It’s easy to stereotype Internet trolls as losers who spend all their spare time playing video games (when they’re not harassing people online, that is). There is some truth to this image, and that truth obscures a key point: Gamers have effectively spent their entire lives testing the boundaries of systems built by others, and figuring out how to exploit those boundaries to achieve their goals.
For some internet trolls, the current real-life goal is to harm progressives as much as possible—especially if doing so causes them distress in the process while exposing their apparent hypocrisy. Last Wednesday, an anonymous user on 4chan’s politically incorrect /pol/ board had an epiphany. Inspired by the Oakland tragedy, they posted the following:
“The Ghost Ship fire is proving to be a much bigger even than a simple fire. It’s being used as the justification for police and fire departments to shut down many similar spaces and venues across the country.
“These places are open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy and now YOU can stop them by reporting all such places you may be or may become aware of to the authorities, specifically the local fire marshel [sic].
“Watch them and follow them to their hives. Infiltrate social circles, go to parties/events, record evidence, and report it. We’ve got them on the run but now we must crush their nests before they can regroup!
“MAGA my brothers and happy hunting!”
The self-proclaimed “board of peace” has a dynamic content structure. As threads stop getting replies, they move from the first page to the second and so on. After they fall away from the tenth page, the thread and its contents are gone. This original thread got little traction and vanished roughly six hours after it began, with little to show for itself. The story could have ended there.
Yet a few years ago 4plebs.org started automatically archiving threads from certain 4chan boards—including the notorious /pol/. Two days after the original thread dropped off of 4chan, it was discovered on the 4plebs archive by several people who advocate for and use such DIY spaces. Apparently thinking that they were replying to the 4chan posters, they began to criticize and vilify the project in terms every bit as strenuous and hostile as the original thread. Worse, they began to share the dead-before-it-started 4chan plan on social media.
All this activity caused /pol/ users to rediscover an idea that they had heard and disregarded within six hours. Now, however, the plan got traction—not due to /pol/, but due to the DIY users themselves. On December 8, DoDIY.org, “a catalog of DIY spaces and promoters” was proactively shut down by its owner Neil Campau. “As I write this message,” he said, “DIY spaces are being shutdown around the country and even though it’s been a huge labor of love (of which I’ve dedicated 9 or so years running), I have no intention in letting it simply become a tool for authorities.” He explicitly linked to the cause of the problem: “If you’re a cop combing this site looking for some folks to evict or some vile human looking to call the cops on folks listed here, fuck off immediately.”
Being told to “fuck off immediately” caused the trolls to have precisely the opposite reaction. As a result, /pol/ has taken on the campaign with renewed vigor. Daily threads on the board receive hundreds of replies And since it’s /pol/, the name for the activism is being given the most offensive name possible: Right Wing Safety Squads (i.e., “SS” for short). They’re forcing people to make sure their spaces are literal “safe spaces,” or else having them shut down by the authorities.
The irony of trolls effectively turning into hall monitors is not lost on anyone. Nor is the fact that, far from being illegal (and despite the anarchic spirit behind most trolling), this is an organized effort to enforce the law. /pol/ users are very clear that their targets are not for spaces where independent creators build things. “No fear brother,” explained one contributor. “In fact you find yourself and your space better supported because of these threads. I found an amazingly sick makerspace in my city that I plan to check out cause they have all the tools in the world and I could pursue my carpentry on a whole new level. You and those spaces are not who we’re after. We like productive people and those with a craft.”
Now, the daily threads have a standardized opening format. Alongside a picture of the notorious “Nazi” frog Pepe proclaiming “Only you can prevent warehouse fires” is a collection of location directories. This is followed by a list of possible violations to investigate, and to whom such potential violations should be reported. In less than a week, three meeting spots have been closed down so far. Baltimore, Denver and Nashville have all had locations confirmed to be shuttered by the authorities, though to what extent trolls can claim credit for such actions remains unclear. /pol/ itself shows no signs of losing interest in the plan, especially given this traction. It is still to be seen how and when this will all end. More broadly, the frequent claim is that trolls just want to see the world burn. Apparently that is no longer quite the case.
Jay Irwin contributed to this story.
Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel Ego & Hubris and the co-author of five other books. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmalice.