Time could be up for anonymous message site 8chan. Three gunmen behind three mass shootings all allegedly used the site to promote their crimes via their “manifestos”. Law enforcement is confident the latest was the El Paso gunman, who killed at least 22 people.
What is 8chan and who created it?
Founded in 2013, 8chan is an anonymous online message board without any content moderation, which means that anyone can post about anything they like and be unaccountable for it. On 8chan, anything goes as long as it's not explicitly illegal in the US.
This is not the first time 8chan plays a central role in a mass shooting. The El Paso shooting was the third instance of a shooter reportedly sharing a "manifesto" to the site before going on a rampage. It was also used by the perpetrator of a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques in the spring and another at a California synagogue.
So what's being done about the site?
“Enough is enough” 8chan’s service provider said on Monday. Cloudflare, which provided the cybersecurity and support that kept 8chan online through years of controversy, announced they would no longer be working with the site. “A cesspool of hate” is how it was described by Cloudflare founder Matthew Prince in a stinging parting shot.
8chan is now desperately looking for ways to stay online, warning users to expect service disturbances.
For many, the time had come to take down 8chan altogether.
8chan was able to find a new online host: Epik.com who calls itself "the Swiss bank of domains". Epik also owns the security company BitMitigate.
But on Monday, London-based Voxility, a provider of network hardware and services upended both Epik and BitMitigate by terminating its contracts with both companies, said Maria Sirbu, the company’s vice president of business development.
“We have made the connection that at least two or three of the latest mass shooting in the U.S. were connected with these guys,” Sirbu said. “At some point, somebody needed to make the decision on where the limit is between what is illegal and what is freedom of speech and today it had to be us.”
'The problem isn't 8chan, it's Americans'
But for many others, this is not simply an 8chan issue. This is an issue for the whole of the internet — and for society as a whole.
A piece by Ryan Broderick, a Senior Reporter with Buzzfeed News, generated a lot of debate on social media.
Broderick argued that "the problem isn't 8chan, it's Americans."
Speaking to Euronews he explained: "The issue is 8chan isn't like Facebook, it isn't like Instagram, it isn't like Youtube. It doesn't have anything in it that dictates what you see, it doesn't have any algorithms. It's just a message board. The same as any other website. Which means that any website could become 8chan. It's just that the users there are unmoderated, and the things they are talking about could go anywhere."
It isn't that extremists shouldn't be de-platformed, Broderick argued.
Pointing to ISIS as a successful example Broderick said, "We used to see beheadings all the time. Now we don't. They're not really on any mainstream social media any more."
However, for Broderick, this is a much broader issue. Compared to organisations like ISIS, Broderick argued: “8chan isn’t one person, one organisation. It’s an anonymous collection of people who could find each other anywhere else.”
Media attention is what shooters seek
For Joan Donovan, Director of the Technology and Social Change research project at Harvard University, the problem is not necessarily the message board but the amount of media attention put into these "manifestos". According to Donovan, perpetrators rely on this to reach new audiences.
"As long as we’ve had the internet we’ve had white supremacists messages boards [...] What is confounding about the current moment is that particularly on anonymous message boards like 8chan, the users know essentially that journalists, police officers, experts, and other people are looking in those spaces for manifestos or for confessions of crime," said Donovan.
Donovan argued that real change will come when "journalists, researchers, police, as well as platform companies understand that the goal of placing 'manifestos' on message boards is to ensure that it moves to more visible places online."
So should journalists rethink the importance given to these posts? The professor thinks so.
"I think it’s important that we act responsibly in terms of our reporting and paraphrase a 'manifesto' and not read directly from it or foreground the issues that this person raised. Instead, we need to tell the stories of the victims and humanise these people so that they are not murdered in vain," said Donovan.
For now, disrupting their infrastructure is not a bad start said Donovan since this also disrupts their pipeline to the press and "has a real impact insuring that the violence they carry out isn't accompanied by widespread talk of their intentions."