Over the weekend, British actress and U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a rousing speech at the U.N. headquarters in New York to announce the launch of Heforshe.org, a new campaign aimed at inspiring men to join the gender equality movement. It was the kind of speech that was destined to go viral — personal but relatable, inspiring but decidedly un-corny — and almost as soon as it was posted to YouTube, it racked up millions of views. Watson was lauded as a new kind of women’s movement icon, one completely unabashed about categorizing herself as a “feminist.” And because she is a strong woman with an opinion about gender, Watson immediately became the target of threats online.
Or did she?
Shortly after Watson’s speech went viral, the website EmmaYouAreNext.com began circulating on social media. Purporting to be the work of 4chan, the community seemingly responsible for the massive celebrity photo hack, the site hosted a clock that claimed to be counting down to the release of nude pictures of Watson in retaliation for her U.N. speech.
Internet users were rightly outraged, and media outlets like the BBC and Salon quickly caught on to the story: Here was another example of the men of 4chan using nonconsensual sexual objectification as a threat, reminding women that they have zero right to privacy and that their bodies can be used to discredit their work at any time.
But as the clock struck midnight early Wednesday morning, the site didn’t reveal nude photos of Watson: instead, it redirected to Rantic.com, the website of a fake viral marketing company that claimed to have instigated the Emma Watson nude photo hoax as a way to get 4chan shut down for good. Essentially, Rantic claims that it’s trying to get 4chan shut down for threatening women by … threatening women.
" We have been hired by celebrity publicists to bring this disgusting issue to attention. The recent 4chan celebrity nude leaks in past 2 months have been an invasion of privacy and is also clear indication that the internet NEEDS to be censored. Every Facebook like, share & Twitter mention will count as a social signature -- and will be step closer to shutting down www.4chan.org. "
Rantic itself doesn't actually exist, but is instead the work of the prolific pranksters behind another countdown hoax. Made up of people who go by the names Jacob Povolotski, Yasha Swag, Swenzy, and Joey B, the group is occasionally referred to as "Social VEVO." Last year, Social VEVO ripped copyrighted materials from Fox and created a similar countdown clock that promised to reveal information about Brian from Family Guy. That, too, was a hoax.
Convincing the internet that anonymous men would punish women with sexual and violent threats turns out to be remarkably easy, and that’s because it's completely within the realm of possibility. The fake Rantic expertly manipulated the internet outrage cycle, not because the mainstream media “listen[s] and believe[s] the feminist victimization narrative,” as one particularly obnoxious Reddit user put it, but precisely because women are regularly victimized online. Povolotski and team also managed to take advantage of 4chan’s terrible reputation and turn it against them: Of course 4chan would punish an outspoken feminist by publishing her nudes, people thought. That’s what 4chan does.
In the end, for Watson, the threat still existed, even if it didn't come from 4chan, and the message was clear: Speak out as a woman about gender equality and you'll be punished. In this way, Rantic's actions are almost as indefensible as 4chan's. Both compounded the feeling that women are not safe on the internet.