We live in the age of the virtual pillory. Across communities like YouGotPosted, the revenge-porn hub/blackmailing scheme, or 8chan’s doxxing and raid board, whose server Fredrick Brennan conveniently formatted after its admin was caught selling Social Security numbers, or Gamergate, the “cringe-worthy breakup story” that became a self-sustaining witch hunt against women in tech, a highly recognizable positive feedback loop of abuse and harassment plays out: A target gets dragged into the public eye, more people begin to abuse them, and that abuse escalates as individual trolls try to one-up each other. In the eyes of the mob, the target’s life is a game, and the object is to screw it up as much as possible.
The largest virtual pillory, and the one that best exemplifies its ethos, is Kiwi Farms, a loose community — centered on a forum and two wikis, with some activity on Tumblr, Twitter, Steam, and “lolcow” chan boards — that specializes in harassing people they perceive as being mentally ill or sexually deviant in some way.
The origins of Kiwi Farms lie, as you might expect, on 4chan. In late 2007, Sonichu, a homemade comic-book series mixing the Sonic and Pokémon franchises, came to the attention of the anarchic, anonymous message board’s video-games community, /v/. Sonichu was the work of a self-described “artist, gamer and creative type” named Christine Weston Chandler — later dubbed, using the honorific attached to anyone unfortunate enough to come to the attention of 4chan, “Chris-chan.”
Sonichu provided an unwittingly revealing look into Chandler’s life and fantasy world. Users on /v/ responded by mocking the art and its creator immediately. To them, Chandler was asking for harassment by putting the comics online. Within days of “discovering” Chris-chan, a profile about her was posted on Encyclopedia Dramatica, the wiki of record for 4chan and similar communities. After pleading with ED’s admins to remove the page, Chandler started vandalizing it, establishing an abuse/reaction cycle in which the reward for provoking her was more fodder for the mob.
Kiwi Farms (whose name wasn’t coined until 2014) grew out of the groups who harassed Chris-chan in 2007 — but it’s obsessed with Chris-chan in way the original groups no longer are, and as a result its parent communities hold KF in (mostly mutual) disdain. KF’s first wiki, “the CWCki,” was created because users felt Chandler’s page on Encyclopedia Dramatica wasn’t detailed or accurate enough. Since 2008, every drawing, video blog, tweet, Facebook post, eBay listing, Etsy item, and PSN purchase Chandler makes has been archived on the CWCki and exhaustively discussed on the forums. During this time, various accounts of hers have been hacked, and the leaked data hosted on the CWCki. A whole coterie of KF members have also pretended to be Chandler’s friends and romantic partners in order to con Chandler into giving them more embarrassing content (photos, videos, drawings, etc.), which are then used to torment her. In the most extreme instance of this, they goaded a 13-year-old boy into masquerading as a 19-year-old girl in order to have phone sex with Chandler (and record it, of course).
It doesn’t just stay online, either. KFers show up in real life to document Chris-chan’s court appearances, to photograph the Chandlers’ residence from the street, or to surreptitiously photograph Chandler herself in public places. Over the course of eight years, they’ve contacted Chandler, her pastor, and her parents, posing as journalists, former classmates, psychiatrists, potential business partners, and others, in the hopes these ruses yield more confidential info. Twice, female KFers arranged real-life dates with Chandler, both of whom used fake names and wore wires to record these outings. Packages and letters are routinely sent to Chandler’s residence, many of which contain obscene materials designed to unsettle the recipients. In one instance, someone sent prostitutes to visit Chandler’s house, then called the family to taunt them about it.
Chandler is far from the only “lolcow” to be targeted by KF. If anything, Kiwi Farms has been a victim of its own terrifying “success,” and attracted way more would-be trolls than its Ur-victim could possibly respond to. (Strewn about the KF forums and the CWCki are paradoxical admonitions to not contact Chandler, and to not organize trolling plans on the forums, in part because if too many idiots start calling the Chandler residence to yell memes at her elderly mom, she may go on hiatus again, depriving KFers of their entertainment.) For this reason, the community encourages would-be trolls to stalk other people with the same vigor, in the hopes that some of them might prove to be as “entertaining.” The selection of new marks goes through a specified process on Kiwi Farms. Judging by the people they stalk the most, Kiwi Farms preferentially selects those they perceive as mentally defective or sexually deviant in some way for their virtual pillory.
The Kiwi Farms community is obsessed with its own warped ideas about mental illness. Its justification for picking on Chandler, such as it is, has always been her perceived mental illness — first, for being autistic, and, in later years, for being transgender. That her disability is severe enough to qualify her for SSI benefits is, to her detractors, just another reason to hate her. Everyone KF targets is “crazy” to them, and everything KFers find funny or worthy of disdain is justified as evidence of this perceived mental illness. “Crazy” is both a catchall justification for anything they feel like paying attention to, and the reason KFers will indulge themselves with lengthy armchair diagnoses about their targets. Their deep and abiding scorn for people with mental illnesses leads them to classify anyone they target as mentally ill, and to focus their energy on those who appear most vulnerable. Those people tend to be minorities, women, LGBT people, or kinksters. Victims who exhibit mental strain as a result of being hounded by KFers are subject to a redoubling of efforts, in the hopes they can precipitate a breakdown. To date, one target has killed herself after being featured on Kiwi Farms, after which KF’s admin posted a note exonerating the users and forum from any responsibility for her suicide.
The doth-protest-too-much tone of obsessive stalkers scornfully describing their victims as crazy isn’t lost on Kiwi Farmers. There’s a term for those who embarrass the larger community by revealing their own eccentricities: “A-Logs.” It’s named after a former member, Anthony “A-Log” Logatto, who drew attention to himself by furiously comparing Chris-chan to Hitler. Logatto’s malicious diatribes about Chandler got him banned and rebranded as a fit mark for trolling, with those most annoyed with him leading the vanguard. After finding and investigating Logatto’s furry-porn collection and My Life As a Teenage Robot fanfiction, KF’s consensus was that A-Log hated Chris-chan because she reminded Logatto of himself — or, to put it in their terms, A-Log was “the second Chris-chan.” Consequently, KF harassed their A-Log using the same methods they perfected on Chandler, including a spinoff “Logattopedia.”
The truth is, I think it might be A-Logs all the way down. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that KF members are acting out of the same insecurity that motivated A-Log; that by ridiculing those they perceive as mentally ill or sexually deviant, KFers feel functional and successful by comparison. By putting these people up on their forums, they reject the notion that they themselves might share anything in common with their targets. And that works, so long as everyone remains anonymous and pretends not to care too much either way. A-Logs put the lie to the rationalizations that make Kiwi Farms a comfortably consumable entertainment product.
Consider that across the forums there are multiple warnings to members to conceal their identity. For KFers, anonymity isn’t a choice but a necessity — they know what they’re doing is probably illegal, and that their anonymity insulates them from any consequences. They know their “entertainment” harms vulnerable people, which is why some of them felt bad when that one target hanged herself. But, most important, they know that if their anonymity were compromised, their own community might eat them alive.