It’s August, a fitting time to talk about the internet’s dark side. Spring begins with a revelation of warmth and light, but eventually the heat has usurped the joy and we suffer the “dog days of summer.”
So, too, the internet began as a revelation, and continues to offer a bounty of information, entertainment, shopping, and social connection. But it has also descended into a darkness that I never anticipated.
I’d have no reason to write about this, except that the strange and ugly fringes are now beginning to impinge on our lives in a more direct way, as you may have read in the news. For example, several followers of a movement known as QAnon are anticipated to be elected to Congress this fall. Even President Trump has reposted material on Twitter that originated on accounts associated with QAnon followers.
Reddit (Reddit.com) may be the vestibule of the dark side. It has 130,000 active forums on just about every topic you could imagine, often characterized by toxic behavior. As I write this, Reddit has just banned a forum named The_Donald, which had 790,000 Trump-supporting members.
They were famous for harassing participants on other forums and websites. Their modus operandi was referred to as “briganding”: coordinated campaigns to attack and to troll, often resulting in driving people away from the Reddit site.
Another banned Reddit forum was a popular venue for “incels,” men filled with rage because they were “involuntarily celibate.” Their misogyny was horrific, advocating rape and even expressing admiration for a man who randomly murdered six women because he hadn’t been successful in having a sexual relationship. Reddit banned the 40,000-member group for advocating violence.
There are many other banned Reddit forums that are equally horrific, but the vast majority aren’t despicable. The site, however, clearly borders the dark side.
Like Reddit, 4chan contains a wide range of forums and has also generated considerable controversy. It appears to be even more freewheeling than Reddit, with participants posting anonymously.
The QAnon conspiracy narrative began its life on 4chan in late 2017 when the mysterious and anonymous “Q Clearance Patriot” began posting cryptic messages and claiming to be a high-ranking official with access to classified information. His posts originated the notion that Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats were deeply involved in a worldwide ring that was trafficking child sex slaves.
According to QAnon, Trump was recruited by the military to run for president in order to break up this ring. Followers also say that the “deep state” (career government officials) is plotting against President Trump and his supporters.
Millions of Americans follow and promote QAnon, with an investigation by The Guardian finding over a hundred Facebook groups devoted to QAnon, totaling over 3 million members.
Some QAnon followers began actively promoting violence against the deep state, resulting in serious incidents and the FBI labelling QAnon extremists as a terrorism threat.
Q eventually claimed that the 4chan message board had been infiltrated and moved to 8chan, which prided itself on not having any censorship. But that board was shut down after it was found to have hosted a manifesto by a man who committed mass murder at a Walmart in El Paso.
The dark side of the internet, however, is ever accommodating, and 8chan morphed into 8kun, where Q now posts. Reddit was also home to a number of QAnon forums, but they were eventually banned for inciting violence. Thousands of followers then simply switched to Voat, which is based in Switzerland.
Forums such as Reddit and 4chan also host discussions among followers of the boogaloo movement, which comprises white supremacists and extreme libertarians who are seeking to incite a second civil war as the solution to the problems in the U.S. As I write this, Facebook has just banned 500 boogaloo groups and pages.
Unfortunately, when bans like this happen, the activity often moves deeper into the dark side, with any number of venues available.
Probably the deepest area of the dark side is the so-called “dark web.” This area of the internet is a thriving marketplace for everything that’s otherwise illegal, from drugs to child pornography. According to Wikipedia, this material resides on “darknets,” which are networks that use the internet but require special software and configurations.
Of course, officials are none too happy about what goes on there, and in 2013 the largest dark web market, Silk Road, was famously shut down by the FBI. But many continue to exist. So watch out where you step, and be cautious about the dark side. It can suck you in.
The bannings that began taking place this summer are an excellent sign. I hope this trend continues. Meanwhile, stay cool.
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