Chances are you’ve never set foot in 4chan, digitally speaking, but you’ve no doubt encountered 4chan’s influence in the wild. The image board the Internet loves to hate, 4chan is an undeniable cultural force. From Anonymous to doxxing, memespeak to hate speech, lolcats to troll brigades, could 4chan be so bad it’s good? Inspired by H. L. Mencken’s observation that
“the trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels”,
This essay makes four moral arguments in favor of 4chan as a social media platform: moral outsourcing, anonymity, freedom of expression, and epistemic agency.
Moral Outsourcing and the Invisible Labor of Moderation
Moral outsourcing is the transfer of responsibility for choosing between right and wrong actions to another actor. In the context of social media platforms, moral outsourcing occurs when we rely on content moderation to protect us from encountering offensive, objectionable, and disturbing content. Some content moderation can be automated using artificial intelligence applications – which outsources moral responsibility to a small group of software engineers – but a significant portion of content moderation is still human-mediated.
The invisible labor of content moderation poses very real human costs. Investigative reporting from The Verge in 2019 revealed the significant psychological and physical toll that content moderation takes on moderators. These conditions led to a $52 million settlement on behalf of Facebook moderators, who developed PTSD in the course of their work. But recent updates to its content moderation practices suggest that’s just a cost of doing business for Facebook.
Facebook alone employs or contracts more than 30,000 content moderators worldwide to sanitize its platform. Even its hybrid human-AI approach is imperfect – crimes against humanity have been coordinated there. There are also intellectual freedom implications of fact-checking in content moderation practices, such as when social media platforms censored legitimate information about a pre-clinical, experimental coronavirus treatment in what was perceived to be a politicization of medical and public health information.
Users of mainstream social media platforms benefit from moral outsourcing by transferring the burden of content moderation to machine learning and human shields. 4chan and other image boards are moderation-minimalist, employing a voluntary system of moderators and ‘janitors’ whose role is to remove content that violates US law. 4chan’s user base otherwise accepts the potential harm and moral hazard of exposure.
Anonymity, the ability to assume an alternate identity (or no identity at all), secures the safety of victims – and the free expression of all. Anonymity is also a recognized and protected dimension of First Amendment rights in the US. Anonymous web browsing and digital communications, aided by applications like Tor and Signal, facilitate access to information, circumvent authoritarian firewalls, evade dataveillance, protect vulnerable individuals, and enable whistleblowing and First Amendment-protected activities.
Identifiable accounts are a hallmark of most social media platforms, where privacy-invading real-name policies were once the norm. Many social media companies also offer social login services, sharing identity management and other personal data across platforms.
Instead, 4chan elevated anonymity to cult status. The eponymous Anonymous collective is the subject of myth and legend (and satire and memes). On the 4chan platform and others like it, anonymous posting is the default mode, and self-doxing in the Name field is a cultural faux pas.
Freedom of expression is a cultural value that transcends First Amendment constraints on state oppression. Freedom of expression is a general belief that individuals should be able to access, consider, and express ideas of their own choosing. Because freedom of expression includes freedom of – and from – religious belief, it is also closely associated with freedom of conscience.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill proposed a three-point defense for a culture of free speech that went above and beyond legal protection from the state. First – and simplest – the viewpoint in question might actually be the truth. Second, defending our own convictions against opposing viewpoints strengthens our beliefs. Third – and most likely – the truth lies in some combination of seemingly opposing views.
In every case, freedom of expression is a pathway – indeed, is the pathway – to the truth, not a threat to it. (For more on Mill’s philosophy of free expression, check out the open access graphic novel adaptation of On Liberty provided by Heterodox Academy, All Minus One.) Furthermore, the legal doctrine of safety valve theory upholds the broadest free speech protections, including for controversial views, as a deterrent to political violence and terrorism.
Social media companies are broadly perceived to engage in censoring user-generated content. Recent Pew Research Center polling finds that nearly three in four Americans believe it is likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints. The perception of online censorship is also having a chilling effect on expression, as more than half of Americans polled admit to holding political views that they are afraid to share.
Image boards like 4chan pride themselves on providing outposts for free expression on the electronic frontier. Living the adage that the best defense is a good offense, channers aggressively defend their culture of free expression – often by posting content that is conventionally objectionable.
Intellectual freedom protects our right to choose what to read, think, and value. In philosophy, this is called epistemic agency – the intentional choices we make about our beliefs, including activities like research, evaluation of evidence, consideration of opposing views, and sharing ideas. Epistemic agency is a critical area of personal development for modern life in the long tail – a complex lived reality populated by a plurality of truths, well-intentioned misinformation, and microtargeted disinformation.
Moderation-minimalist web forums like 4chan – where users accept the risks of exposure to objectionable material, share an expectation of anonymity, and value free expression as the norm – provide a terrain for the exercise of epistemic agency. Other social media platforms are shackled in epistemic restraints that almost no one likes and almost everyone agrees don’t work.
Like H. L. Mencken – no stranger to controversy himself – I find the project of intellectual freedom to be incomplete if we’re always in agreement. It isn’t the easy wins that matter – it’s the hardscrabble scrimmages defending the human freedoms of the less-than-popular, the beyond-the-pale, and yes, even the scoundrels.
Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, 2019). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.