“Destroyer of Worlds” by Nicky Woolf is a longform profile of a man who helped spread shortform jibber-jabber. The platform for this piece is Tortoise Media in London, a worthy journalistic venture with a witty name: in a culture of ceaseless notifications, pseudo-events and listicles of outrage, it strives to slow readers down with subscription-funded longform reporting.
The profile’s headline creates a hope that here is a journalist with religion literacy. It alludes to a verse from the Bhagavid Gita that theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said he thought about during the successful test of the atomic weapon he helped create.
Tortoise editor Ceri Thomas loses no time in warning readers that in creating the Web space known as 8chan (which I have no interest in visiting), Fredrick Brennan did a very, very bad thing:
There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism — and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan?
The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan.
Likewise, Woolf spends considerable time warning readers away from what is possibly the most concentrated evil since Terry Gilliam directed Time Bandits in 1981 (that finale is on YouTube).
But when Woolf has an exquisite plot twist — Brennan became a Catholic — this amazingly symbolic development becomes a drive-by detail in a penultimate paragraph.
How symbolic? Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), spent several years writing about his attraction to eugenics, on the theory that it could have prevented his suffering by preventing his birth. But that attraction has dimmed a bit since his conversion:
He is married, has converted to Christianity, and spends his time designing his own fonts. Asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, he pauses. “Um. It sounds like a cliché, but it gets better. You’re not going to feel like that for ever.”
He says he no longer supports compulsory sterilisation, though he still thinks governments should provide genetic testing for disabled people who want to have children. In fact, he is voluntarily undergoing those tests now — he and his wife are thinking of having a child.
Did Brennan have nothing more to say than that about moving from the creation of 8chan to his becoming a Catholic in the Philippines?
Brennan discussed the matter at some length — via Twitter — in 2017. Is becoming a married Catholic who wants a child no more noteworthy than creating a message board that is supposed to have spread so much fear and loathing?
But there’s plenty of detail about the enormities of Brennan’s Frankenstein, 8chan:
Brennan only held on to the legal ownership of 8chan for about six weeks after Gamergate arrived. His funding platform Patreon cancelled his account; money was running low. The site was in such chaos, the traffic was so extreme, and there were so many attacks and legal threats flooding over him that he decided he had to find someone to take ownership.
He had a few offers, and he picked Jim Watkins, an American army veteran in his fifties who owned a pig farm outside Manila. His company, NT Technology, which operated several porn sites as well as 2channel — the Japanese forerunner to 4chan — assumed legal responsibility for the domain and provided the hardware, while Brennan would continue to run the software and grow the community. In January 2015, as part of his new employment at NT Tech in Manila, Brennan formally signed the domain over to Watkins.
The content on 8chan is among the most offensive, violent and bigoted on the web. It became a sump for the most racist and misogynist of users — especially on the /pol/ board, where the most far-right political viewpoints collected. But in evaluating its behaviour, it is probably helpful to think of a chan site not as a collection of individual people but as some kind of many-headed trickster-god; a psychotic consciousness in its own right. …
The killings in Christchurch and San Diego were not isolated incidents. It is difficult to prove beyond doubt — one of the things that distinguishes chan sites is that posts are anonymous — but several more mass shootings, including in Umpqua, Washington, and Isla Vista, California, are linked to the culture of sites like 8chan and its predecessor, 4chan. They are also key to the spread of conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate”, which claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the basement of a restaurant in Washington DC — and “Qanon,” which holds that Donald Trump is a secret genius working to topple the “deep state”.
Woolf’s report is well-researched and mostly well-written, when he isn’t telling us (more than showing us) what worries him about 8chan.
That’s the heart of the problem: “Destroyer of Worlds” is like a longform report on the handgun as the ultimate threat to lives in the global village, except that 8chan replaces the gun as the magical force driving otherwise inconsequential people to engage in evil acts of violence and murder.
None of this engages with the wickedness of the human heart, or how Fredrick Brennan came to choose the path of redemption. Doesn’t that plot twist deserve more than a passing glance?