Epic Fails in Trolling by Ben Garrison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This cartoon was created for this article published by OHPI. You may use it provided it is not altered and that you credit it as “Credit: © Online Hate Prevention Institute; Artist, Ben Garrison. Used with permission see http://ohpi.org.au/4chans-pol-and-the-trouble-with-dean/”.

For some years now the political cartoonist Ben Garrison has been beset by Internet trolls. He created cartoons against big Government, and they were defaced. He created cartoons against the banks, and they were defaced. He warned that America was heading down the path to becoming a police state… and they too were defaced. Not only were the cartoons defaced, but the result in each and every case was a piece of antisemitic propaganda bearing Ben Garrison’s signature.

The perplexing part of these attacks on Ben’s cartoons was that they emanated from 4chan. This Image Board is the Internet as it might have been without Government regulation or corporate greed. Its primary characteristics are that it is anonymous, and that content only stays on the site for a short time before vanishing. Its creator, Christopher Poole (aka ‘Moot’), was just 15 when he launched it in 2003. The site is partly paid for by banner ads, and the rest was for many years paid out of Moot’s pocket; he repeatedly rebuffed offers of donations.

The anonymity of 4chan gave rise to a mob mentality. The aim of the game was to destroy lives, and sometimes to end them. A target would be posted, and the mob of anonymous 4chan users would go to work. The victim would often be entirely oblivious to the coordinated efforts against them. Children would be encouraged to commit suicide, or pressured into providing nude photographs which were then forwarded to family, friends or teachers. As people quickly learned, Anonymous was a horrible, senseless, uncaring monster. As those who tried to fight back learned, the mob was large and unrelenting. It was said that Anonymous was legion and never forgives.

With Project Chanology in 2008 things began to change. Anonymous had found a purpose beyond senseless chaos and the destruction of individuals. The Church of Scientology was trying to censor the Internet and anonymous fought back. In those early days of Anonymous, numerous operations in support of internet freedom were undertaken. They were usually launched through 4chan and protected by its anonymity.

By “Operation Payback” in support of Wikileaks in 2010, a video declared that Anonymous was comprised of “average Internet Citizens… and our motivation is a collective sense of being fed up with all the minor and major injustices we witness every day.” In a twist of irony, State actors then tried to infiltrate Anonymous (but that’s another story). The link between Anonymous and 4chan weakened as social media became more popular, but it never entirely vanished. With each attacks on Ben Garrison’s cartoons some lone voices stood out from the herd. They questioned why Ben Garrison was being targeted, and why the very cartoons that support the ideas on which most 4chan users would agree on were being defaced and diverted to serve another goal.

In the early days, the answer “for the lulz” would have been enough. The attacks on Ben were not so different from those early raids. Since those early raids things at 4chan have, however, changed. The site now has rules, starting with a prohibition on illegal activity which it warns will be “severely punished and strictly enforced”. Further, raids (those coordinated attacks on a target) are no longer permitted. With the rules in place, and strictly enforced, it’s surprising the attacks on Ben Garrison have been able to go on for so long. They not only amount to a raid that has been on-going for years, but also involve numerous breaches of the law both inside and outside the United States.

The spread of racist cartoons proudly bearing Ben’s signature, immediately visible in search results, is clearly not good for business. This point has itself been made on /pol/ numerous times. Their impact is a real economic loss and they substantially detract from the original work. Additionally, acts of impersonation promoted on /pol/ have seen Ben’s signature repeatedly added to racist cartoons that have nothing at all to do with him.

Some of those defacing Ben’s cartoons, many of whom are from the United States, mistakenly believe that their actions are protected by the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court after all regards hate speech as a form of protected free speech. That protection, however, only exists so long as no other laws are broken. The attack on Ben’s work is a significant breach of copyright. At law it is neither a parody nor a satire. They seek to replace the originals, and not to critique them. They alter the message and then attribute it to Ben Garrison. On copyright infringement, the Ben Garrison case is open and shut.

Given the same Ben Garrison cartoons are posted time and time again, and that 4chan itself has been put on notice, it loses its immunity if it fails to take prompt action against a repeat offence. The attacks on Ben are so well known on 4chan that it is impossible for 4chan and Moot to argue ignorance. They have no legal immunity. The only way for 4chan and Moot to protect themselves is full and frank cooperation, to help shift the focus to those responsible.

That brings us full circle to the question of anonymity. So long as users stay within the law, OHPI supports 4chan’s anonymity, particularly given the short life time of 4chan’s threads. The Internet does need an anonymous space, but it belongs in 4chan, where everyone is anonymous, and not in places like Facebook where most accounts are connected to peoples’ real identities and lives. When users break the law, however, they lose the right to that anonymity. If they break it badly enough, and put 4chan itself and others in the community at risk, then they deserve to face the music.

Anonymity online is largely a myth. A skilled enough expert can usually find someone in a relatively short amount of time. 4chan makes this easier by both prohibiting the use of proxies in its rules, and by blocking posting through the most common public proxies. Using a proxy to access 4chan is itself sufficient grounds to be banned. While some technical experts still populate 4chan, most users blindly rely on being kept anonymous by means of technology they don’t really understand, with limits they don’t really appreciate.

For the last few months OHPI has been monitoring both 4chan and a number of other internet locations where 4chan, and particularly /pol/ anons can be found. We’ve been watching, waiting, documenting, and tracing. This is all part of a larger effort examining the attacks on Ben Garrison, which crossed a line and began to look far too much like those early raids that first brought 4chan notoriety. That chapter didn’t end well, and as a result not only 4chan but the Internet itself became more tightly regulated.

OHPI is a technical organisation. We get the Internet. We have no issue with 4chan or Anonymous. Indeed we have worked with some parts of Anonymous for years and are regularly contacted about specific campaigns, particularly those involving online safety. What we do have an issue with are people who cross the line, break the law, and put everything at risk. People like Dean who is shown, along with some of the information we know about him, in the Ben Garrison cartoon above. Dean, seriously, a /pol/ regular with a fedora? It almost draws itself.

Those like Dean need to be held accountable and 4chan and /pol/ in particular, need to look after their own shop. An online space with a little more freedom is a good thing, but it’s up to the community itself to warn people like Dean off when they go too far. If they can’t, others, and the law, will need to fill the gap. If that has to happen it really would be a shame.

Dr Andre Oboler  is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute (ohpi.org.au | facebook.com/onlinehate | @onlinehate). He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University (UK) and an LLM(JD) from Monash University (Australia).

© 2014 Online Hate Prevention Institute. This briefing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may post it to blogs and websites provided it is complete and unedited, and that you credit it as “Credit: © Online Hate Prevention Institute; Author, Andre Oboler; Artist, Ben Garrison. Used with permission see http://ohpi.org.au/4chans-pol-and-the-trouble-with-dean/”.