4chan are trying to make the hashtag a symbol of white supremacy
The infamous home of internet subculture, 4chan has been associated with various pranks, campaigns and controversies over the years. From persuading iPhone users that their brand new devices could charge in a microwave to its darker ties to malicious hacks, online bullying and suicide, the hands-off approach adopted by its owners has led to various headlines and scandals.
However, in what some are referring to as a “troll campaign”, 4chan users are creating propaganda designed to link the humble hashtag to Nazism and the Third Reich. “We must start using # to represent the swastika on memes and social media,” stated a post on the board /pol/ (“politically incorrect”).
“It will be a perfect win-win situation,” the user explains. “Either Twitter will have to accept blatant Nazism on its forums or it will effectively have to find a way to get rid of the site’s core mechanics.” Dubbed “Bash the Hash”, the campaign’s name is a play on the anti-fascist term “Bash the Fash”. The user adds: “Not only will this f*ck twitter up but it will also force corporations to stop putting hashtags on every f*cking ad ever.”
The idea was met with some criticism. “I notified Twitter, SPLC, and the ADL what you fascist losers are doing. Just another nazi dogwhistle [sic]. You aren't fooling anyone,” stated one user. However, most of the messages were positive, one stating: “Make social media accounts and spam them with this symbol. Every platform. Every news network. Everything.” Many other messages included far-right, racist and homophobic sentiments.
Before long, images began appearing on Twitter which linked the hashtag to fascism. It seems that the most obvious way of doing this is to split it horizontally to create “HH” (“Heil Hitler”). Many of the images supposedly originated from far-left and anti-fascist organisations such as Antifa. “In addition, the hashtag features 8 line [sic] poking out, and 8 gaps,” states Twitter user “Berlin Antifascist” on Twitter. “88 stands for HH, which stands for Heil Hitler.”
“Pretty funny to realize that twitter (and basically all of social media) is built around a nazi symbol. #bashthehash,” stated Twitter user “Matthinator”. Another, “Savage4skin”, stated, “STOP USING IT STOP USING THE HASHTAG” with the hashtag #bashthehash. Others took to using the phrase “fashtag”.
4chan users previously created a successful hoax whereby they claimed the “OK” hand gesture was a symbol of the far right. “Has the simple thumb-and-forefinger ‘OK’ hand gesture become a common white supremacist hand sign?” asked longstanding civil rights organisation the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Not quite, but it has become a popular gesture used by people across several segments of the right and far right - including some actual white supremacists - who generally use it to trigger reactions, or what they would describe as ‘trolling the libs.'” In 2017, 4chan users posed as Antifa and promoted a campaign persuading the public to punch white women who voted for Donald Trump.
4chan has, of course, also been linked to a range of other hoaxes. When a video appeared in 2013 which seemed to show Justin Bieber smoking cannabis, 4chan users created the hashtag #CutForBieber as part of a campaign which encouraged diehard fans to self-harm in an attempt to stop the singer-songwriter from smoking the drug again. Those who fell prey to the hoax were generally impressionable, young female fans - creating outrage at 4chan.
In 2014, the Gamergate controversy saw women in the video game industry targeted with online abuse. Ostensibly, the purpose of Gamergate was to highlight issues of ethics within the industry but instead, the hashtag #Gamergate was used alongside rape threats and death threats aimed at women.
Perhaps the most famous 4chan campaign, however, was Pizzagate. This conspiracy theory proposed that a pizza shop in Washington D.C. was at the centre of a child sex trafficking ring run by Democrat politicians. Needless to say, it was fully debunked. There have been numerous other cases of hacks and harassment, many of which - sadly - have been racially motivated.
Luckily, however, not all of 4chan users’ activities are quite so dark. As an online community, they are very effective at mischief. For instance, when a marketing campaign by Walmart asked patrons to vote for which store they would like rapper Pitbull to visit, a journalist made a quip that he should be “exiled” to Alaska.
The Walmart store with the most Facebook likes was to host the rapper and - thanks to 4chan and the hashtag #ExilePitbull - that store was Kodiak, Alaska (pop: 6,000). Pitbull went ahead with it and even invited the journalist along too.
In a separate campaign, Papa John’s teamed up with Taylor Swift for a competition which would see the pop star perform at whichever school received the most votes. 4chan hijacked the campaign and the winner was therefore Boston’s Horace Mann School For The Deaf. While this might seem like a mean hoax, and while the school was taken out of the running, it received $50,000 of donations on top of $10,000 of musical equipment and a concert ticket for each student.
In 2009, 4chan hijacked a vote conducted by Time Magazine to determine the most influential person of the year, successfully putting the website’s founder Christopher Poole (aka "moot") in the number one spot. The first letters of the names of the top 21 candidates also spelt out two 4chan memes - "mARBLECAKE. ALSO, THE GAME" (m standing for Moot).
In a separate poll, 4chan successfully made Kim Jong-un Time's person of the year (though the magazine discredited the vote and went with Barack Obama). There are also countless nuggets of pop culture which we only have thanks to 4chan. The “Chocolate Rain” song and “Rickrolling” are just a couple of examples.
Of course, the website is often linked with users’ malicious behaviour. However, like the internet itself, it is an anarchic, chaotic and largely unregulated entity. That the freedom to do what one pleases often leads to disinformation and discrimination says more about the human condition than it does about the platform.