Services that enable 8chan to stay online are facing unprecedented public scrutiny after the anonymous messaging board seen as a breeding ground for white extremism was implicated in its third mass shooting this year.
Throughout the day on Monday, multiple services that were vital for keeping 8chan afloat severed ties or sought to distance themselves in the wake of the El Paso shooting, which left 22 dead and dozens more injured.
The 21-year-old suspect in the Texas attack allegedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on 8chan 20 minutes before massacring innocent shoppers at a Walmart near the U.S.-Mexico border.
8chan's future is at risk after the platform lost support from a series of companies that made up its web infrastructure on Monday.
And policymakers are ramping up their calls for action against similar sites linked to real-world violence.
President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE and former President Obama both pointed to online radicalization as a key factor in the El Paso shooting, which the suspect called a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” in the manifesto he allegedly wrote. The document echoed similar anti-immigrant screeds that were posted online before mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand and Poway, Calif., this year.
“We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump said in remarks on Monday morning. “We must shine light on the dark recesses of the Internet and stop mass murders before they start.”
Obama even more pointedly urged law enforcement and internet platforms to limit the influence of hate groups, noting that the El Paso gunman was similar to shooters before him in that he acted in order to “preserve white supremacy.”
“Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations, these individuals may act online, but they’ve been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the Internet,” Obama said.
Throughout the day, 8chan lost support from Voxility, a tech firm that briefly leased its servers to the platform, and severed ties with its former domain name registrar, Tucows — a mainstream company headquartered in Canada and incorporated in the U.S.
Most importantly, Cloudflare, a mainstream web security company that has been accused of hosting an array of hate sites, publicly announced that it would no longer work with 8chan amid intensifying public pressure on Sunday. Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince called the site “uniquely lawless.”
Tech experts told The Hill it will be exceptionally difficult for 8chan to return to its former state after losing Cloudflare, its mainstream protector.
“They’re going to have a hard time being online,” Daniel Castro, vice president at the tech-funded think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
8chan administrator Ron Watkins tweeted he is trying to “#Staythecourse,” but even Epik, the self-branded “free speech” tech company that is now hosting 8chan’s domain and tried to replace Cloudfare’s services before it was blocked by another company on Monday afternoon, has cast doubt on whether it will maintain a relationship with the messaging forum.
“We have not made a definitive decision about whether to provide [security protection] or content delivery services” for 8chan, Epik’s CEO Rob Monster said in a statement. “We will evaluate this in the coming days.” Monster also noted that he believes it is a “slippery slope” to limit “uncomfortable” speech.
Even if 8chan disappears, there is a spate of social networks known for hosting white supremacists that its users will likely run to, including Gab, which is supported by Epik, as well as parts of 4chan and, increasingly, the encrypted messaging app Telegram known as the go-to for internationalist terrorists.
Lawmakers are largely at a loss as to how to deal with the fringe networks at this point. While various committees have hauled in the country’s top social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for grillings over online extremism, the situation is murkier when it comes to sites like 8chan, which is owned by a mysterious U.S. army veteran who resides in the Philippines.
A House Homeland Security spokesman told The Hill the committee is exploring oversight options when it comes to sites like 8chan but noted “many of these companies are not based in the US and/or are not structured like other corporations.”
Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security panel, has been raising fears over the sites for months, in particular since the gunman in Christchurch posted a hate-filled manifesto to 8chan before killing 50 worshippers at two mosques.
“These fringe sites have yet to demonstrate any willingness to limit content depicting violence, torture, racism, and child pornography,” Rogers said in a statement to The Hill.
“However,” he added, “we are seeing pressure limiting their ability to operate — 8chan’s site host just terminated its contract. Our efforts should be focused on containing, counter messaging, and delegitimizing these bastions of hate.”
There are major obstacles that emerge when authorities try to take on sites like 8chan. The platform is not legally liable for any of the content users post on it. And because its users are largely within the U.S., law enforcement officials, including the FBI, are not allowed to initiate investigations into users over posts that are bigoted but don’t include any reference to violence.
Experts also often point out online radicalization is hardly isolated to those networks. YouTube has been accused of leading users down extremist “rabbit holes,” in which they search for right-wing content and emerge amid an ecosystem of fascist and neo-Nazi videos. Facebook is continually taking down white supremacist and extremist groups. And Twitter has continually failed to fully address its struggles with hate speech, doxxing and even death threats.
“Truthfully, this kind of radicalization isn’t just happening on fringe platforms like the one used by the El Paso shooter,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Russia attack 'would change the world' SALT change likely to be cut from bill, say Senate Democrats New Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case MORE (Va.), the tech-savvy top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to The Hill. “Extremists in all forms can easily exploit the reach, scale, and openness of even the most popular social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, using them as a tool to recruit other extremists and spread hate.”
Oren Segal, the head of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said he sees 8chan as being part of a “broad ecosystem of hate online.”
“Any one movement or decision made on any one platform isn’t going to magically solve the problem of extremism and hate online,” he told The Hill. “But to the degree that Cloudflare made it a little bit more difficult, even if just temporarily, that they modeled a response that demonstrates corporate responsibility. It’s a good thing.”
Segal described an “interconnectedness” between the platforms, with extremists moving between them frequently.
On Monday, a number of social media users urged Twitter to suspend 8chan’s official account with the hashtag #untwitter8chan. But so far, Twitter has not responded to their calls on the record.
Even 8chan's founder, who ended his relationship with the company earlier this year, has called for the website's end.
“8chan is full of incitements to violence,” Fredrick Brennan tweeted. “Literal mass murderers are using it but they don't seem to care. 'Embrace infamy,' the edgelords who run it say.”
“They're laughing with Brenton,” he wrote, referring to the New Zealand shooter.