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4Chan’s latest, terrible ‘prank’: Convincing West Africans that Ebola doctors actually worship the disease

The message-board 4chan has been rightly blamed for many unsavory Internet things: the celebrity nude scandal, the dangerous “bikini bridge” meme, the brief virality of the self-harm hashtag #cuttingforBieber.

Now, the denizens of one of the Internet’s least-principled places are attempting to propagate another tasteless meme: She’s called Ebola-chan, and she’s some cross between a prank, a witless joke and a truly vile strain of racism.

“Have you welcomed her into your heart yet?” Asks one post on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board, /pol/. “I’m talking, of course, about Ebola-Chan. The viral goddess of love and Afrocide … Our shrines and incantations give her strength.”

Ebola-Chan is not, needless to say, a goddess anywhere outside of 4chan’s diseased imagination: The character is a /pol/ invention, a cartoon mascot for the virus that could infect half a million people within the next four months.

In fan art — of which there is, surprisingly, quite a lot — she’s depicted as a pointy-chinned, wide-eyed anime character with pink pigtails that curl into the shape of the virus. Wherever she’s posted, users are expected to reply with choruses of “I love you, Ebola-Chan” or “thank you, Ebola-Chan.” But of course, they reply with all kinds of stomach-turning stuff, as well: hopes for Ebola to wipe out all of Africa, to strike other continents or demographics, and to otherwise “remove … [the] subhumans,” as one particularly racist post put it.

It’s hard to tell how much of the chatter is genuine: 4chan, with its reputation for both ammorality and mischief, has always attracted a crowd of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ lolz-seekers along with the sincere racists, misogynists and homophobes.

But regardless of whether the fine people of 4chan actually hope Ebola kills more people, some seem bent on helping it do just that. On Sunday, an anonymous 4chan user took responsibility for a series of fake posts about Ebola-Chan on the Nigerian Web site Nairaland, which claimed, among other things, that Ebola was a demon sent by a “new racist cult in Europe and in the USA.” The posts also claimed that some Western Ebola doctors belonged to the cult. While the “rumors” were reported by outlets like Vocativ and the International Business Times, Nairaland users promptly called out the trolling — much to the prankster’s disappointment.

“The whole thing needs more effort,” he complained.

This is, of course, all in the standard 4chan playbook. 4chan pranks usually unfold in predictable stages: an inside joke of some kind is born on the boards, its participants invent fake handles on forums or social networks to propagate it elsewhere, and everybody dances in the resulting confusion. (“It made it into the news in my country,” one man wrote of a Swiss article on Ebola-Chan. “Pretty funny.”)

It stops being funny, of course, the instant that anyone misses the “joke” and takes it seriously. In January, 4chan’s bikini bridge “joke” went viral within the Internet’s pro-anorexia and -bulimia communities, to the enormous alarm of the National Eating Disorder Association. In Africa, where misinformation and superstition about Ebola flourish, that risk could be particularly high: As Reuters reported in late June, suspicion and fear of doctors has already undermined efforts to fight the disease — and that’s without rumors that said doctors belong to some Ebola-worshipping death cult.

4chan’s moderators seem to be aware of the problem, at least: While the site didn’t respond to The Post’s request for comment on the issue, they’ve apparently started to go after Ebola-Chan threads.

“MODS!” one user posted. “Ebola-chan threads are not allowed. Pls remove.”

But even if the mods do remove them, Ebola-Chan may have done her damage. Much like the disease itself, now that she’s out there, there’s no controlling her.

“I loved witnessing the birth of ebola-chan,” another user wrote over the weekend. “However things are [e]scalating to some weird levels.”

Comfort Mensa died outside the JFK Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia amid confusion regarding her diagnosis. While Ebola health workers decontaminated her body, Doe's family maintained she died from complications of diabetes. (Video: Ashoka Mukpo and Divya Jeswani Verma/The Washington Post)