Over the past 19 years, the imageboard 4chan has been linked to Player Portalthe creation of QAnonthe incubation of a particular form of online racism and a series of nationwide terrorist attacks that have killed dozens of people.
Tragically, references and homages to 4chan are scattered throughout a 180-page screed allegedly written by the 18-year-old who allegedly gunned down 13 people in a predominantly black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York on May 14. All 10 victims killed in the massacre were black. Just this week, 4chan users spread transphobic misinformation about the identity of the school shooter who killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvdale, Texas, which quickly reached the flow of a right wing congressman.
Even as the imageboard continues to rise in infamy, one question lingers: who actually owns 4chan?
For years, its ownership has been murky: Invented by an American, sold to a Japanese businessman in 2015, its corporate structure is largely unknown, beyond a pair of Delaware-registered companies.
New information, shared exclusively with WIRED, provides more details about 4chan’s largely unpublished relationship with a major Japanese toy company called Good Smile Company. Legal documents, corporate records and interviews with people familiar with both companies show that Good Smile played a role in the acquisition of 4chan in 2015.
In addition to being 4chan’s silent partner, Good Smile has major deals with some of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, including Disney and Warner Bros. Good Smile also produces figurines depicting underage anime girls in various states of undress.
The company said last year that it was only a passive investor in 4chan. However, records of a non-disclosure agreement reveal that Good Smile Company and a major Japanese telecommunications company were involved in the acquisition of 4chan in 2015 by its current owner. Court records, first detailed by The Hollywood Reporter and Kotaku in September and reviewed by WIRED, allege that Good Smile employees were disturbed by their company’s engagement with 4chan, but executives ignored their concerns.
As the United States grapples with 4chan’s toxic influence, from its role in the January 6 insurgency to its alleged influence on mass shooters, it’s clear that attempts to hold someone accountable and perhaps even reducing its role in radicalizing young men will not be possible without a better understanding of its corporate structure.
From his dorm in Arkansas in 1999, Hiroyuki Nishimura created 2channel.
The Japanese image board is built on several successful Usenet forums and text messages. But Nishimura offered users something rare and exciting: the freedom to be completely anonymous.
“This is where idiots can be the idiots they want to be. This is where they are allowed to say things they don’t need to take responsibility for,” Nishimura said. Japan time years later. This freedom would prove extremely popular in Japan. Within a decade, Nishimura became the bad boy of Japanese media, cultivating a career as a self-help guru and even signing a deal with Japanese telecommunications giant Dwango to create the hit video-sharing site Niconico. Nishimura was the famous face of Niconico until his departure in 2013.
While message boards were largely impenetrable to English-speaking audiences, they had a small cult following in the United States. On the Something Awful forums, where a particularly sharp brand of Internet humor was taking shape, a group of users were captivated by the popular anime on 2channel (and its offshoot, 2chan). They shared their findings on Something Awful’s Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse forum.
Among these early devotees was Christopher Poole. In 2003, seeking to replicate the vibe of 2channel, he grabbed the open source code that underpins the website, translated it, and officially opened 4chan. He said he was pointless.
In the beginning, 4chan users could share anime on /a/, and everything else on /b/, the random board. The website grew rapidly, branching out into all manner of internet culture, hardcore pornography, news, and ultimately political advice, /pol/.
In its first decade of life, 4chan defined and shaped troll culture. There was a mischievous trend: its users harassed white supremacist radio host Hal Turner and pirate Email from Sarah Palin. But 4chan also had a persistent problem with child sexual exploitation materialwhile its users used their anonymity to make threats against their schools. (At the same time, 4chan users reported their fellow users who they feared might commit acts of violence.)