Aug 5, 2019

What to do about 8chan, the net's atrocity megaphone

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The apparent posting of a racist manifesto by the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting has raised a new outcry over the role of 8chan, an anonymous chat site, in fomenting violent hate crimes.

  • 8chan was also the message board where the perpetrators of March's Christchurch mosque shootings and April's San Diego synagogue attack chose to post their manifestos.

Why it matters: The internet was built by true believers of free speech and has flourished by "assuming good intentions." But the combination of anonymous hate-mongering and abundant guns in the U.S. has weaponized the online world way beyond the level of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Driving the news: Late Sunday, security provider Cloudflare announced it would stop providing service to 8chan.

  • "We reluctantly tolerate content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design," Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote.
  • CloudFlare took the Daily Stormer offline in 2017, but Prince wrote at the time that he didn't want his company's position as a key cog in the network to turn it into an internet cop. Sunday he reiterated, "We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often."
  • Cloudflare's move could render the site vulnerable to service-disrupting attacks, or — as Prince predicts — 8chan could find another provider with fewer scruples.
  • Tucows, which provides domain registry service to 8chan, has said it has "no immediate plans" to take action against the message board, per the New York Times.

Background:

  • 8chan was founded in 2013 by Fredrick Brennan as an alternative to 4chan, the site that first popularized the anonymous-posting format and sparked the emergence of the Anonymous hacktivist phenomenon.
  • When 4chan began cracking down on hate speech during the Gamergate controversy in 2014, 8chan promised an anything-goes zone.
  • Since 2015, it has been operated by Jim Watkins out of the Philippines. Brennan is no longer affiliated and for 6 months has been urging that it be shut down — a call he renewed after the El Paso massacre.

The other side: 8chan has said that it removes posts like the shooting manifestos within minutes.

  • Nonetheless, the site effectively serves as an initial point of distribution for such documents. It also provides perpetrators of violence with an audience that ghoulishly "gamifies" their acts and cheers their "high scores" of dead.

Yes, but: For every proponent of shutting 8chan down, there's another arguing that's futile since the board's users will keep hopping to new spaces.

Our thought bubble: That's bound to happen, as the origins of 8chan itself prove. Nonetheless, making hateful communications harder to find might have value in itself — and it's a strategy Western governments and businesses have had no difficulty enacting when the target was al-Qaeda or ISIS.

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