Disclaimer: I don’t support the opinions or actions of any political group mentioned in this article. To me, politics often seems like a bunch of monkeys throwing shit at each other and arguing over who’s got the biggest banana. I don’t care about the banana — I’m just here to show you the monkeys.
On March 10, 2017, several members of 4chan, an internet forum similar to Reddit, did something that would’ve made the CIA and FBI go green with envy. And I can’t help but stand in awe of their collective genius and how they perfected the art of trolling.
49 Days Before the Heist — Museum of the Moving Image, New York City
Shia LaBeouf, the scrawny kid from Transformers, collaborated with the two artists Rönkkö and Turner to protest President Donald Trump’s inauguration and time in office.
They installed a camera on the side of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, connected to an internet live stream. Shia encouraged people to gather in front of the camera and chant “he will not divide us” to express their stance and political opinions.
I admire people expressing their opinion in public — it takes courage. But poor Shia didn’t realize that if you set up a live stream for the whole internet to see, well, the whole internet will see — especially a place called 4chan.
The cave in which the trolls live
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you haven’t ventured into the digital Wild West yet, or what Gawker calls “the legendary butthole of the internet.”
4chan is a collection of anonymous, anything-goes forums similar to Reddit, but with far fewer limits regarding the content. Anarchy and utter chaos reign, but on rare occasions, they produce fascinating miracles. This was one of them.
In 4chans different threads, the users calling themselves “anons” can discuss a wide variety of different topics — from Anime over fitness and meal prep to sex toys and their questionable use. And every month, around 20 million users flood the gates of the internet’s Sodom and Gomorrah, hailing a frog mascot named Pepe.
The /pol/ (for politics) forums are especially notorious for their users’ often borderline legal and sane posts. The delighted reader may remind himself of what I wrote about politics and monkeys in the beginning.
The absence of rules and freedom to discuss controversial topics attracts people from all walks of life — and most go crazy for one thing: trolling.
Trolling is the art of taking the piss out of someone to amuse yourself.
A harmless example is Mark Gubin, who painted “Welcome to Cleveland” in big bright letters on his roof to troll airplane passengers. He lives in Milwaukee.
It’s this passion for trolling and questionable political ideals that got 4chan to sabotage Shia LaBeouf’s “he will not divide us” live stream. Various 4chan/pol/ members appeared in front of the camera, shouting anything from Pepe praises to anti-liberal and plain right-wing slogans. Shia had a hard time stopping the trolls and after getting arrested, he decided to move the camera. The situation got heated.
20 Days Before the Heist — Albuquerque, New Mexico
History repeats itself. While the live stream broadcasted many “he will not divide us” chants, the trolls weren’t long in coming, praising Pepe and wreaking havoc once again.
Now, Shia had two options. Accept defeat and cut the live stream or level up his game. He chose the latter.
38 Hours and 14 Minutes Before the Heist — Location Unknown
I can only imagine what went on in the heads of 4chan’s trolls when the stream went live again.
There was nothing to see, except for a white flag with the familiar message of “He Will Not Divide Us” stuck on a pole in front of a clear, blue sky. This time, Shia outdid himself — or so he thought.
There were no clues about the whereabouts of the installation on the stream. No landmarks. No scenery. No nothing. The flag could’ve been anywhere in the whole United States. There was no way for the trolls of 4chan to find out its exact location — or was there?
The “most elusive of internet beasts”, as the Washington Post put it, called out an official game of capture the flag. And it’s through this game that beauty emerged from the chaos and an anonymous internet forum pulled off the heist of the century.
Where do you even start?
The United States of America span almost 10 million square kilometers while the flag was a square meter in size. Without any clues, this wouldn’t be easy.
But once the hivemind got to work, they did so with surgical precision, creativity, and teamwork that would surpass any recruiter’s wet dreams.
For 38 hours, anonymous trolls gathered online to bring together their strengths and talents in a never seen fashion.
Their first step was to narrow down the area of search. Since the camera pointed at a blank and blue sky, 4chan’s special forces looked at the sun’s path and angle, estimating longitude and latitude. Once the data was in, it was clear — the flag was in the Eastern time zone. In a few hours, the search area had been narrowed down to one-third of what it was.
A frog’s quack
With very few visual cues, the online trolls had to resort to audible ones recorded through the camera microphone. Finding a flag through looking at a blue sky alone is a crazy endeavor, but hearing where it was? Impossible.
While there wasn’t much noise apart from the wind, you could sometimes hear a frog quack, which indicated water nearby. Still, the number of ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers in the Eastern part of the USA is humongous. But Shia had made a crucial mistake.
One of 4chan’s social media surveillants found a photo Shia had uploaded on his Instagram, showing him at a diner in Tennessee, a state in the east of the USA. Homing in.
From dusk ’til dawn
Within the first 12 hours, the search area had been narrowed down to 1%. But Tennessee is big, and the flag could still be almost anywhere among its 100,000 square kilometers. Not only that but was also getting dark.
As the night set in, a team of astrologists took over on 4chan, studying the star constellations in the sky above the flag. Through advanced trigonometry, they were able to narrow down the angle and rough position of the camera recording the stream. When morning came, everyone laid in nervous anticipation.
Through the help of flight radar and some amateur witchcraft, 4chan users had predicted two airplanes cross above the flag within an hour. If they appeared as anticipated, the trolls were within arm’s reach. Once the contrails showed on the sky, the possible whereabouts of the flag had been narrowed down enough to deploy a team on the ground.
All it took now was a guy driving around in a car and constantly honking his horn until his friend, who was listening to the live stream, told him he was close.
Thousands of people were glued to their screens, eagerly awaiting the success of operation Capture The Flag. And then, a mere 38 hours and 14 minutes after the stream went live, it happened. A member of 4chan pulled down the flag and replaced it with a MAGA hat and shirt. A bunch of chaotic internet trolls managed to find a location that could’ve been anywhere in the United States, based on a video showing nothing more than blue sky. 4chan had won.