August 5, 2019
After the shocking brutality of America's gun violence this weekend, which saw two mass shootings in less than 24 hours, the usual cast has been assembled in the docks by media pundits and government officials – video games, gun laws and the internet. One site under particular scrutiny is 8chan, an online message board with a volatile history and close connection to previous massacres.
8chan has long held a reputation as a hotbed of abusive and xenophobic messaging, and it's believed to have played a role in spurring on the perpetrator of the latest shooting. This controversy has seen one of its service providers, CloudFlare, withdraw it service entirely, forcing the site offline at the time of writing.
Why has CloudFlare made this decision now, after staunchly refusing to take action on similar occasions? And what next for the future of 8chan?
Why is 8chan in the News?
8chan was created in 2013, as an alternative to the popular 4chan messageboard. While 4chan isn't without its controversies, user Fredrick Brennan expressed concerns over surveillance and freedom of speech on the site. And thus, 8chan was born. This is reflected in the one enforced rule on 8chan – no content illegal in the US is to be posted. Anything else, however, is fair game.
Early on, the site became a focal point for many unsavoury acts by its users, including swatting (whereby fake hostage situations are reported, resulting in armed response teams being sent to users' homes), conspiracy theories, child pornography (which got the site delisted by Google) and messaging relating to mass shootings. For the last one, some perpetrators of these crimes have been found to have been active users of 8chan, posting their rhetoric on the site and being egged on by others users to carry out these atrocities.
In the case of this weekend's El Paso, Texas shooting, in which twenty people lost their lives, the gunman had posted a manifesto to 8chan, shortly before embarking on his killing spree.
Similarly, during the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, the gunman posted a live video of the events on 8chan, which showed his attack on worshippers that left 51 dead and 50 injured.
CloudFlare Removes Service
One of the services used by 8chan is CloudFlare. While the CloudFlare business doesn't host the 8chan site, it does mask its IP address. This is a common step for most websites as a security measure. This means that they are less susceptible to Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks that could bring the site down.
CloudFlare's decision wasn't immediate. In fact, shortly after the attack, CloudFlare CEO, Matthew Prince, stated that his company would not remove 8chan's service, given CloudFlare's desire to stay neutral and apolitical. In an interview with the Guardian, Prince stated:
“It would be the easiest thing in the world and it would feel incredibly good for us to kick 8chan off our network, but I think it would step away from the obligation that we have and cause that community to still exist and be more lawless over time” – Matthew Prince
The next day however, Prince had changed his tune, perhaps due to the overwhelming pressure from the public in reaction to not only the El Paso shooting, but also the Ohio shooting that happened just hours after the events in Texas, and saw another 9 people killed. In a statement on the CloudFlare website, Prince wrote:
“We just sent notice that we are terminating 8chan as a customer effective at midnight tonight Pacific Time. The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit” – Matthew Prince
It's not the first time Prince and his company have cut loose a customer. In 2017, just after the Charlottesville”‘Unite the Right” rally that saw one protester lose her life, service was withdrawn from the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer. Much like 8chan now, this move forced it off the internet – although it has since returned. Even at the time, Prince expressed regret at these actions, telling staff in an company email:
“I am deeply uncomfortable with the decision we made. It doesn’t align with our principles” – Matthew Prince
What Next for 8chan?
Right now, 8chan is offline, a move that has all but been necessitated by CloudFlare removing its service. However, like the Daily Stormer, this is likely to be a temporary problem, and it's unlikely to take long for the site to find a new service provider.
The site's creator and former owner, Frederick Brennan, who severed ties with 8chan last year, believes that its time is, rightly, up. In a recent interview, Brennan said:
“Shut the site down. It’s not doing the world any good. 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 realize it” – Frederick Brennan
Not everyone agrees though. Some argue, including CloudFlare before its recent change of stance, that having 8Chan ‘out in the open' makes it easier to track perpertrators of crimes and bring them to justice. The worry from some quarters is that by removing 8chan, its users will just be forced to reconvene somewhere else, in a place that's a lot less visible to authorities, like the dark web.
Does De-Platforming Work?
De-Platforming, that is, removing the publication tools from an individual or group in order to silence them, can have mixed results, and companies tend to be reluctant to do it. While alt-right pundits like Alex Jones, who vocally pushed conspiracy theories and far right viewpoints, is now absent from Twitter, Facebook and just about any other platform you care to mention, it took many years for these companies to shut him out. In Jones' case, it's been successful, and his online cache has all-but dried up.
Milo Yiannopoulos, a British far-right commentator who became famous for provocative soundbites online, has also suffered a similar fate. When Twitter banned him in 2016, he moved to other platforms. But, as these cut him off also, he lost his audience. This culminated in a book deal falling through, and like Jones, Yiannopoulos becoming all but irrelevant. Even a crowdfunding page set up to allow him to “Get back on my feet” was curtly closed by Patreon in less than 24 hours, also netting him yet another ban.
While it seems fairly easy to de-platform individuals, it appears that groups are a lot more resilient. Communities such as the Daily Stormer have been able to bounce back, thanks to an active and mobilized user base. It's likely to be a similar case for 8chan, and while CloudFlare's (eventual) actions are to be applauded, there are bigger questions that need to be answered about how harmful sites likes these are to be tackled in the future.
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