8chan: The website that gives mass shooters a voice

Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured at El Paso. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

A far-right online forum that has been linked to the mass shooting in El Paso has been taken offline amid criticism it has turned into a “cesspool of hate”.

The website 8chan has repeatedly been used by suspects in mass shootings to celebrate their killings and spread “manifestos” prior to carrying out attacks.

On Monday the website was forced to go offline when its internet security provider, Cloudflare, withdrew its services and said it would no longer protect the site.

But what is 8chan, where did it come from, and what can be done about preventing online forums spreading such hate?

What is 8chan?

The website was launched in 2013 by Fredrick Brennan, an American software developer, who wanted a “free-speech-friendly” alternative to 4chan, another controversial online forum.

Mr Brennan believed there to be a rapidly escalating surveillance and general loss of free speech on the internet, and wanted to create a site where the only rule was “do not post, request, or link to any content illegal in the United States of America”.

It quickly became attracted people espousing white supremacist thought, Islamophobia and misogyny, according to the Data & Society Research Institute, and was subsequently blacklisted from Google Search in 2015.

Users create boards where other people can comment, and there is no interaction from site administrators.

Because of minimal moderation, right-wing groups can easily circulate propaganda by using jokes, memes and disinformation to widen ethnic divisions and stir racial hatred.

Despite founding the site, Mr Brennan has since distanced himself from 8chan. He stepped down as owner in 2015 and left the company in 2018. He recently stated that the site should be shut down and publicly praised Cloudflare for removing their support on Monday.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince has been damning in his description of 8chan, calling it a “cesspool of hate” in a blog post and saying users “have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths”.

“Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”

Connections to violence

Mourners lay flowers near the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

8chan came into mainstream prominence in recent months after being linked to high-profile mass shootings.

It was used by the suspects in the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, when 51 people were murdered, and the Poway synagogue shooting in California, where one woman was killed and three injured.

Police believe the suspect behind the El Paso attack had posted to 8chan before commencing the attack.

In each case the perpetrators posted hate-speech filled manifestos, showing their racially motivated intent to cause harm to perceived threats to their country and ways of living by highlighting particular groups of people.

Users on 8chan have celebrated the mass shootings and revelled in seemingly playing a role in such carnage.

The El Paso gunman is even reported to have begun his document by saying: “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.”

Outside of mass shootings, there have been multiple boards for discussions of politically motivated violence, conspiracy theories, and child rape and pornography.

It is also renowned as being a hotbed for QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe Donald Trump is trying to take down a shadowy coterie of deep state figures, including Hillary Clinton.

Yahoo News US reported last week that the FBI now regards conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon as being a new form of domestic terrorism threat.

What can be done?

Within a few hours of losing security from Cloudflare, 8chan was able to move to one of its competitors, BitMitigate, highlighting the difficulties in removing a website completely from the internet.

Mr Prince said his company’s actions were unlikely to permanently keep 8chan offline – pointing to a previous incident where the firm cut off far-right website The Daily Stormer, only for it to reappear online using “a Cloudflare competitor”.

“I have little doubt we’ll see the same happen with 8chan. While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online,” Mr Prince said.

“It does nothing to address why mass shootings occur. It does nothing to address why portions of the population feel so disenchanted they turn to hate. In taking this action, we’ve solved our own problem, but we haven’t solved the internet’s.”

Matthew Prince, CEO of CloudFlare, speaks at the Wall Street Journal Digital conference. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

Legislation has struggled to keep up, especially with regards to online content, but some countries have taken steps.

In 2009, Germany introduced the Access Impediment Act, which blocked access to sites that distribute child pornography, and in 2017, another law came into effect that required social media companies to censor extremist and hate speech online.