It was a voice message from a friend that led Sara to discover she’d been unwittingly recruited into an online war.
Sara, a pseudonym to protect her identity, checked her phone on the morning of Australia’s Black Lives Matter protests and saw a flurry of unread notifications.
‘I want to let you know there’s this weird thing happening’, her friend said in a message.
The friend revealed that Sara’s image was being used online by people pretending to be her.
Members of the controversial 4Chan community — an anonymous website notorious for its misogynistic and racist culture — were using a photograph of a bald Sara to encourage other women to join a fake campaign to shave their heads for racial equality.
A hashtag was coined for the trend: #BaldForBLM.
And it was part of a campaign to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement.
“At the time, I was confused and shocked. I couldn’t understand what the point of it was,” Sara said.
An online war
Prior to all this happening, Sara had shaved her head. Sara’s friend interviewed her about her new look for an online article about people changing their appearance.
“I gave a brief background on my alopecia,” Sara said, “and provided photographs of me before with hair and totally after bald. Loved that story.”
Sara’s friend had recently introduced her to Facebook groups for women with hair loss, which were filled with people talking about experiences with wigs, losing their eyebrows and coming to terms with looking different.
Members of those groups sounded the alarm about something strange that was happening: they shared screenshots of Twitter accounts that had stolen photographs shared in these online communities.
These accounts were tweeting as if they were feminists who shaved their heads in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The birth of a hoax
The first post 4Chan containing the #BaldforBLM hashtag was made on June 4 by an anonymous American user.
The post read: “Here’s the plan: Get #BaldForBLM trending on Twitter and Instagram. The idea is to get women, particularly white women, to shave their heads for BLM. Guilt them into getting rid of their straight “white” hair to show “solidarity” with black women.”
The post contains an image of a woman with a shaved head that’s the second image result on Google for the search term “girls with buzzed hair.”
Since then, the hashtag #BaldforBLM has been used tens of thousands of times on Twitter, often by newly created accounts encouraging others to shave their heads.
Some accounts used photographs lifted from elsewhere on the internet — like the hair loss Facebook groups — to claim they’d just shaved their heads, occasionally racking up thousands of retweets and favourites.
Other accounts falsely congratulated celebrities for joining in on the campaign using images of actors who’d shaved their head for unrelated reasons. One even included a fake article about Emma Watson shaving her head for the cause.
The internet fights back
Not long after the campaign began and the hashtag began to trend, parts of the internet began to fight back.
Some users called out fake accounts using their photos. US-based Twitter user @Lizzeth_Lemon responded to a popular tweet from a new account, claiming that it was using her photo.
Another community on the internet got involved: fans of Korean pop music, also known as “k-pop”.
While K-pop fans usually use their countless social media accounts to celebrate their favourite artists and bands, they’ve also recently begun wielding their considerable online presence for other social causes, like hijacking the #whiteoutwednesday hashtag to drown out racist tweets.
These online k-pop fans began to flood the #BaldforBLM hashtag with short, K-pop videos made by fans (which are known as “fancams”).
“JUST FOUND OUT ABOUT ANOTHER FAKE HASTAG: #BaldForBLM WHICH IS A 4CHAN TROLL TAG, ONCE AGAIN. KPOP twitter from #goBaldforBLM , come TAKE THESE MOFOS DOWN,” one user tweeted.
This co-ordinated effort by K-pop fans drowned out tweets made by accounts, thwarting attempts to encourage people to shave their head.
A toxic community
Dr Kaz Ross is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania who has researched online far right groups.
She said the #BaldforBLM campaign was the latest in a series of hoaxes co-ordinated by the members of 4Chan, dating back years.
“I got sucked into it for half an hour before I realised it wasn’t real. It was just plausible enough and intensely annoying,” she said.
Dr Ross said that 4chan’s efforts are often targeted at things they perceive to be “political correctness” or “virtue signalling”.
At the peak of 4chan’s powers, they were one of the major forces behind the 2014 Gamergate movement that trolled and harassed women and other marginalised groups in the video game community.
Members of these leaderless communities will suggest an idea, Dr Ross said, and then try to get the rest of the community on board.
“Their idea is to jam up and clog up anything that’s trending, to create disinformation to discredit, to humiliate, that’s their main game,” she said.
Pretending to be a different person online isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s not uncommon to hear about catfishing, when people create a false identity to lure people into a relationship.
Outside of a romantic context, pretending to be a different race or gender is a frequent play in the internet troll playbook. In 2014, black feminists exposed 4chan users who were pretending to be women campaigning to #EndFathersDay.
Dr Ross said these attempts to imitate other people are easily exposed.
“You could see these were fake, these obviously dodgy Twitter accounts that clearly weren’t the women themselves. That’s where they went wrong,” she said.
“Try again, neckbeards”
When Sara found out about the trolling, she decided not to post about it on social media. While she felt uncomfortable that people were using her likeness and, worse yet, the image of other vulnerable women, she didn’t want to take away from the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement.
After a week, she broke her silence. She posted on Twitter about how her image had been used and gave suggestions for real ways people could support the Black Lives Matter movement.
But she couldn’t help a little dig at the end: “Try again, neckbeards. (Or like, don’t.)” she finished.