4chan users seize Internet's power for mass disruptions

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One morning in June, Google's list of the top global searches began to fill up with random words: "fried chicken," "comic book stores," "gyms." Before anyone could stop it, a racial slur jumped to the No. 1 spot.

Many observers concluded that Google must have been hacked. It wasn't.

It was the victim of a prank that redirected armies of people to search for the same things at the same time.

Corporations spend millions of dollars trying to understand and control traffic on the Internet, and more often than not they don't succeed. 4chan has mastered the feat for free.

Created seven years ago by a 15-year-old, 4chan is a vast web of anonymous, uncensored message boards. No one's in charge, but the site's users have managed to pull off some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet.

(The Internet walks into a bar)

The 4chan "hive mind" has been credited with -- or blamed for, depending on your perspective -- urging tween idol Justin Bieber to head for North Korea as part of his upcoming world tour (as part of an online poll allowing fans to select which country he should visit), spreading a story that Steve Jobs had a heart attack (which caused Apple's stock to fall precipitously) and starting a rumor that there was a bomb at New York's JFK airport (triggering an evacuation).

The June 17 takeover of Google Trends, the powerful tool that companies use to track what's hot on the Internet, wasn't the first time 4chan succeeded in outwitting Google. The site's users have also managed to get a swastika, symbols depicting planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the words "[expletive] you google" on the trends list.

One user of the site was investigated for hacking Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account during the 2008 campaign.

Trying to game Google to make a search popular is not illegal, but some of the other pranks have brought inquiries by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

(Has Google stopped looking out for the little guy?)

The site's antics have also garnered positive attention: 4chan's founder, Christopher Poole, recently raised $625,000 in funding to create a new online community. Among his investors are some of the most revered Internet inventors and businessmen, including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, former AOL executive Kenneth Lerer and former Googler Joshua Schachter. The startup is still in stealth mode, so Poole declined to give details.

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