A rash of postings that may be related to mass shootings has put a spotlight on loosely moderated forums known as chan boards or image boards. While many people who visit these sites simply share memes or discuss video games, the sites have also become a gathering place for white supremacists and right-wing nationalists who take advantage of the freewheeling and anonymous nature of the boards.
The anything-goes attitude has led chan boards to become swamps of hateful commentary. One board in particular, 8chan, became a magnet for these posts. After suspected shooters in at least three mass shootings in 2019 posted screeds on 8chan -- including before the El Paso, Texas, massacre in early August -- 8chan was forced offline when internet security company Cloudflare and other providers decided to stop working with the site.
8chan's owner, Jim Watkins, was subpoenaed and appeared privately before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security in September and said he'd keep the site offline voluntarily until tools were developed to counter illegal content.
On Oct. 6, the 8chan Twitter account uploaded a video featuring a new name for the site:. The new Nov. 2. Watkins uploaded a video on the same day saying the site was experiencing heavy traffic.
"It is a fantastic amount of users who attempted to access at one time," he said in the video. "Although I expect setbacks and attacks, it is almost to the point already where no one man, corporation or government will be able to stifle us. Until that surprising trumpet sounds, it is likely that this movement will become unstoppable."
On Nov. 6, domain registrar Tucows removed the site saying it. 8kun is still offline.
The focus on 8chan, which allows people to post anything as long as it is legal in the US, according to its FAQ, is understandable. The man accused of killing 22 people at the Walmart in El Paso has been linked to an anti-immigrant screed posted to 8chan. Posts tied to the New Zealand mosque shooting in March and the San Diego-area synagogue shooting in April were also made on 8chan.
The site isn't alone, though. Hundreds of these boards exist, and they're relatively easy to build for those familiar with creating websites. A user of 4chan, one of the oldest chan boards, posted details of accused of attempting to shoot a mosque near Oslo in August posted a link to livestream of his act to Endchan, another board. Administrators of the site say the post was removed immediately.in August a little more than a half-hour before the news appeared on any mainstream sites. A Norwegian man
Here's what you need to know about these chan or image boards and the people who use them.
Who's the typical poster?
It's hard to know exactly. But if 4chan is our guide, a typical poster is the sort you'd probably expect: young and male. A 4chan advertising page says roughly 70% of its users are males, and most have had some college education. It lists 18- to 34-year olds as its demographic. Almost half of its users are in the US, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. Many express an interest in anime, video games and technology.
Those numbers don't capture the entire population of chan board users. A lot of people use chan boards, which let you post anonymously, to discuss issues related to being LGBT or to share amateur artwork. Some are into dressing up as anime, video game or comic book characters and posting photos of their outfits. And, of course, there are the loud, hateful trolls.
Why are chan boards controversial?
Let's get one thing straight: lots of chan boards are nothing more than places for people with intense interests in a subject to swap thoughts. If you've got a passion that's an inch wide and a mile deep, you might find a community of kindred spirits on a chan board. But because chan boards are loosely moderated and provide anonymity, they've also become a breeding ground for hateful ideas and bullying behavior. And they've spawned some illegal activity.
Project Chanology, started in 2008 and took on the Church of Scientology. That same year, University of Tennessee student David Kernell posted screenshots showing his hacking of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's email account to 4chan., the hacker collective, started out on 4chan and takes its name from the anonymity the site offers users. The group's first major hacking operation,
Chan boards don't require users to create accounts, which is a big draw. Each user can create a numbered thread or reply to one. No names are needed. Like other websites, however, users leave digital breadcrumbs, such as IP addresses, that are recorded.
Some chan boards, like 4chan, store this information so it can be retrieved later. The site has worked with the FBI on multiple occasions, providing needed information in some criminal cases. 8chan owner Watkins also confirmed his site admins worked with law enforcement following the recent mass shootings. In a statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security published Wednesday, he said the site has complied with 56 law enforcement requests in 2019 alone.
Back up a bit. Where did all this start?
Chan boards started in 1999 by a Japanese student living in Arkansas. 2channel, or 2ch for short, was an anonymous Japanese text board created by Hiroyuki Nishimura, who was a student at the University of Central Arkansas. Its surged in popularity in Japan partly due to its anonymous posting that allowed people to vent their frustrations without the worry of humiliation.
On Aug. 30, 2001, fans of 2ch created a backup board called 2chan due to concerns of 2ch shutting down. The new board, also known as Futaba Channel, was an image board unlike its predecessor and began thriving on its own. One fan of the new board was a 15-year-old Christopher "Moot" Poole who was inspired to create his own board call 4chan in his New York City Home.
As 4chan grew in popularity, some people began conducting illegal activities such as swapping stolen personal information and posting child pornography. This attracted the attention of law enforcement. Poole cracked down in 2014, driving many users away. Poole sold 4chan to Nishimura in 2015 and has since begun working at Google.
One of those former 4chan users, Fredrick "Hotwheels" Brennan, said he envisioned an alternative during a psychedelic mushroom trip in 2013. He called his site Infinitechan, which later came to be known as 8chan because the figure 8 is the symbol for infinity flipped. The board got little attention until 2014, when 4chan started cracking down on posts about , a controversy over video game culture's treatment of women that became an online proxy for the culture wars.
Brennan sniffed an opportunity and banged the drum for users to head to 8chan. They did. The surge in traffic caught the attention of Watkins, who had acquired 2chan from Nishimura in 2014. Watkins and Brennan worked together on 8chan from the Philippines until 2016, when Brennan disassociated himself from the site. He's since called for the .
8chan has been down since just after the El Paso massacre, though Watkins has promised it will go live after his Sept. 5 meeting with the House Committee on Homeland Security. In a statement to the committee published Wednesday, Watkins said he has "no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech."
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of the committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama and ranking member of the committee, released a statement Thursday following Watkins' deposition.
"We want to thank Mr. Watkins for his cooperation today," the Congressmen said in a press release. "He provided vast and helpful information to the Committee about the structure, operation and policies of 8Chan and his other companies. We look forward to his continued cooperation with the Committee as he indicated his desire to do so during today's deposition."
What are some of the popular boards? Are they safe?
4chan continues to be the most popular of the image boards, which are sites that require you to post an image to start a discussion thread. It receives more than 27 million unique visitors per month, and it's ranked in the world's top 1,000 websites, according to analytics site Alexa. 8chan's popularity has waned since the initial surge in 2014. And there are many other derivative chan boards, such as Endchan, 7chan and Dreamchan. None match 4chan's popularity, but some have active, if small, communities.
Visiting a chan site is usually harmless. Still, it's best to proceed with caution. Some users disguise links in their posts that might take you to a site that infects your computer. There's also a possibility of coming across disturbing content. So exercise common sense when browsing through posts.
Originally published Sept. 5 and updated as new developments occur.