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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

GOP implosion: Trump threats, payback

Spotted last week on a work van in Evansville, Ind. Photo: Sam Owens/The Evansville Courier & Press via Reuters

The GOP is getting torn apart by a spreading revolt against party leaders for failing to stand up for former President Trump and punish his critics.

Why it matters: Republican leaders suffered a nightmarish two months in Washington. Outside the nation’s capital, it's even worse.

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

The limits of Biden's plan to cancel student debt

Data: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax; Chart: Axios Visuals

There’s a growing consensus among Americans who want President Biden to cancel student debt — but addressing the ballooning debt burden is much more complicated than it seems.

Why it matters: Student debt is stopping millions of Americans from buying homes, buying cars and starting families. And the crisis is rapidly getting worse.

Why made-for-TV moments matter during the pandemic

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erin Schaff-Pool, Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images

In a world where most Americans are isolated and forced to laugh, cry and mourn without friends or family by their side, viral moments can offer critical opportunities to unite the country or divide it.

Driving the news: President Biden's inauguration was produced to create several made-for-social viral moments, a tactic similar to what the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign pulled off during the Democratic National Convention.

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