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8chan was briefly taken offline - it should have stayed that way

After it was linked to another mass shooting this weekend, even the site’s creator has said it “does no good for the world”.

by Alim Kheraj
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06 August 2019, 11:11am

This weekend, in the wake of two horrific mass shootings in America, the far-right web forum 8chan was briefly forced offline. Cloudflare, a company that provides additional security for websites against cyber-attacks, said it would stop protecting the site.

8chan has been linked to a number of far-right terrorist attacks this year, including the attack this weekend at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which has resulted in the deaths of 20 people. The suspected terrorist gunman in that attack allegedly posted a white nationalist manifesto on the forum, the third such manifesto to be posted to the site this year alone. The suspect in the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand also shared his own crazed white supremacist rant on 8chan, as well as a link to his Facebook live feed of the attack, while the suspected shooter in the Poway, California synagogue shooting shared a racist and anti-Semitic letter on the forum.

When 8chan was formed back in 2013, it was conceived as a space for free speech. Its creator Fredrick Brennan told the New York Times that he made the site as an alternative to 4chan, another toxic online forum which he claimed had become too restrictive. In previous interviews, the 25-year-old said that the idea for the site came to him during a psychedelic trip on magic mushrooms. A year later, 8chan came to prominence during GamerGate, an anti-feminist, sexist and right-wing reaction against progressivism centred around video games, after users from 4chan found themselves kicked off the site for their extreme views and comments. Since then, it has become a haven for online extremists.

In the wake of this weekend’s events, Cloudflare withdrew their technical support for 8chan, leaving it vulnerable to DDoS attacks, which render a website unusable after it is bombarded with traffic that overwhelms the servers. But 8chan will rise again, according to the site’s administrator who told BBC News that it is moving to another security firm.

Nevertheless, creator Fredrick Brennan (who is no longer associated with the site, which has been taken over by United States Army veteran Jim Watkins) said that he believes 8chan should be shut down. “It’s not doing the world any good,” he said. “It’s a complete negative to everybody except the users that are there. And you know what? It’s a negative to them, too. They just don’t realise it.”

While it might seem like a logical thing, Cloudflare’s decision to withdraw support from 8chan is also a controversial one. There will be some commentators, mainly right-wing libertarians, who will argue that by withdrawing support for 8chan, Cloudflare are bowing to pressure to shutter and constrict freedom of speech. Still, as Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince wrote in a blog post, Cloudflare, as a private company, owes no responsibility to uphold any freedom of speech laws. “Cloudflare's mission is to help build a better Internet,” he wrote. “At some level, firing 8chan as a customer is easy. They are uniquely lawless and that lawlessness has contributed to multiple horrific tragedies. Enough is enough.”

Even Cloudflare acknowledge that, really, it is up to politicians, governments and lawmakers to develop policies that dictate what content is and is not acceptable online and who is responsible for moderating and curtailing the spread of that content. In Europe, for example, there are conversations and plans being suggested and implemented to help tackle the dissemination of terrorist material and hate speech online (although this, too, has been met with controversy). In the USA, however, there is always resistance to such governmental interference. After the terrorist attack in Christchurch, the US government said that it would not join in attempting to tackle the publishing and spread of extremist content online. This is made even worse by the current administration’s resistance to label these attacks as what they are: acts of terror.

Following the horrific events of this past weekend, current sitting American president, Donald Trump, failed once again to label the two shootings as terrorist attacks. And it was Rihanna who called him out. “Um... Donald, you spelt ‘terrorism’ wrong! Your country had 2 terrorist attacks back to back, hours apart leaving almost 30 innocent people dead,” she wrote on Instagram. “This, just days after yet another terrorist attack in California, where a terrorist was able to LEGALLY purchase an assault rifle (AK-47) in Vegas, then drive hours to a food festival in Cali leaving 6 more people dead including a young infant baby boy!” Continuing, Rihanna also called out Trump’s stance on immigration, questioning a country where “it’s easier to get an AK-47 than a VISA”.

Still, it has only taken a few days for Trump to attempt to place blame for these events at the hands of immigrants entering America. “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform,” he tweeted.

8chan was created, in essence, to be a lawless place online, free from constriction and censorship. While it certainly lived up to its aims, it also became a digital cesspit of racist, misogynistic and bigoted hate speech. It flourished as a place where those whose beliefs have become fortified by the current American administration could congregate in safety without fear of retribution. And it also became a place where young white men could become indoctrinated into far right extremism. Attacks like those in Christchurch were celebrated, killers like Elliot Rodger are elevated to heroes.

Such behaviour is hard to combat, however, when you have a administration led by a president who is unwilling to call these attacks terrorism. It’s hard, too, when those in power not only fail to chastise beliefs like white supremacy, but actually use rhetoric that supports it. The young white men that commit these acts aren’t extremists but dubbed “mentally ill” or disturbed or, in the case of the alleged shooter in Dayton, Ohio, the victim of bullying (reports that have been refuted by people who knew him).

Of course, without gun control America won’t get anywhere. But less than 24 hours since it was forced offline, 8chan is now back, it’s existence justified under the guise of freedom of speech. And so the spread of hate speech online will continue, as will the reinforcement of white nationalist ideologies. The president will avoid the issue, deflecting the heart of it with racist fearmongering. Far-right bigotry will continue to galvanise and radicalise young white men who will continue to congregate online. The cycle too will continue, with “thoughts and prayers” the only action anyone in power is willing to take.