Memorial for the August El Paso, Texas shooting by the Forward

How High Does The Body Count Have To Get Before Congress Shuts Down 8chan?

2019 will be remembered as a year of mass shooters targeting minorities. This year alone, Muslims, Jews, and Latinos were targeted by murderers in El Paso, Poway, and Christchurch, New Zealand. Though they targeted different groups in different places, these three men had something in common: 8chan.

At its core, 8chan, an image-based message-board, is a haven for both violent daydreamers and real life murderers to virtually meet, network and recruit more followers. People don’t only utilize 8chan for sharing hateful images and messages; they also use it to turn real-world killings into entertainment, canonizing the perpetrators of previous massacres and keeping track of their respective body counts, like scores in a video game.

Patrick Crusius, the alleged El Paso shooter charged with killing 22 people and injuring many more, is believed to have posted a four-page manifesto to 8chan prior to the attack, elaborating his justification for the deadly spree. Crusius claimed he was defending his country from “cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” He also expressed support for Australian white supremacist and mass-murderer Brenton Tarrant, the accused shooter in the March mosque attacks in Christchurch that left 51 people dead.

Opinion | How High Does The Body Count Have To Get Before Congress Shuts Down 8chan?

Like the El Paso shooter, Tarrant turned to 8chan to post what he called an “explanation” for his deadly rampage, providing links to his own manifesto, which he called “The Great Replacement.” In it, he fixated on the white supremacist theory that white European society will be overrun by migration from Muslim and African nations. Tarrant addressed the 8chan community directly, as if they were co-conspirators, explicitly directing them to “do your part.”

And indeed, just one month later, someone did. Before his own massacre at the Chabad Congregation in Poway, California, John Earnest linked to his own manifesto on 8chan, spouting the same kind of white supremacist tropes referenced by the Christchurch murderer as well.

Three white supremacist manifestos, three killing sprees, three cities, three different minority groups. But one message board for all.

These kinds of attacks, designed to leverage social media in order to attract maximum attention and encourage the next attack, force us to reassess the threat of hateful echo chambers like 8chan — and how they help drive extremist violence.

Opinion | How High Does The Body Count Have To Get Before Congress Shuts Down 8chan?

ADL research has shown that 8chan essentially operates as a 24/7 online white supremacist rally, though owner Jim Watkins falsely insisted in a congressional deposition last week that the platform prohibits illegal content. It was a bald-faced lie. 8chan has allowed posters to spread incitement to violence and brazen hate under the guise of free speech.

Why does Watkins and others at 8chan allow this hate to fester on the platform? Why does the company do so little to address the murderous rhetoric of its users? Why, when it was obvious that the platform served as a repository for killers’ manifestos, did the company not take decisive action?

We believe these questions must be probed more fully by members of Congress.

While 8chan is officially offline right now, Watkins’s lawyer told Mother Jones that he hopes it will be up and running again as early as next week. Meanwhile, some users are still able to access the site through a decentralized peer-to-peer hosting network.

This problem, of course, is much larger than any one platform. Removing or fixing one platform will not solve the problem of hate, extremism and incitement online because the constantly shifting nature of online ecosystems allows extremists to easily migrate from one platform to another.

Nevertheless, 8chan’s links to three white supremacist shooters in the space of only a few months gives Watkins’s deposition an extreme sense of urgency. It is an opportunity to hold Watkins to account for his choices that allow hate and violence to proliferate.

As Members of Congress assess Watkins’ answers, they should consider methods to encourage platforms to take responsibility and model responsible corporate behavior.

Opinion | How High Does The Body Count Have To Get Before Congress Shuts Down 8chan?

At the same time, Congress should be wary of one-size-fits-all regulatory reform. Free speech should be looked at not only from the point of view of perpetrators, but from that of those who are silenced by the deluge of hate and harassment.

Congress should look for legislative and other incentives for private platforms to combat hate speech, and they should be transparent and collaborative in doing so. And they should consider laws that hold the perpetrators of online hate and harassment far more accountable as well.

Decisions about these issues, by members of Congress and by Watkins and his peers, will have a lasting impact.

Simply put, the status quo endangers our communities. On 8chan, posters are keeping score of white supremicists’ body counts. Americans should also be keeping score of what is being done to mitigate this threat.

Oren Segal is Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

In a congressional deposition last week, the owner of notorious online message board 8chan, defended his company as an unparallelled champion of free speech.

The closed-door session before the House Homeland Security Committee came on the heels of a series of deadly white supremacist terrorist attacks, all linked to the platform. People don’t only utilize 8chan for sharing hateful images and messages, they also use it to turn real-world killings into entertainment, canonizing the perpetrators of previous massacres and keeping track of their respective body counts, like scores in a video game.

But at its core, 8chan is a haven for both violent daydreamers and real life murderers to virtually meet, network and recruit more followers.

Patrick Crusius, the alleged El Paso shooter charged with killing 22 people and injuring many more, is believed to have posted a four-page manifesto to 8chan prior to the attack his justification for the deadly spree, claiming he was defending his country from “cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

But the most telling thing about Crusius’s post is that in it, he also expressed support for Australian, white supremacist, mass-murderer Brenton Tarrant accused shooter in the March mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand that left 51 people dead.

Like the El Paso shooter, Tarrant turned to 8chan to post what he called an “explanation” for his deadly rampage, providing links to his own manifesto, which he called “The Great Replacement.” In it, he fixated on the white supremacist theory that white European society will be overrun by migration from Muslim and African nations.

In his manifesto, Tarrant addressed the 8chan community directly — as if they were co-conspirators — explicitly directing them to “do your part.”

And indeed, just one month later, someone did. Before his own massacre at the Chabad Congregation in Poway, California shooter linked to his own manifesto on 8chan, spouting the same kind of white supremacist tropes and referenced the Christchurch murderer as well.

Three white supremacist manifestos, three killing sprees.

One targeted Muslims, another Jews, the third Latinx and immigrants. What these three men had in common was 8chan, the platform for their final messages.

These kinds of attacks, designed to leverage social media to attract maximum attention and encourage the next attack, force us to reassess our the threat of hateful echo chambers like 8chan — and how they help drive extremist violence.

While ADL research has shown that 8chan essentially operates as a 24/7 online white supremacist rally, owner Jim Watkins reiterated in his testimony last week that the platform prohibits illegal content, and has allowed posters to spread incitement to violence and brazen hate under the guise of free speech.

Why did Watkins and others at 8chan allow this hate to fester on the platform? Why did the company do so little to address the murderous rhetoric of its users? Why, when it was obvious that the platform served as a repository for killers’ manifestos, did the company not take decisive action?

We believe these questions must be probed more fully by members of Congress.

While 8chan is officially offline right now, Watkins’s lawyer told Mother Jones that he hopes it will be up and running again as early as next week. Meanwhile, some users are still able to access the site through a decentralized peer-to-peer hosting network.

This problem, of course, is much larger than any one platform. Removing or fixing one platform will not solve the problem of hate, extremism and incitement online because the constantly shifting nature of online ecosystems allows extremists to easily migrate from one platform to another.

Nevertheless, 8chan’s links to three white supremacist spree shooters in the space of only a few months gives Watkins’s deposition an extreme sense of urgency. It is an opportunity to hold Watkins to account for his choices that allow hate and violence to proliferate.

As Members of Congress assess Watkins’ answers, they should consider methods to encourage platforms to take responsibility and model responsible corporate behavior.

At the same time, they should be wary of one-size-fits-all regulatory reform. Free speech should be looked at not only from the point of view of perpetrators, but from that of those who are silenced by the deluge of hate and harassment.

Congress should look for legislative and other incentives for private platforms to combat hate speech and they should be transparent and collaborative in doing so. And they should consider laws that hold the perpetrators of online hate and harassment far more accountable as well.

Decisions about these issues — by members of Congress and by Watkins and his peers — will have a lasting impact.

Simply put, the status quo endangers our communities. On 8chan, posters are keeping score of white supremicists’ body counts. Americans should also be keeping score of what is being done to mitigate this threat.

Oren Segal is Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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