Numerous links to white supremacist terror may finally push 8chan offline
What comes next depends on tech and social media companies
Following last weekend’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, TX, in which a gunman killed 22 people and wounded 24 in a suspected hate crime, one of the internet’s foremost hate sites is struggling to survive.
The 21-year-old man who police say is responsible for the attack wrote a manifesto, the authenticity of which was confirmed by a federal official, in which he claimed to be fighting a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He posted the manifesto to 8chan, an imageboard website where users post messages anonymously.
Following the bloodshed in El Paso, the website security company Cloudflare dropped 8chan as a client. As 8chan had been relying on Cloudflare’s services to prevent distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks in which hackers crash servers by overwhelming them with traffic from multiple sources, the decision to sever ties with 8chan effectively knocked it offline.
In the past, Cloudflare has refused to drop clients over hateful speech. In a March 2017 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that among Cloudflare’s clientele were “at least 48 hate websites” across Europe “dedicated to recruiting, organizing and spreading extremist ideologies.”
The company had initially declined to drop The Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi website, relenting only after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, in which a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing one and wounding scores of others.
In a statement posted to Cloudflare’s blog on August 5, two days after the El Paso attack, CEO Matthew Prince explained that 8chan is “lawless” and “has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate.”
“Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community,” Prince wrote, “they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”
From its very inception, 8chan has been a font of extremist content. Founded in 2013 by Frederick “Hotwheels” Brennan, the message board was designed to be a less restrictive version of its sister site, 4chan. (Brennan stopped running 8chan a few years ago and now says he regrets his creation.)
In 2014, when 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole banned threads about Gamergate, an online harassment campaign against female game developers, disaffected users flocked to 8chan, where they could feel free to post their targets’ personal information. Just last year, Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg was “swatted” days after his address was posted to 8chan (it was also posted on 4chan, but the site seems to have deleted the posts).
In 2014, reports emerged that 8chan users were openly “shar[ing] graphic images of children, plus links to hardcore child pornography.” The following year, Google virtually blacklisted the site over “suspected child abuse content.”
Yet it wasn’t this history of “lawless” behavior that convinced Prince to drop 8chan as a client. Instead, it was the growing body count. In 2019 alone, 8chan has been linked to three separate acts of white supremacist terror, including the mass shooting in El Paso, which have left a total of 74 people dead.
In March, a white supremacist gunned down 51 worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Prior to the attack, he posted a link to a 74-page manifesto on 8chan’s “politically incorrect” board, “/pol/,” along with a link to a livestream of the carnage.
The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto promoted the white supremacist “great replacement” theory -- the belief that white populations are being systematically replaced by way of low white birthrates coupled with non-white immigration -- and was replete with memes and inside jokes. It was a language the users of 8chan spoke fluently.
Over a month after the Christchurch shootings, another young white supremacist opened fire on a synagogue in Poway, CA, killing one and wounding three others. He too posted a link to a manifesto on 8chan, which accused the Jewish people of deicide, among a litany of other imagined crimes.
In response to these three shootings, Prince wrote that Cloudflare “draw[s] the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design” and that 8chan “will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services.”
What happened next was akin to a game of whack-a-mole.
8chan sought the protection of BitMitigate, a Vancouver-based cybersecurity company that protects websites from DDoS attacks. The company was acquired in February by Epik, a domain registrar that routinely provides its services to white supremacist and far-right websites. Shortly after 8chan secured the services of BitMitigate, Stanford researcher Alex Stamos tweeted that Epik actually rents servers from a company called Voxility. Voxility responded by cutting ties with Epik, at once knocking both 8chan and The Daily Stormer, which also used BitMitigate, offline.
In a video posted to his YouTube channel, Jim Watkins, whose company N.T. Technology currently owns 8chan, blasted the decisions from Cloudflare and Voxility as “cowardly” and “sinister behavior.” As taps played in the background, Watkins solemnly told viewers that it was now “time [for 8chan] to find a new home.”
One of the “new home[s]” is apparently ZeroNet, a “decentralized and open-source peer-to-peer version of the internet.” On ZeroNet, 8chan can be even more lawless, and “users leave themselves exposed to illegal content like child pornography.” As a user on the white supremacist online forum Stormfront crowed, “The Jews along with their C.I.A. spooks and government puppets can't touch it.”
In an August 6 tweet, however, 8chan moderator Ron Watkins -- Jim Watkins’ son -- stated that the version of 8chan hosted on ZeroNet “was not made by our team” and he had “no idea who set that up.”
In any case, 8chan’s struggle to stay online highlights the positives and pitfalls of deplatforming. On the one hand, cutting off a white supremacist website’s means of operating online, or choking off its finances, can effectively disrupt white supremacists’ ability to organize and spread their propaganda, especially in the short term.
On the other, white supremacists will search for alternatives to spread their hate. As Cloudflare’s Prince correctly predicted, 8chan quickly returned after his company banned it, using a competitor’s services to do so. “While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online,” he wrote.
At this very moment, white supremacists are using the messaging app Telegram to spread violent and racist rhetoric, including calls to murder law enforcement officials and attack places of worship. Twitter still allows scores of high-profile white supremacists to maintain accounts, some of them verified.
8chan currently operates a verified Twitter account, in spite of recent calls to #untwitter8chan. Even Amazon, the world’s largest and most profitable online retailer, provides assistance to white supremacists by allowing them to sell their products through its website. As The Daily Beast reported, this includes allowing Books.audio, another company that Watkins owns, to sell audiobooks on the platform.
Ultimately, it will take a concerted effort by tech and social media companies to keep hate and extremism offline. Otherwise, it will always find a way back.
Oliver Mushtare is a freelance writer and attorney who researches white supremacists and other extremist movements. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from SUNY Cortland and a law degree from Western New England University School of Law.