A mass shooting by a white supremacist at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019, shocked Americans across the nation. The horrific attack left 22 people dead and even more injured. Shortly before the attack, alleged shooter Patrick Crusius is believed to have posted a manifesto on the website 8chan. The four-page screed was intended to provide a justification for his deadly spree.
It is not the first time a white supremacist killer has followed precisely this ritual.
A month later, in April 2019, white supremacist John Earnest allegedly opened fire inside a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, killing one person and wounding three more before he surrendered. He, too, posted a manifesto to 8chan before his attack, which referred admiringly to Tarrant and to Robert Bowers, the mass shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.
Three white supremacist manifestos. Three killing sprees. One targeted Muslims, another Jews, the third Hispanics. What they all had in common was 8chan.
In mid-April 2019, ADL’s Center on Extremism and the Network Contagion Research Institute conducted a study of 8chan and the social networking site Gab, analyzing on-line behavior in connection with killing sprees of Brenton Tarrant, who used 8chan, and Robert Bowers, who posted on Gab.
The investigation revealed that murderous, even genocidal, language was pervasive on 8chan, “suggesting the next Bowers or the next Tarrant could emerge at any moment.”
Those words turned out to be sadly prophetic.
Cesspool of Incitement
In just six years, 8chan has achieved a rather unenviable reputation as one of the vilest places on the Internet.
Imageboards are a type of online discussion forum centered around posting images, and 8chan began as an offshoot of the imageboard 4chan. They are typically anonymous, with no screen names. That anonymity allows people to post outrageous, disgusting or hateful photos and messages, ranging from hate speech to posts about pedophilia.
4chan, one of the oldest and most popular imageboards, launched in 2003 and introduced often wildly popular and contagious memes (many of which are still circulating today). However, parts of 4chan—especially its Politically Incorrect board, known as pol or /pol/-- developed a reputation for malicious, offensive and often hateful posts and memes.
But because 4chan had an informal set of “rules” for posters, and insisted on occasionally enforcing them, two men, Fredrick Brennan and Jim Watkins, created an even less restrictive alternative. 8chan, which began operation in 2013, was designed to allow any sort of speech short of content considered illegal in the United States. The site’s policy reads: “Do not post, request, or link to any content illegal in the United States of America. Do not create boards with the sole purpose of posting or spreading such content." These restrictions offer legal cover to the site but do very little to hamper posters’ ability to share and promote the worst imaginable subject matter.
Like 4chan, 8chan had its /pol/ section, which quickly became the ultimate haven for offensive and incendiary speech. Small at first, 8chan grew considerably during “Gamergate,” a coordinated harassment campaign that targeted women in the games industry that also targeted individuals belonging to a wide cross section of marginalized groups who called for and were working toward games becoming more inclusive.
When 4chan began cracking down on message threads that doxed, or exposed, personal information about women in the video game world who were critical of the gaming environment, Gamergate harassers discovered that 8chan had no such compunctions. Indeed, 8chan had few compunctions about anything, and even allowed pedophilia forums to flourish.
From Memes to Radicalization
Given its purpose and users, it should come as no surprise that 8chan is a common source for—and a not infrequent originator of -- objectionable propaganda, hoaxes and conspiracies. The propaganda on offer includes the anti-Semitic “Happy Merchant” meme, which features a cartoon image of a stereotypically greedy Jew, and obscure hateful works like the racist and anti-Semitic 19th century book Might is Right: Survival of the Fittest. This book was recommended by mass shooter Santino Legan, shortly before his killing spree in Gilroy, California. It remains unclear whether Legan himself had white supremacist beliefs.
Like its cousin 4chan, 8chan is also well known for promoting hoaxes. Users from both imageboards participated in a 2015 attempt to fool the country into thinking that a number of alleged “White Student Union” groups had formed at college campuses across the country and were calling for a race war.
The site’s users have also played a role in one of the most prominent hoaxes/conspiracy theories in recent years, the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon is an elaborate running conspiracy theory based on online postings by someone known as Q, which claims that President Trump is running an multi-dimensional deception campaign designed to ensnare a huge number of his enemies, who are actually part of a pedophile conspiracy. Q initially posted on 4chan but quickly moved to 8chan.
One might think that 8chan’s user base would make it a ripe recruiting ground for white supremacist groups, but this has not really been the case. One group, the American Identity Movement (formerly known as Identity Evropa), tried a recruiting pitch on 8chan in April 2019, telling users that they should consider joining AIM and promising that the “future is bright” and they will “preserve our western identity and rid themselves of the rootless elite [i.e., Jews].” However, their pitch only elicited abuse from 8chan members.
If 8chan’s inherent intractability may not make it a great place for recruitment by organized white supremacist groups, it nevertheless serves as a platform for radicalization, providing new members (known as “newfags”) with exposure to white supremacist propaganda and grievances -- and even to participate in calls to action.
Even if they are not open to recruitment by white supremacist groups, 8chan users are typically receptive to harassment campaigns, dating back to the site’s early years and Gamergate-era harassment of women. In early 2015, 8chan users targeted Oregon-based digital artist Grace Lynn, who criticized 8chan, with a “swatting” attempt. “Swatting” is a form of harassment in which people falsely allege criminal activity on the part of the victim in order to send police (i.e., the Special Weapons and Tactics “SWAT” team) to their home. In 2016, a Canadian writer based in Austria was a victim of online harassment by 8chan users after she criticized an article suggesting employees at various companies were making false mental health claims to their employers.
There have been numerous targets and victims of 8chan harassment. During the 2016 presidential election, many alt right activists targeted journalists, especially Jewish journalists, with anti-Semitic harassment. Apparently unwilling to be outdone, in October 2016, 8chan users compiled lists of journalists, then tweeted out photos of the journalists with red Xs over their faces.
In June 2019, 8chan users targeted a Jewish candidate for Seattle City Council. Targeting Jews is nothing new for 8chan users. In May 2019 someone started a “Where to Find Jews” thread, so that they could be “removed from power.” This elicited an enthusiastic array of responses, including one anonymous poster who suggested meetings of injury lawyers, Jewish delicatessens and bakeries and “Jewish ‘community centers.’ To get young ones.” He added: “Lots of targets.”
Violence and Reactions to Violence
8chan is not the only white supremacist-centric website that has been linked to violence. Over the years a number of violent white supremacists have had a presence on Stormfront, the oldest white supremacist website. Vanguard News Network was the preferred website of anti-Semitic shooter Frazier Glenn Miller. Extremists who wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis in 2015 had a connection to 4chan, among other sites.
But 8chan is the only site that has been the chosen repository for final messages and manifestos written by three white supremacist spree shooters in the space of only a few months. That is especially chilling, in part because 8chan often seems to perpetuate a copycat effect. Several weeks before John Earnest launched his attack on the Poway synagogue, he vandalized a mosque in Escondido, California, spray-painting “For Brenton Tarrant t. /pol/” on the mosque’s parking lot—a clear reference to 8chan. When Earnest did make a post on 8chan providing a link to his manifesto, the FBI subsequently noted in an internal memo, Earnest formatted his post just as Tarrant had formatted his own announcement.
Reactions by 8chan users to attacks such as those perpetrated by Tarrant and Earnest serve to spur on would-be shooters (the ability to examine reactions on 8chan to Crucius’s El Paso attack have been complicated by the fact that some of 8chan’s service providers have dropped the site, leading to outages) The Washington Post characterized 8chan user reactions to Tarrant’s attack as making the site look like a “terrorist recruiting site.” The reactions apparently even surprised Frederick Brennan, one of the site’s founders, who walked away from the site in 2015. “Fifty people are dead, and they’re in total ecstasy,” he told the Post, referring to 8chan users.
Users’ reaction after Earnest’s attack was similar. In fact, the very first reaction to Earnest’s post on 8chan announcing his plan was a user urging him to get a “high score.” Subsequent reactions were similar, as evidenced by the “John Earnest Appreciation Thread.” Some of the thread’s hundreds of posts referred to the woman killed in the attack as “THE DEAD KIKESS” and “the annihilated rat.” Some criticized Earnest because he only succeeded in killing one person, while others defended him by claiming that “1 dead kike is better than 0 dead kikes” and that “just wacking ONLY one Jew makes it kinda more better and symbolic [sic].”
Based on what has happened to other platforms in recent years, it seems likely that 8chan will reemerge in the coming days, using a new service provider. When it does, companies that work with the site will be faced with a complicated moral assessment that comes with hosting a platform linked so directly to hate and incitement. These decisions will have a lasting impact on both policy and public debate surrounding free speech and technology.