Prior to carrying out a heinous act of violence that left 21 people dead and injured 25 others, the gunman responsible for the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas posted a "manifesto" on 8chan. The most recent tragedy is the third time this year that the imageboard has been linked to a mass shooting. While it has touted itself as a bastion of free speech, 8chan's tendency to attract extremist voices and serve as a gathering place for those with violent intentions has even its creator calling for it to be shut down.
What exactly is 8chan?
8chan is an imageboard, which is essentially an internet forum where topics and conversations are created around photos and images. The imageboard style became most popular in Japan, where people have created a variety of boards that host different types of content and conversations. For most English speakers, the imageboard they are most likely familiar with is 4chan, and 4chan happens to be a key element in the story of 8chan.
A derivative of popular Japanese text board 2channel or 2ch, 4chan launched in 2003 as a place for people to have conversations about manga and anime. It quickly spun off into a wide variety of topics and gained a massive following, becoming well known for (usually harmless) internet pranks and serving as a gathering place for hacktivist groups like Anonymous.
4chan has not exactly been known as a wholesome place, of course. When the site launched a politics board — known as "pol," short for "politically incorrect" — it was quickly filled with white supremacist content and a shocking amount of anti-Semitic sentiments. The site also got a reputation for threats of violence, including a host of fake bomb threats and supposed warning messages from would-be mass shooters.
4chan is not a site known for restraint, censorship, or moderation. Compared to most forums and social media sites like Facebook Twitter or Reddit, 4chan feels like the wild west. And yet the imageboard's laissez-faire approach to screening content proved to somehow be too restrictive for some members in 2014 during the Gamergate controversy. The long and short of Gamergate is unsubstantiated rumors about a female game developer turned into an organized campaign against many women working in the video game industry. 4chan served as an early home to the movement, but as members started doxing and posting personal information of women with the intent to target and harass them, 4chan's moderators banned conversation about Gamergate. That decision drove users involved in the harassment campaign off 4chan and to 8chan, which happily accepted those looking for a place to spew hate and organize online attacks.
While 4chan may seem lawless compared to much of the moderated internet, 8chan truly prided itself on having no rules. It has attracted basically every community that has been pushed off other parts of the internet for indecency and abhorrent behavior. When the body-shaming community of "FatPeopleHate" was kicked off of Reddit for violating the site's harassment policy, it moved to 8chan. When a group of cyberstalkers and doxers got too extreme for 4chan to allow, they jumped ship to 8chan. The site's supposed dedication to truly free speech on the internet has, of course, meant that it has become home to things like massive pedophilia rings. The problem has been so prominent that 8chan was de-listed by Google in 2015 for "suspected child abuse content," though it no longer appears to be completely blocked by the search engine. Patreon refused to let the site raise funds on its platform because it hosted a considerable amount of child pornography. All of that to say: 8chan is essentially a gathering place for all of the people who have proved to be too vile for the rest of the internet.
Who is responsible for 8chan?
8chan was started by Fredrick Brennan in October 2013. The 4chan regular claims to have dreamed up the concept of 8chan while experiencing a psychedelic mushroom trip. Brennan posted on the site under the moniker Hot Wheels, a nickname he gained because of his motorized scooter, which he requires to get around because he has a bone disorder known as osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease. Brennan's condition, along with a troubled childhood and family life, led to him becoming very active in online communities with other people, primarily men, who felt alone and excluded from society. Brennan created 8chan while working as a computer programmer for a Brooklyn-based company but when the position went away, Brennan moved to the Philippines to focus on running the site full-time.
Brennan's move to the Philippines was in part financially motivated, but it also came after he got involved with Jim Watkins. A 50-something Army veteran, Watkins was already living in the Philippines and operating a pig farm when he got in contact with Brennan. Watkins took interest in 8chan because of its dedication to free speech and has become the primary bankroller for the site. He's now the sole owner and operator of the site, after Brennan cut ties with 8chan in December 2018. According to Watkins, 8chan doesn't make any money but he continues to allow it to operate unabated, offering little in terms of moderation or attempts to quell hateful and violent content.
How is 8chan tied to mass shootings?
Since its beginnings, 8chan has had a presence of extremists, violence, and hate. That includes swatting incidents that sent armed police to the people's homes on false pretenses and threats to carry out bombings and shootings that have been reported to law enforcement. However, this year the site has become a destination for mass shooters.
Prior to the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings on March 15 that resulted in 51 people killed and 49 others being injured, the accused terrorist who carried out the attack posted a 74-page manifesto touting white supremacist rhetoric. The document was spread on 8chan, where some users claimed that it made them "happy" to read and said they were "ready to fight."
Just one month later, a synagogue shooting in Poway, California that killed one and left three injured was also linked to 8chan. Just before the attack was carried out, the alleged gunman posted a letter on the imageboard that praised the Christchurch shooter and once again contained language common among white supremacists.
The most recent mass shooting to be linked to 8chan took place in El Paso, Texas. Prior to carrying out the shooting, the suspected gunman took to 8chan to post some version of a manifesto. The message from the shooter contained anti-immigrant content and calls for white supremacy.
Why is 8chan still online?
8chan has been able to continue operating in large part because of Watkins. Brennan, who is no longer involved in the site, has called for it to be shut down but Watkins has thus far refused. As Popular Information has pointed out, Watkins has managed to operate 8chan mostly on his own through his company NT Technologies. Watkins has also managed to fund the site through his audiobook website, books.audio. The site hosts listings for audiobooks which are actually sold through Amazon and its audiobook service Audible. When a person buys a book through a referral from books.audio, Watkins receives a significant cut of up to 40 percent.
Because Watkins has managed to operate the site mostly on his own servers, he hasn't had to rely much on third-party services for support and therefore has a significant amount of control over the site, making it hard for anyone but him to pull the plug on it. However, following the El Paso shooting, website infrastructure and security services provider Cloudflare has finally agreed to terminate its service for 8chan. Cloudflare is an essential service for most sites to protect against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Those types of attacks flood a website with traffic and make it inaccessible to others. Without Cloudflare's protection, 8chan has struggled to remain online but is reportedly seeking an alternative source to help defend against these types of attacks.
There is no guarantee that 8chan will remain offline. Cloudflare has pulled the plug on offering services to hate groups in the past, including the white supremacist site The Daily Stormer, but those sites typically manage to find an alternative source to provide the services they require. 8chan briefly moved over to Bitmitigate, a provider similar to Cloudflare, but was quickly denied service and continues to search for another option.
At best, 8chan and its userbase will be driven farther away from the mainstream and will take root somewhere on the dark web or other locations that are hard to stumble upon. That may limit the ability of people to fall into the black hole of hate that the site provides, but it will do little to actually prevent the active users from finding and producing the disgusting content that 8chan has become known for. They will simply do it in the dark, which may be worse.