Last week, trolls from 4chan executed a highly effective crowd-sourced intelligence operation, one that should serve as a case study in modern information warfare.

In what illustrates the power of a decentralized and flat operational hierarchy, internet trolls from the website 4chan targeted and shut down actor Shia Labeouf and his recent “He Will Not Divide Us” protest artwork through collaborative intelligence gathering.

In its original form, Labeouf had installed a 24-hour livestream camera outside a New York art museum on January 20th, where passersby were encouraged to stand and communicate messages of support for the protest. After it became the site of numerous disruptions and fights, it was moved to New Mexico, where it also only lasted a short while.

image courtesy of YouTube
LaBeouf at his original “He Will Not Divide Us” protest. Image courtesy of YouTube

Labeouf then altered the delivery of the protest by placing a simple white flag, bearing the message “He Will Not Divide Us,” in an anonymous location somewhere on planet Earth. The 24/7 video live-stream was only looking up at the flagpole, showing the flag and the sky behind it, day and night.

Inside of 36 hours, users from the internet forum 4chan located, removed, and replaced the protest flag with a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” red hat, and a t-shirt depicting Pepe the Frog.

As soon as the video stream had gone live the day prior, 4chan users began to analyze the video footage in an attempt to deduce its location. Through a collaborative, crowd-sourced effort, users began to piece together the location through several clues.

After LaBeouf was tagged on social media in Greenville, Tennessee, the search had a starting point: rural Tennessee.

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Noticing several aircraft cross through the video frame behind the flag, flight patterns in the skies above Tennessee were analyzed to find a match. Once they had a general estimate, they realized the area in rural Tennessee was too large to search on the ground.

Image courtesy of Barstool Sports
Triangulated flight patterns led to a general search area

That night, a user analyzed the movements of stars across the frame, using known constellations as reference points to better pinpoint the location of the flagpole.

Image courtesy of Barstool Sports
Knowledge of constellations and general astronomy further narrowed the location

Image courtesy of Barstool Sports

The next morning, a 4chan user got into a vehicle and drove into the suspected vicinity of the flag, and began to honk the horn, letting other users watching the live feed vector him onto the objective. That night, the snatch was made.

Beyond the snarky glee people can enjoy by watching internet trolls frustrate a celebrity over and over, this incident highlights some key implications about the power of crowd-sourced intelligence operations.

  1. No formal leadership hierarchy was directing any aspect of the operation. Completely organic and operatives were united purely by political or ideological reasons.
  2. Anonymous users all voluntarily contributed individual efforts to build a common operating picture.
  3. Easily accessible and unclassified information over the internet allowed real-time, collaborative intelligence gathering.
  4. Decentralized operations enabled a local supporter to act quickly. With 4chan operating on anonymity, in the event he was compromised, no ‘chain of command’ or anyone else could conceivably be implicated in the plot.

While this episode of capture the flag is essentially a victim-less crime, the operation was conceptually sound, and if anything should give us pause to consider what other forms this sort of mischief could take if the actors had nefarious or criminal intent.

Also, I’m willing to bet the guys from 4chan could’ve found Bin Laden inside of 30 minutes with their demonstrated level of motivation and coordination

Note: As of 22 March, LaBeouf has erected the He Will Not Divide Us flag on top of an art museum in Liverpool, England. Users on the 4chan Facebook page are currently in the planning stages to potentially steal the flag again.

Images courtesy of Barstool sports