A lot of stupid rumors have bubbled up from 4chan’s anonymous Internet forums over the years, wafting through the public consciousness and national news before they inevitably evaporate, leaving reality just a little more polluted.
Remember the one about the CIA supposedly mistaking 4chan fan fiction for a dossier of Russian intelligence? Or the one where a 4chan regular, “QAnon,” was supposed to be secretly allied with President Trump in a war against global evil?
All were nonsense. All made the news, regardless.
Remember the one — just Tuesday, actually — where a 4chan user claimed his “stripper” girlfriend had tricked attorney Michael Avenatti into believing she was a 51-year-old woman with a sexual assault accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh?
That rumor burned particularly bright and brief. By the end of the day, CNN, Fox News, CBS News and Politico had all reported on the claims of a single, anonymous 4chan poster who offered no evidence, who misspelled “Kavanaugh” and “Avenatti,” and whose avatar was Pepe the Frog in a blonde wig.
Headlines such as Newsweek’s “MICHAEL AVENATTI DENIES BEING DUPED BY 4CHAN USER OVER KAVANAUGH ACCUSER” continued to appear through Wednesday morning — until the lawyer revealed his client to be Julie Swetnick and not a fictional stripper running a grift with Pepe the Frog.
“It’s frankly kind of shocking,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who has studied online hoaxes for years but has rarely seen one so ridiculous spread so fast. “For mainstream journalists, you’d think it would be well known at this point that anything that comes out of that space should be regarded with immediate suspicion. … Why in God’s name would that be a validating source of information for anyone who is actually looking for the truth?”
It was a rhetorical question. But for the record, here is how, at least, a rumor spread from the bottom dredges of the Internet to the peak of the news cycle.
10:05 a.m. Tuesday
Two days after announcing that he represented “a woman with credible information regarding Judge Kavanaugh” and began teasing sensational details of her allegations on Twitter, Avenatti abruptly set his account to private late Tuesday morning, Eastern time, because of “bots and Trump trolls.”
Many people had been skeptical of the famously self-promotional lawyer’s claims about his client — in large part because Avenatti had not named her, even though he promised that she would soon become the third woman this month to go public with sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh. Even some Democrats were suspicious, the Daily Beast reported.
But on 4chan’s uncensored /pol/ forum, a haven for far-right trolls, the attitude toward Avenatti was less suspicious and more downright paranoid.
The 4chan site, if you’re not familiar with it, is essentially the bathroom wall of the Internet. It’s an anonymous message board where anyone can claim to be anyone and write anything about anyone. Many want their message to be widely read — to go viral. A small fraction of them are insightful. Most are gross and weird.
By the forum’s standards, there was nothing particularly remarkable about what a user identified only as “d6yucTxx” wrote an hour after Kavanaugh locked his Twitter account. It was just another post full of obscenities, typos, exclamation points and outlandish claims.
The crux of d6yucTxx’s story was that some days earlier, he and his “stripper GF” had called “Avanatti” on their “Burner Cell” phones as a prank to pass the time.
The girlfriend supposedly convinced “Avanatti” that she had gone to the same school as Christine Blasey Ford — who earlier this month accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teens, imperiling his Supreme Court confirmation — and had a similar story to share. D6yucTxx wrote that he pretended to be “a Classmate of Judge Kavaugh” who confirmed the bogus story, and together he and his girlfriend tricked “Avanatti” into offering $75,000 if she would tell the story on CNN.
The pair eventually got tired of the prank and destroyed their burner phones, d6yucTxx wrote, which explained why Avenatti had just locked his Twitter account after days of hype that he’d found a new accuser.
It should be noted that not even 4chan readers believed this at first.
“You’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad,” wrote one of the first people to reply. “Recording or it didn’t happen,” wrote another.
Not everyone would be so discerning.
10:55 a.m. to 3:42 p.m.
Like scribblings on the proverbial toilet stall, most posts on 4chan are doomed to obscurity. They pop up on the forum’s front page, get buried under newer posts seconds later and usually disappear to the bottom of the pile before more than a handful of people see them.
D6yucTxx’s post was headed for the same trash bin — except someone took a screenshot and shared it on Twitter, where the claim mated with speculative threads obsessing over who Avenatti’s mystery accuser could be, and, lo, a viral hoax was born.
The post trended upward through increasingly popular Twitter accounts, mostly on the far right, reaching Fox News contributor Stephen Miller and blogger Erick Erickson in the early afternoon. Those tweets, in turn, became bases for blog posts on conservative sites such as RedState and Townhall, which in turn were noticed by reporters.
Inundated with questions, Avenatti explicitly denied the rumor shortly before 4 p.m.
Naturally, this made the situation exponentially worse.
4 p.m. to Fox News @Night
In case Avenatti’s blanket statement was not a sufficient denial of a ludicrous theory, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported 20 minutes later that he had spoken to the lawyer, who was sticking by his claim that his client was a real person.
“Michael Avenatti on Tuesday lashed out at reports that a client who was preparing to level allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a fake and part of a ruse by an outside group targeting Avenatti,” Politico reported in the early evening, soliciting yet another comment from the lawyer: "Like we don’t vet clients. Give me a break.”
No break was given. It was CBS News’s turn next to quote Avenatti. “There’s nothing wrong!” he told the outlet. “I had to go online to look, and I read this post, and I’m laughing. None of that happened. It’s a complete fabrication. There’s zero truth to it. When I say zero truth, I mean zero truth. Not a single thing in that is true.”
Before the clock had finished with the day, Fox News’s chief national correspondent, Ed Henry, reported on the controversy in his nightly roundup. Henry mixed up the timeline, misreporting that Avenatti had locked his Twitter account after the 4chan post went up — “though he insists that was because of online threats from Trump supporters and says it’s completely false that he was duped.”
That may have marked peak 4chan in the United States, but it wasn’t the end of the rumor’s life cycle. It appeared in Canadian headlines in the small hours of Wednesday morning. Come daybreak, Brian Kilmeade incorrectly told the viewers of “Fox & Friends” that “Avenatti says he might have been duped, he might have been punked,” before correcting himself a few minutes later.
Wednesday to the end of time
“The manipulators have found ways to hijack the norms of journalism,” Phillips said Wednesday morning, recounting the spectacle.
She recently wrote a paper about how reporters spread fake news even when they try to debunk it, as many did Tuesday. She thinks trolls such as d6yucTxx — for all their poorly written prose and ridiculous claims — probably know this and rely on it. And as hoaxes and conspiracy theories increasingly show up not just in the news but sometimes in the White House, she thinks the trolls are winning.
“There are coordinated efforts to sow ridiculous narratives on 4chan, basically for the reporters to show up holding a microphone,” Phillips said. “Even if you’re leading with the denial, it still puts the story out into the atmosphere. … It delegitimizes everything around it. Whoever the survivor is, there’s going to be a shadow cast on them from now on."
At 10:42 a.m. Wednesday, Avenatti released the name of his client: Swetnick, who said Kavanaugh was present at a party in the 1980s at which she was the victim of a “gang” rape. Kavanaugh denied the allegation, as he has the other accusations.
D6yucTxx’s stripper-scam story has since disappeared from the news cycle, now being obviously impossible. But back on 4chan, they’re already digging through Swetnick’s online history, trying hard to start the next one.