8chan, 4chan, Endchan: Here's what you need to know about image boards – CNET

8chan is one of the most notorious "chan" boards. 

CNET

A rash of recent postings that may be related to mass shootings has put a spotlight on loosely moderated messaging sites, known as chan boards. While many people who visit these sites simply share memes and discuss video games, the sites have also become a playground for white supremacists and right-wing nationalists who take advantage of the freewheeling and anonymous nature of the boards. 

The anything-goes attitude has made chan boards swamps of hateful commentary. Suspected shooters have used the sites to post manifestos outlining racist beliefs. One board, in particular, 8chan, has become a magnet for these posts. Its owner, Jim Watkins, is set to appear privately before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Thursday. Watkins has said he's kept the site offline voluntarily since August. In the meantime, 8chan users have posted on other boards and attempted to create their own versions. 

8chan owner Jim Watkins

8chan owner Jim Watkins.

Jim Watkins

The focus on 8chan, which allows users to post anything as long as it is legal in the US according to its FAQ, is understandable. The man accused of killing 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last month has been linked to an anti-immigrant manifesto posted to the site. Posts related to the New Zealand mosque shooting and the San Diego synagogue attack were also made on 8chan. 

The site isn't alone, though. Hundreds of these boards exist, and they're relatively easy to build for those familiar with creating websites. A user of 4chan, one of the oldest chan boards, posted details of Jeffrey Epstein's prison suicide a little more than a half-hour before the news appeared on any mainstream sites. A Norwegian man accused of attempting to shoot a mosque near Oslo posted a link to livestream of his act to Endchan, another board. Administrators of the site say the post was removed immediately.

Here's what you need to know about chan boards and the people who use them.

Who's the typical chan poster?

Hard to know exactly, but if 4chan is our guide, a typical poster is the sort you'd probably expect: young and male. A 4chan advertising page says roughly 70% of its users are males, and most have had some college education. It lists 18- to 34-year olds as its demographic. Almost half of its users are in the US, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. Many express an interest in anime, video games and technology. 

Those numbers don't capture the entire population of chan board users. A lot of folks use chan boards, which let users post anonymously, to discuss issues related to being LGBT or to share amateur artwork. Some are into dressing up as anime, video game or comic book characters and posting photos of their outfits. And, of course, there are the loud, hateful trolls.

Why are chan boards controversial?

Let's get one thing straight: lots of chan boards are nothing more than a place for people with an intense interest in a subject to swap thoughts. If you've got a passion that's an inch wide and a mile deep, you might find a community of kindred spirits on a chan board. But because chan boards are loosely moderated and provide anonymity, they've become a breeding ground for hateful ideas and bullying behavior. They've also spawned some illegal activity.

anonymous-logo

The logo for the hacker group Anonymous. 

Anonymous.

Anonymous, the hacker collective, started out on 4chan and takes its name from the anonymity the site offers users. The group's first major operation, Project Chanalogy, started in 2008 and took on the Church of Scientology. That same year, University of Tennessee student David Kernell posted screenshots showing his hacking of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's email account to 4chan. 

Chan boards don't require users to create accounts, which is a big draw. Each user can create a numbered thread or reply to one. No names are needed. Like other websites, however, users leave digital breadcrumbs, such as IP addresses, that are recorded. 

Some chan boards, like 4chan, store this information so that it can be retrieved later. The site has worked with the FBI on multiple occasions, providing needed information in some criminal cases. 8chan owner Watkins also confirmed his site admins worked with law enforcement following the recent mass shootings. In a statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security published Wednesday, he said the site has complied with 56 law enforcement requests in 2019 alone

Back up a bit. Where did all this start?

Chan boards started in 1999 by a Japanese student living in Arkansas. In fact, the "chan" in chan boards comes from 2channel, or 2chan for short, which was an anonymous Japanese text board. It was created by Hiroyuki Nishimura who, at the time, was a student at the University of Central Arkansas. Its popularity was partly due to its anonymous posting that allowed people living in Japan to vent their frustrations without the worry of humiliation. 

2chan's success inspired a 15-year-old Christopher "Moot" Poole to create 4chan at his New York City home in 2003.  As 4chan grew in popularity, some people began conducting illegal activities such as swapping stolen personal information and posting child pornography. This attracted the attention of law enforcement. So Poole cracked down in 2014, driving many users away. Poole sold 4chan to Nishimura in 2015 and has since begun working at Google

Chris Poole

4chan creator Chris Poole speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in 2010.

Getty Images

One of those former 4chan users, Fredrick "Hotwheels" Brennan, said he envisioned an alternative during a psychedelic mushroom trip in 2013. He called his site Infinitechan, which later came to be known as 8chan because the figure 8 is the symbol for infinity flipped. The board got little attention until 2014, when 4chan started cracking down on posts about Gamergate, a controversy over video games that became an online proxy for the culture wars. 

Brennan sniffed an opportunity and banged the drum for users to head to 8chan. They did. The surge in traffic caught the attention of Watkins, who had acquired 2chan from Nishimura in 2014. Watkins and Brennan worked together on 8chan from the Philippines until 2016, when Brennan disassociated from the site. He has since called for the site to be shut down

Fredrick Brennan 8chan

Fredrick Brennan created 8chan, but now regrets it. 

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

8chan has been down since the El Paso shooting, though Watkins has promised it will go live after his Sept. 5 meeting with the House Committee on Homeland Security. In a statement to the committee published Wednesday, Watkins said he has "no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech."

What are some of the popular chan boards? Are they safe?

4chan continues to be the most popular of the imageboards. It receives more than 27 million unique visitors per month, and it's ranked in the world's top 1,000 websites, according to analytics site Alexa. 8chan's popularity has waned since the initial surge in 2014. And there are many other derivative chan boards, such as Endchan, 7chan and Dreamchan. None match 4chan's popularity, but some have active, if small, communities. 

Visiting a chan site is usually harmless. Still, it's best to proceed with caution. Some users disguise links in their posts that might take you to a site that infects your computer. There's also a possibility of coming across disturbing content. So exercise common sense when browsing through posts.

Originally published Sept. 5 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 7:31 a.m. PT: Adds statement from Watkins.

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