Less than an hour before killing at least 20 people and injuring some 26 more in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, the suspected shooter posted a hate-filled manifesto to the anonymous message board 8chan.
The El Paso suspect is the third shooter this year to post such a screed to the site before carrying out an act of horrific violence. And as the nation reels from another in a string of mass shootings this year, calls to shut down 8chan have never been louder.
But they are unlikely to be accomplish much, because in 2019 8chan is no longer a refuge for extremist hate — it is a window opening out to a much broader landscape of racism, radicalization, and terrorism. Shutting down the site is unlikely to eradicate this new extremist culture, because 8chan is anywhere. Pull the plug, it will appear somewhere else, in whatever locale will host it. Because there's nothing particularly special about 8chan, there are no content algorithms, hosting technology immaterial. The only thing radicalizing 8chan users are other 8chan users.
“If 8chan is shut down here is what will happen: someone else will spin up a new image board, say 20chan or whatever. People will flock to that,” Andrew Torba, the founder of Gab.ai, a far-right social media network popular with people deplatformed by Twitter told BuzzFeed News. “Or someone will create an 8chan telegram channel. Or an 8chan Gab group. Or an 8chan Gab social server hosted by someone else. Or they will go back to 4chan.”
In fact, this process is already happening. A group of users told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that it’s now common for large 4chan threads to migrate over into Discord servers before the 404.
“Remember 8chan took off in popularity in wake of the censorship of Gamergate threads on 4chan,” Torba said. “People had no problems finding 8chan when this happened and relocating there. What is to say they won't do the same if 8chan is shut down?”
For years outsiders have incorrectly thought of message boards like 8chan as platforms similar to Facebook and Twitter. The thinking goes that if you remove extremist content from a platform, it stops spreading. Last fall, far-right internet personality Alex Jones was deplatformed from every major app and has, for the most part, vanished from the national conversation.
But there is no simple solution for 8chan. There is no hoax-mongering internet personality who, deplatformed from Facebook and Twitter et al., vanishes from the national conversation. Because 8chan isn't a platform; It doesn't work this way. Ephemerality is baked into its DNA. In 2013, a computer programmer named Fredrick Brennan started 8chan as a spinoff of 4chan. At the time, Brennan believed that 4chan had become too heavily moderated and decided users needed an even more anarchic and open platform.
This is more or less the same way 4chan started a decade earlier. A user on the comedy site Something Awful named Christopher Poole decided he needed a more open platform to talk about anime and spun off to make his own. Like 4chan, 8chan incentivizes casual use. There are no log-ins or screen names. Users have no identity and thus no real ownership of what’s posted there. Threads 404 and die when they grow too large. There is no coherent center and very little structure. 8chan is more bathroom stall than an actual community. It’s a place where you can dox and SWAT someone, the place you go to to post a hate-filled prelude to a mass murder.
It’s worth noting that neither Brennan nor Poole are now involved with the sites they created, and Brennan has become a vocal proponent of shutting 8chan down. Brennan told BuzzFeed News that shutting down 8chan wouldn't stop the extremism we're now seeing entirely, but it would make it harder for them organize.
"The problems are obviously structural and societal, but it would be a somewhat effective band-aid," Brennan said. "That plus a federal assault weapons ban might make these kinds of shootings only happen every few years, and with (probably) lower body counts. Without a ban, maybe every year. Certainly not twice in 24 hours."
8chan is currently owned by a man named Jim Watkins. His company N.T. Technology manages several web properties, including 8chan and 2chan, the Japanese website that was the original inspiration for 4chan. A website as controversial as 8chan would have most likely been taken down by vigilantes by now, but it’s been protected by CloudFlare, a content delivery and security network that has been criticized over the years for helping keep the website afloat.
On Sunday night, CloudFlare decided to terminate service for 8chan. The company’s CEO, Matthew Prince, said in a blog post Sunday that 8chan would no longer be CloudFlare's problem. His blog post came with a warning, however.
"Almost exactly two years ago we made the determination to kick another disgusting site off Cloudflare's network: The Daily Stormer," Prince wrote. "That competitor at the time promoted as a feature the fact that they didn't respond to legal process. Today, the Daily Stormer is still available and still disgusting. They have bragged that they have more readers than ever."
Doug Kramer, CloudFlare’s general counsel, told BuzzFeed News hours before the company's decision to terminate 8chan that he understands that people want the company to stop working with them, but if it were to discontinue services the move could set a dangerous precedent.
“Scratching an itch in a situation like this is very problematic,” Kramer said. “Even if we did decide to take down our services, they’d still be up.”
In perhaps a glimpse of what's to come, 8chan, after being dropped by CloudFlare, briefly went offline. It was then switched to a service called BitMitigate, which also provides digital security services for The Daily Stormer. BitMitigate is owned by Epik, the web host that Gab started using after the Tree of Life shooting. After 8chan moved to BitMitigate, Epik had its own services pulled from an infrastructure company named Voxility. There's currently a 4chan thread where users are complaining about 8chan "refuges" flooding their boards.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism reported that far-right extremists were responsible for 100% of all terrorist attacks on US soil since the end of 2017. Turning off a website viewed by several million people a month isn’t going to undo that.
Deplatforming extremists can help — for instance, ISIS has been all but eliminated from social media. But it’s getting harder to do that. All of this creates a vacuum that other decentralized apps are filling. Telegram, for instance, is a hotbed of radicalization at the moment. It’s used heavily by far-right street gang the Proud Boys, and deplatformed far-right influencers like Laura Loomer have personal channels with thousands of followers each. Milo Yiannopoulos, who has been kicked off every major social media site there is, runs a Telegram channel that has over 18,000 subscribers. Could these channels grow big enough and extreme enough to inspire the real-world violence we’re seeing emerge from 8chan? It certainly seems plausible. Again, 8chan is anywhere. All it needs is an unmoderated space, and some angry like-minded people ruminating hateful, violent ideas. Where are ISIS sympathizers now? Telegram.
On Sunday night, one of the top posts on 8chan was titled “Where to go when they shut 8ch down?” The original poster wrote, “Let's be honest, at this pace, it's just a matter of time. So any recommendations? Where do you plan to go when they close this shit? Any good forum, image board, site or whatever.”
The thread is full of suggestions of other similar sites to go if and when 8chan finally goes dark.
Another user in the thread replied, “We've always had a bad reputation but now we're being linked to mass shooters. Where to go? Honestly I don't know. There are alternative chans, but even if we all migrated to one of them, it would only be a matter of time before the same problem occurred again.”
Following publication of this story, Cloudflare announced that it would no longer provide services to 8chan.