El Paso massacre shines light on 8chan, a racist troll haven
The mass shooting is the latest one tangled up with the notorious site.
Queenie WongFormer Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
ExpertiseI've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art.Credentials
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Shortly before the alleged gunman behind Saturday's deadly mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, entered the store, he apparently uploaded a 2,300-word, hate-filled manifesto to the internet. The destination: 8chan, an imageboard that calls itself the "darkest reaches of the internet."
Authorities are still investigating the link between the document and the man who allegedly killed 22 people. But 8chan has already carved out a reputation as a notorious haven for racists, trolls and, increasingly, killers. The gunman who killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosque shootings in March was linked to an 87-page white nationalist screed that appeared on the site before he attacked. Another shooter suspected of killing a person at a synagogue outside San Diego in April posted links to a hate-filled open letter and tried to use 8chan to share a livestream on the site.
Copies of the manifesto tied to the El Paso shooting suspect also popped up on Twitter and Facebook. A Twitter spokesman said it was "proactively removing this content." A Facebook spokeswoman said posting the manifesto to praise or support the shooting violates its rules but sharing excerpts to condemn the violence or inform people about the shooting are allowed. Facebook is also blocking links to sites that contain the manifesto.
Online imageboards like 8chan, which allow users to post text and photos, are the latest manifestation of social media as a way to spread racism and white supremacy. Many of these sites have little or no moderation, turning them into online versions of the Wild West. Cloudflare, an internet security company, said it pulled protection from 8chan, which forced the site to go offline, because "they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple deaths."
8chan didn't respond to a request for comment. Here's what you need to know about the online messaging board:
What is 8chan?
It's an online imageboard that was created in 2013 by computer programmer Fredrick Brennan, who came up with the idea while on mushrooms. Unlike other social media sites such as Facebook, users can post anonymously and the company has allowed extremist content. 8chan, which is no longer run by Brennan, has been under fire for being a hub for white supremacists and racists.
8chan lets users post photos and texts about any topic without having to register on the site, according to an FAQ on the site. 8chan has one rule: Don't post, request or link to any content that's illegal in the US. But it doesn't moderate content the way that other tech companies do.
Brennan is no longer involved with 8chan. Jim Watkins, a US Army vet, and his son now run the site.
What's been 8chan's response to the mass shootings?
Requests for comment to 8chan's administrator email address and two Twitter accounts associated with the site weren't returned.
On Tuesday, Watkins said in a YouTube video that the gunman "posted on Instagram and not 8chan" and the company has been working with law enforcement.
"Later, someone uploaded the manifesto," he said in the video. "However, that manifesto was not uploaded by the Walmart shooter. I don't know if he wrote it or not, but it was not uploaded by the murderer that is clear."
The FBI declined to comment on Watkins' statement. Facebook-owned Instagram said it disabled an account tied to the suspect on Saturday but the account hadn't been active for more than a year.
"We have found nothing that supports this theory," a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement in response to Watkins' remarks.
The founder of 8chan, however, called for the site to be shut down.
"Shut the site down," Brennan said in an interview with The New York Times. "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."
Why isn't the site working anymore?
If you try to log on to 8chan right now, you'll see an error message that reads the "server IP address could not be found." That's because a website security company called Cloudflare has dropped the site, making it vulnerable to hackers.
Cloudflare's CEO Matthew Prince called out 8chan's bad track record when it comes to mass shootings.
"8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate," he wrote in a blog post on Monday. 8chan said in a tweet that the site might be down for 24 to 48 hours as it scrambles to find a solution.
What are imageboards and where did they come from?
8chan and 4chan, another imageboard, have most often made headlines in the US, but imageboards have a long history. Imageboards -- message boards that emphasize photos over text and are usually anonymous -- originated in Japan two decades ago.
The lineage for modern imageboards, according to The Daily Dot, goes back at least to the Japanese site 2channel, launched in 1999 by internet entrepreneur Hiroyuki Nishimura. The forum inspired the popular Japanese site Futaba, which eventually became the model for 4chan. In 2015, 4chan founder Christopher Poole said he was selling his site to Nishimura.
Like any other forum on the internet, the content on imageboards can range from mundane to niche and fringe. That includes topics like anime, junk food, cosplay or porn. But platforms like 4chan and 8chan have become notorious as gathering places for people spreading hate or extremism.
Why did people flock from 4chan to 8chan?
4chan users began to look beyond the platform in 2014, when Poole started to clamp down on threads related to Gamergate. The online movement gained notoriety for its harassment campaigns, as well as becoming an early playbook for the alt-right. As part of the campaign, users began doxxing prominent women in the gaming community, posting personal information like their home address and Social Security numbers, according to Splinter News.
Brennan, 8chan's founder, began to bill his site as a "Free Speech Friendly 4chan Alternative." In 2015, The Washington Post described 8chan as the "more-lawless, more-libertarian, more 'free' follow-up" to 4chan.
Originally published Aug. 5, 1:15 p.m. PT. Updates, Aug. 5: Adds comment from Twitter and information about copies of the manifesto. Also adds comment from Facebook. Update, Aug. 6: Adds comment from Watkins and Facebook-owned Instagram.