. Most of the trouble comes from its /b/ (random) and /pol/ (politically incorrect) boards, but even within these there are dissenting voices and differing opinions. On one thread someone can submerge a toad in vodka before cruelly tying it to balloons and launching it to the skies, while on another users can uncover the personal information of a man abusing cats and report him to the authorities.

We shouldn’t protect 4Chan just because it occasionally does nice things (on another occasion, posters sent hundreds of birthday cards to a lonely 90-year-old WW2 veteran). We should protect it because it does awful things. We should protect it because it is racist, sexist, misogynistic, and thinks my face is a six out of ten. Not because of some glorified notion of free speech (though that is important), but because deleting awfulness from the internet doesn’t delete it from real life.

(This is the point, by the way, where 4Chan members can feel free to pop over to my Twitter to call me a cuck.)

You might want to argue, right about now, that 4Chan is a place where opinions become radicalised, leading more people to be more awful than they ever would be alone – and you’d be right. But if it didn’t exist, we’d become those people. Without access to dissenting views online, we would become trapped in our own echo chambers, shocked when we lose general elections or people actually vote for Donald Trump.

I’m not saying that we should all head over to 4Chan and conclude, “Oh yes, jolly good, Hitler did do nothing wrong.” I’m saying that it’s important for everyone – them and us – to be exposed to different views, not least to know what we’re up against. If 4Chan disappeared, so would its users. But they wouldn’t be gone – they’d still be thinking the same things – we just wouldn’t be able to see them.

Beyond letting us Know Our Enemy — 4Chan also needs to exist as one of the last bastions of a free internet. We might not like what happens when people are given total anonymity, but we should still protect our right to it. Fewer and fewer companies and people (hello Mr. Zuckerberg) are controlling the internet, and we are placidly putting the power in their hands.

The reason 4Chan users are replacing racial slurs with the word “Google” is because the company created a new tool, Conversation AI, that will censor hateful messages. While this sounds great in theory, it is faulty in practice, ranking “I shit you not” as highly offensive. But more importantly, even if the tool was perfect, do we really want to give the power to censor the internet to one company? Once 4Chan is censored, where would it stop? First they came for the 4Chan, etc., etc., cat memes.

It would be fantastic if we lived in a world where deleting 4Chan also meant the automatic elimination of prejudice, discrimination, and hate speech from the world. But it doesn’t. The only way to tackle these things – however idealistic it sounds – is through education and discussion. It is unlikely, of course, that you or I will ever change the mind of a single 4Chan user, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have the option to try. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh