Before the hate site 8chan was shut down early last week, one user posted a cartoon image of Adolf Hitler looking out over a gathering army. The caption simply said, “This,” implying that users were the legacy of Nazism and ready to wage a new war.
While a post about a gathering Nazi army may strike some as chilling though not necessarily analogous to today’s reality, experts and government officials warn that the U.S. does in fact face a serious domestic terror threat — and that 8chan plays a role in assembling the troops.
The Anti-Defamation League reported last week that white supremacists have committed at least 73 murders since the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally in 2017. (Late last week, a 23-year-old man was arrested on charges of planning to bomb a synagogue in Las Vegas. According to the Justice Department, the suspect, Conor Climo, was having encrypted online conversations with people who identified with a white supremacist group.)
Michael McGarrity, the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, told Congress earlier this year, “There have been more arrests and deaths in the United States caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years.”
He added: The “most deadly and most likely” of such domestic terrorists is “the lone offender who self-radicalized online who has access to a weapon.”
And 8chan serves an integral role in spreading the ideology that incites right-wing violence.
The website has gained recent notoriety as a bastion of absolutist free speech, used largely by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-government activists. The accused perpetrators of the Christchurch, N.Z., the Poway, Calif., and the El Paso attacks have all been tied to 8chan, and used the site to post their hateful manifestos before the shootings.
Users share a variety of racist, anti-immigrant, misogynistic and homophobic views, tied together by an evergreen form of anti-Semitism: Jews control global politics and money, and are trying to wipe out the white race by bringing immigrants to America and encouraging intermarriage between races. (The accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter cited the Jewish group HIAS’ work at the southern border aiding asylum seekers as a motivation for the attack.)
As the nation and Congress reckon with the threat of white supremacy and domestic terrorism in the wake of the back-to-back El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, as well as the attack in Gilroy, Calif., the very nature of sites like 8chan makes fighting the hatred spewed on them so difficult, experts say. And even if law enforcement had post-9/11-type powers to monitor domestic terrorism the way it does to fight groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, serious First Amendment concerns would almost certainly pose a formidable obstacle.
“The average person doesn’t really get how different these type of places are,” Jeremy Blackburn, assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University and a researcher who has worked with the ADL to track online extremism, told The Jewish Week, referring to sites like 8chan. “A lot of people still think that these are kind of like Facebook and Twitter, but for Nazis. [But] they’re functionally different.”
8chan spawned from 4chan, a simple and chaotic imageboard site. Users are anonymous, and have to start message threads with images. Then other users can comment on the original post.
Both of the websites are organized by different threads. For example, the /k/ thread in 4chan is devoted to posts about weapons, and /out/ is about the outdoors. Racist and bigoted views are spread across different threads in the sites, but the main culprit is called /pol/, or “Politically Incorrect.” The 8chan /pol/ thread is where the Christchurch, Poway and El Paso manifestos were shared.
The culture of the channels is broadly called “shitposting,” where users often write heavily sarcastic, aggressive and inane posts to derail threads. Many posts are vague or explicit threats of violence. This makes detecting potential domestic terrorism difficult, for either people or machine-learning algorithms, until it’s too late.
“From a fundamental, computer science point of view, we don’t really know how to detect sarcasm,” Blackburn said. “Nobody [had] really thought of that as being a problem of such a vital importance where, if I don’t properly distinguish between somebody being sarcastic and not, then 20 people may die.”
The chans also function as a well of creativity. With so many users, and the requirement to post an image to start a thread, a site like 8chan pro-duces an enormous amount of mems and language quirks that filter into the rest of the internet.
Their meaning is often lost on people, such as images of the cartoon Pepe the Frog, which white supremacists and neo-Nazis adopted as a mascot. But to those that speak this online language, seeing their content shared by regular internet users is validating.
“There are a lot of memes that may have meanings that people don’t understand or may have been hijacked in a certain way,” Blackburn said. “We may end up being unwitting propagators of certain ideologies we don’t agree with.”
From the perspective of some 8chan users, these images and memes are their most potent tools to radicalize and incite violence, a fact attested to in one thread called “Harnessing Mass-Shooters: How to Save the White Race” that was posted before the site was taken down.
“From Charlottesville to the mass shooters from this site, we have seen that whites are willing to both protest and fight back,” the anonymous poster wrote. “The causal factor in all cases was meme magic: individuals were inspired by memes to take immediate and real action.
“We must start memeing RWDS [right-wing death squads]. We’ve al-ready memed into existence Tarrant, Ernest [sic], Bowers, Roof [refer-ences to the alleged mass shooters of the Christchurch, Poway, Pittsburgh and Charleston attacks]. … We did so by providing two motives: defending the white race and becoming a hero … memeing lone killers is easily doable. Hell, the Tarrant meme threads spawned two heroes in less than six months and we will doubtless see more. To get them, we only need to keep memeing.”
Showcasing the power of shitposting, some 8chan users replied: “lol,” “sure thing buddy” and “look at this kike trying to sow division. Good Post, OP [original post].”
Users regularly refer to each other, even on posts that they might agree with, with anti-Semitic and racist name-calling, adding to the chaos of 8chan. A warped worldview among some users also sees the hand of Mossad behind domestic terror attacks.
So was the original thread a serious threat? Or a deranged, sick joke? No one seems to know.
Regardless of the difficulty of keeping tabs on such sites (8chan is closed down now but almost certain to pop up again on another platform), Blackburn says effective monitoring for potential domestic terrorism is possible. “It just requires money,” he said. “And it requires new research techniques to be able to draw some kind of meaning from all this unstructured data.
“It’s too much data for any humans to look at,” Blackburn continued. “So we need to have machine-learning tools. And there needs to be people to think that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.”
There are no clear answers on how to fight this digital army. Leading Jewish domestic terrorism experts, the ADL and the Jewish community’s security arm, the Secure Community Network (SCN), are advocating for bills like the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act 2019 (currently stuck in committee) and other means of increasing resources for law enforcement. “If we don’t,” said Michael Masters, SCN’s executive director, “we are going to continue to face disastrous consequences.”
According to Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, “It’s not just about how do you get this thing taken down, because it’s not that easy. I have not heard yet a comprehensive model of dealing with a site like this.”
Masters says that the DTPA is part of the solution. But for full post-9/11-type powers, law enforcement needs to be able to officially designate organizations in the U.S. as domestic terror groups, he said. That ability does not currently exist.
Doing so would open the door to monitoring the communications and finances of white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups, not only their online activities, and the ability to prosecute those groups for providing material support to domestic terrorists.
Masters also supports the suggestion of a recent New York Times op-ed by Jonathan Taplin, the director emeritus of the Annenburg Innovation Lab at the University of South California. Taplin wrote about changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms like 8chan, Gab or Facebook from being sued for the content published on their sites.
Adjusting Section 230 to make online platforms liable for the hateful content on them, wrote Taplin, would impose more pressure on companies to censor that content.
But both the proposed 9/11-type powers for law enforcement and the adjusting of Section 230 run into First Amendment questions and the slippery slope to federal regulation of, and spying on, citizens’ online speech. The FBI has already received wide-ranging criticism in its past use of surveillance powers.
And federal law enforcement agencies themselves seem to advocate against an official domestic terrorism designation.
“Designating domestic terror groups as domestic terrorist organizations, and picking out particular groups that you disagree with their views and so forth, will be highly problematic in a way that it is not with al Qaeda or ISIS or an international terrorist organization,” said Brad Wiegmann, the deputy assistant attorney general for the National Security Division in the Department of Justice, when asked about the issue during a Congressional hearing on domestic terrorism on May 8.
Wiegmann advocated for expanding existing hate crime statutes instead.
Masters, when asked about the DOJ’s stance, said he couldn’t comment on what was said during the hearing. Nonetheless, “the First Amendment, the critical free speech element is important,” he said. “But if [law enforcement] can’t even listen to the speech, that may be problematic — that’s a different issue.”