Before the Christchurch Mosque shooting, so many of us were blissfully unaware of the website 8chan and of the extreme beliefs often expressed there. That tragedy, followed now by the Poway Synagogue attack and the El Paso Texas shooting, have generated considerable scrutiny for the site. The similarities between the attacks appear to point to a connection between the site and terrorist threats. Now, 8chan is being portrayed in the media as a hub for white nationalist radicalization and a promotional vehicle for extreme threats. The Call to Action in recent months has been to scrub the Internet of this type of dialogue but ultimately we are in the dawn of a new era of crime, one where all criminal activity in the real world has its online counterpart. The real problem is bigger and more frightening than just a single website.
Terrorism, 8chan & The Call to Action
The Christchurch Mosque shooting, the Poway Synagogue shooting and the El Paso Texas Walmart shooting have many things in common. The media has focused on a single commonality: in the case of all three attacks, the events were foreshadowed by ominous posts on the 8chan /pol/ (political) message board. The response has been to compel site operators to shut down 8chan in order to stop the spread of violent extremist beliefs.
Christchurch Mosque, New Zealand
Poway Synagogue, San Diego, California
Walmart, El Paso, Texas
So will shutting down 8chan solve the problem? A 2018 report by the UK advocacy group Hope Not Hate found that while social media companies are increasingly blocking leading far-right propagandists figures from their platforms, online hate continues to trend upward. Russell Foster, a lecturer in Britain and European Integration from King’s College London, said the Call to Action amounts to “nothing” and only “plays into the hands” of the extreme right. Not only does it not eliminate them, but they also use this to justify their grievances and drives them further into underground forums.
Consider, for example, that 8chan rose to prominence as Pro-Gamergate commentators on 4chan flocked to 8chan following the decision to moderate the discussion about Gamergate on 4chan. Many supporters of Gamergate oppose what they view as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture. Gamergate is often viewed as a right-wing backlash against progress. The foundation then for 8chan’s user base was aggrieved 4chan users.
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Though 8chan has experienced outages, there are reports that the website remains up through technical tweaks but this cannot be confirmed. The website also remains active through its ‘.onion’ address, which is only accessible on the Dark Web using a Tor browser. A copy of the site has also been uploaded to Zeronet, a decentralized platform developed to support free and uncensored communication. It appears that an 8chan user and not the operators of the site have posted the site to Zeronet, but it does remain a possibility as 8chan considers what to do next. Zeronet, notably, was also used for a time by the Islamic State to spread their own propaganda. It is fairly clear at this point, following the statement by Jim Watkins, that the site has no plans to shut down.
Statement from Jim Watkins, owner of 8chan, regarding recent events:
— 8chan (8ch.net) (@infinitechan) August 6, 2019
Statement by Jim Watkins, Owner of 8chan, August 6, 2019
Still, despite the issues with the site, communication can continue in other places as well. Private and uncensored conversations can happen in many places. Discord is a perfect example. Developed to support chatting with other players while gaming, it has become a popular and more private way of having group chats with like-minded people. Voat and Gab are both supporters of free and uncensored speech and have become popular social media alternatives for the extreme right. There is no shortage of ways to communicate online and there are many options for Web users looking to express even the most controversial opinions online.
Even the simple PDF could be said to play a role. Innocuous alone, PDFs have made easy the proliferation of dangerous long-form texts that would have been hard to locate before the Internet. The Great Replacement, for example, written in 2011 by Renard Camus, is being used to prop up the views of the extreme right and references to this text has grown considerably since 2014. These kinds of texts, when taken out of context and consumed in a vacuum, are easily shared and are being used to radicalize young people toward hate and racism. Without the PDF, print-ready and easy to read, this might not be possible.
Ultimately, there are many ways for the extreme right to communicate and 8chan is only one piece in a very complex puzzle.
What Comes Next?
In the beginning, the Internet was a place where one could express facets of their identity or construct new fabricated identities. For younger persons coming of age in the digital era, the Internet has helped shape their identities with as much influence as family and education provides. The danger in this is that the Internet is also a useful tool for radicalization, and this is exactly what is happening.
Shutting down 8chan and the Call to Action for censorship on social media is not a final solution. This strategy only helps drive extremist individuals and groups deeper into the shadows, making it more challenging than ever for security professionals to search for and locate the right intelligence. While stopping the attacks before they happen is still out of reach, Media Sonar’s specialized investigative software can help law enforcement and government understand and begin to address the problem of violence by the extreme right. Media Sonar supports increased visibility into hidden services and websites that appeal to extremist groups, and enables feasible and more efficient intelligence gathering in the digital era of crime.