This report was first published by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST).
The full report can be accessed here. Read on for the Executive Summary.
Several violent far-right attacks in recent years have revealed an apparent connection with ‘chan culture’, not just in the tangible examples of attackers uploading manifestos, final messages, and live streams to chan sites themselves, but in the widespread community support exhibited in some corners of this online subculture where violence is both trivialised and glorified. Commonly, this is manifested in the visual culture present on chan sites, particularly memes, which may be used to promote extreme or even violent narratives under the guise of humour and irony.
We sought to understand how the visual culture of chan sites was contributing to, and/or encouraging violent discourse. To do this, our team combined quantitative data scraping, ethnography, and visual analysis across 12 chan sites ranging in popularity between March and June 2020, in addition to conducting 12 interviews with experts over this period.
- Several chan sites and boards appeared to be facilitating an ‘in-group’ status that is so critical in fostering an extremist mindset, partially due to the visual culture present on chans which obfuscates extremist messaging to less-familiar observers.
- While some memes explicitly promoted violence or extremist narratives, others can be considered ‘malleable’, meaning they took on these connotations only when situated within a broader extremist context. Memes such as these require some level of digital literacy and familiarity with chan culture to interpret.
- Memes and visual culture were used to target out-groups including (but not limited to) Black and ethnic minorities, Jewish people, women, and the LGBTQ community.
- Antisemitic and conspiratorial attitudes were particularly prevalent in ubiquitous memes, such as the ‘Happy Merchant’, as well as within ‘textual’ images that contained lengthier ideological exposition and were commonly shared between chans.
- Global instability relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the reignited Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 became a focal point for racist, antisemitic, and misogynistic narratives online, which played heavily into the visual culture on the chans. Some users interpreted these events as an opportunity to sow discord and accelerate race war in the United States and beyond.
- Enhance literacy in digital and visual culture interpretation among practitioners, researchers, and young people in education, who would benefit from an understanding of memetic subtext.
- Develop a database of ‘hateful’ memes as a resource for practitioners working in this space.
- Ensure the work of experts in the field from academia and industry feeds into HMG’s policy formation. This could be achieved through the creation of a biannual working group, in which experts could present ongoing research and update relevant government stakeholders about ongoing trends in this space.
- Deepen knowledge by considering how memetic content is deployed by extremists in the coming months and years, extending our analysis to mainstream social media and combining knowledge of chan communities with other ‘push factors’ to radicalisation.