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.

Go deeper

Homeland Security Committee calls on 8chan owner to testify after mass shootings

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The bipartisan leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday sent to a letter to Jim Watkins, owner and operator of the anonymous forum 8chan, asking him to testify about his efforts to "investigate and mitigate the proliferation of extremist content" on his website.

Why it matters: The letter notes that there have been at least three acts of white supremacist violence linked to 8chan this year, including the mass shooting in El Paso this weekend. On Monday, 8chan's network service operator Cloudflare called the website a "cesspool of hate" before shutting down its services. The founder of 8chan has also called for the site to be shut down, labeling it a "receptive audience for domestic terrorists" after the suspected El Paso terrorist posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on 8chan's message board hours before opening fire.

Cloudflare pulls 8chan support after El Paso shooting

A memorial outside Walmart, near the scene of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince announced Sunday the company was pulling support for 8chan at midnight Pacific time following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this weekend.

Context: Moments before the El Paso shooting on Saturday morning, an anti-immigrant screed encouraging others to spread the message apparently posted by the suspect appeared on 8chan, per the New York Times. Prince said in a blog post it appears the suspect was inspired by the online forum.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Aug 5, 2019

White House invites tech companies to discuss "violent extremism online"

Trump makes remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House after the El Paso shooting.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House has asked unnamed "internet and technology companies" to attend a meeting with staff and senior administration officials on Friday about "violent extremism online," an administration spokesperson said Wednesday.

Why it matters: The invitation, which was first reported by Politico, comes in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which the suspected gunman allegedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on the online forum 8chan. The cybersecurity provider Cloudflare has stopped working with 8chan, which has been linked to mass shootings this year in El Paso, New Zealand and San Diego.

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