“If 8chan is shutdown here is what will happen: someone else will spin up a new imageboard, say 20chan or whatever. People will flock to that.”
Less than an hour before killing at least 20 people and injuring some 26 more in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, the suspected shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, posted a hate-filled manifesto to the anonymous messageboard 8chan.
He 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 shutdown 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 onto 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.
Shutting down the site is unlikely to eradicate this new extremist culture, because 8chan is anywhere
“If 8chan is shutdown here is what will happen: someone else will spin up a new imageboard, 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 shutdown?”
For years outsiders have incorrectly thought of messageboards 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, de-platformed 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 spin-off 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 screennames. 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 or 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, who owns a company called N.T. Technology, which 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 protected by CloudFlare, a content delivery and security network that has been criticized over the years for helping keep the website afloat.
Doug Kramer, CloudFlare’s general counsel, told BuzzFeed News that he understands that people want the company to stop working with 8chan, but if it were to discontinue services the move could set a dangerous precedent.
“Even if we did decide to take down our services, they’d still be up”
“Scratching an itch in a situation like this is very problematic,” Kramer said. “We would just be taking parts of the internet and opening them up and making them less secure.”
CloudFlare did cease working with one site, neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer, which they terminated in 2017. The company’s CEO, Matthew Prince, later said they plan to never take that kind of action again. The Daily Stormer is still online, reportedly getting more traffic than ever.
“We don’t host content,” Kramer said. “Even if we did decide to take down our services, they’d still be up.”
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.”