Breaking Through 4chan’s Anonymity

It’s difficult to talk about 4chan without addressing the idea of Anonymous. Though the imageboard includes a name field for individual users, doing so is not required, and the feature is rarely used. This is a fundamental quality of the 4chan platform; you don’t have offer any form of identification whatsoever. Virtually every users posts anonymously.

This has had the effect of transforming the name “Anonymous” from a simple label for an empty name field into a larger-than-life concept. Rather than being perceived as countless individual users posting anonymously, Anonymous itself becomes a single homogenous entity, and the notion of the individual seemingly falls to the wayside.

Many discussions of 4chan in the news contribute to this perception, often using phrases such as the “Anonymous Hacking Collective” or using language that suggests that Anonymous is an organized group rather than a constantly-shifting collection of individuals. Even 4chan’s own FAQ page contributes into this perception, albeit in a meme-heavy toungue-in-cheek fashion:

Who is “Anonymous”?

”Anonymous” is the name assigned to a poster who does not enter text in to the Name field. Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of 4chan. He is a god amongst men. Anonymous invented the moon, assassinated former President David Palmer, and is also harder than the hardest metal known the man: diamond. His power level is rumored to be over nine thousand. He currently resides with his auntie and uncle in a town called Bel-Air (however, he is West Philadelphia born and raised). He does not forgive.

But while 4chan and Anonymous go hand in hand, users of the imageboard are not 100% unidentifiable in all situations. Though they may not be able to associate a 4chan user with a specific individual in the physical world, there are some ways to do basic identification. Especially in the case of the /pol/ Politically Incorrect board, which is one of 4chan’s most active communities and is responsible for bringing many memes to life and pushing them into the physical world, even a basic level of user identification can be useful. It can provide an important method for analyzing the inner workings of the online community, and breaks through the perceived homogeneity of the online anonymous groups.

Users of /pol/ are not a single entity, but rather are a plurality of users, viewpoints, and opinions. The community is still a major gathering place for white nationalists, racists, and other hate groups, and can rightfully be considered a major component of the “Internet Hate Machine.” However, breaking through their anonymity is an important step to start understanding the individual cogs in the machinery.

4chan’s Built-in Identifiers

Although the platform is generally considered to be entirely anonymous, there are several built-in and officially-supported methods that can provide a basic level of user identification. Features such as Poster IDs, Tripcodes, and Secure Tripcodes do provide a method for outside researchers to more formally categorize and study the conversations and interactions taking place on 4chan.

To be clear, in this case identification doesn’t refer to things such as first names, last names, or social security numbers. Short of law enforcement issuing a subpoena for records of IP addresses, there is still no reliable method of associating a 4chan user with a single individual in the physical world. (And even then, there are ways to subvert identification via IP address.) However, these methods do make it possible to different various anonymous users from one another. Getting a sense of “who” is interacting with one another, and how many unique individuals there are can be crucial for researchers who study these types of online communities.

On 4chan’s boards, the website automatically generates a poster ID for each user. And in many of its communities, including /pol/, this ID is displayed next to the name “Anonymous” for each post. This string of letters and numbers is hardly human-readable, and doesn’t have any specific meaning. However, it does provide the means to differentiate one Anonymous from another.

Screenshot 2018-08-08 11.52.32
Poster IDs are a way to differentiate various Anonymous users from one another.

Though there is not specific documentation of how this poster ID is generated, it is likely based on the poster’s IP address, the specific board, and possibly even the specific thread. Therefore, it can’t really be relied upon for consistent identification across all of 4chan’s boards, or even across multiple threads within the same board. However, for tracking a conversation within a single 4chan thread, the poster ID can be incredibly useful.

4chan also includes the capability for a user to generate a Tripcode or Secure Tripcode. Without getting into the technical details of how they are generated, these codes provide a somewhat more secure means of identification. Rather than a poster ID, which the user has no control over, a Tripcode/Secure Tripcode generates a specific alphanumeric string, preceded by ‘!’ or ‘!!’. The only way to generate a specific code is by entering the exact same phrase while posting, similar to a password for any other website login. Secure Tripcodes also use a server-side key verification, making it slightly more secure than a Tripcode alone.

qzq2xfrlc5d01
Many of the posts made by “Q” use a tripcode, in this case !UW.yye1fxo

Posting Anonymously is baked into the culture of online communities such as /pol/, so many users rarely use tripcodes, if at all. Generally, they’re only used when having a verifiable identify is really necessary, such as in the case of posts by “Q,” as part of the Qanon conspiracy.

4chan Identification in Practice

As a single proof of concept, I decided to quickly look through one of the threads saved by my 4chan Front Page Scraper. This information is based on the data pulled 8/6/18, 6:03 PM, and may not necessarily represent the most up-to-date version of the thread before it was finally pruned.

Within the thread “181397026 – anonymous-plans-to-take-down-q,” there were a total of 86 posts. For someone browsing the thread in a web browser (and not looking specifically at poster IDs), it would appear that many Qanon-related images were being posted, all questioning how many events could really be chalked up to being coincidence. Below is a small selection of some of the images that were posted in this thread:

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However, by analyzing the poster IDs, it is possible to discern just how distributed the thread contributions were among various individuals. One user, Anonymous-mW8l77m0, was responsible for posting 10 unique “How Many Coincidence” images. Of the 86 total posts in the thread, only 26 contained images. This means that Anonymous-mW8l77m0 was responsible for posting approximately 38% of the images within the thread. However, among the 86 replies, there were a total of 55 unique poster IDs. If participation was evenly distributed, each individual would have posted approximately 1.5 replies. However, this wasn’t the case, with Anonymous-mW8l77m0 being responsible for a significantly larger percentage. Thus, by specifically looking at the poster IDs for a given thread, we can prove something which is seemingly obvious. In a 4chan thread, not everyone participates equally. 4chan communities should be considered as groups of individuals, and not necessarily as a single Anonymous collective, as is so frequently done.

Screenshot 2018-08-08 17.14.04
Over the course of approximately 25 minutes, Anonymous-mW8l77m0 posted 10 different Qanon images to a single thread, or about 38% of the thread’s total images.

Limitations

Of course, this method is far from perfect and has many limitations. As mentioned previously, poster IDs and tripcodes still do not associate a 4chan poster with a specific individual person; no names are named. Furthermore, they are not fully reliable and are susceptible to manipulation. While they can be useful as a general indication of the nature of individuals’ interactions within a thread, these identification methods should not be considered infallible.

Given that Poster IDs are based in part on the user’s IP address, there is significant potential for manipulation. Through tools such as proxies or VPNs, it is possible to easily mask one’s actual IP address. Furthermore, by changing proxy or VPN, it is possible for a single individual to effectively be using multiple IP addresses—which in turn would appear as multiple different 4chan Poster IDs.

In a similar vein, Tripcodes are also not an infallible form of identification. At their face-value, they appear to be similar to using a password to authenticate a particular user. However, this similarity does not extend to their actual function. Whereas standard website logins will verify both username and password with the host server, there isn’t the same process for Tripcodes. Anyone who knows the phrase used to generate the Tripcode is able to generate the same code; there is no further authentication or verification. By extension, this also means that it is theoretically possible for multiple individuals to all utilize the same Tripcode, and present themselves as a single poster when in reality they are many. State-sponsored online manipulation groups, such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency, could employ multiple individuals to all pretend to be the same person, utilizing the same Tripcode. It is theorized that the Guccifer 2.0 persona from the 2016 election was operated by multiple Russian individuals, so this speculation is not out of the realm of possibility.

And one final limitation for both poster IDs and tripcodes—they only work if they are present. Not every board on 4chan displays these values, and as such they cannot be obtained, either manually or via automated scraper. Luckily, prominent and controversial communities such as /pol/ do have these features enabled, providing researchers a useful avenue for study and analysis.

Despite these limitations, the possibility of even a basic level of user identification on 4chan’s platforms is incredibly useful. Rather than existing as a single homogenous entity, Anonymous, the 4chan communities can be studied as what they really are—groups of individuals.

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