He used to think that free speech was more important than anything else. But after posts from violent white supremacists and multiple mass shooters, followed by the rise of QAnon, Fred Brennan had a lot of regrets. Then the death threats began.
Brennan, the founder of 8chan, spent his teenage years almost entirely online. Born with brittle bone disease, he has used a wheelchair for most of his life and has used online forums to connect with the world. In 2013, when he created the anonymous message board, he had hoped his site would become a free-speech utopia—unlike what he viewed as the over-aggressive moderation on the more popular 4chan message board. Sometimes the site promoted free speech, but other times it allowed for the targeted doxing and harassment of individuals, most notably during the Gamergate movement.
And now, almost a decade later, Brennan’s creation is being used against him by its current owner, Jim Watkins, a U.S. Army veteran who, along with his son Ron Watkins, has helped the QAnon conspiracy movement to flourish and destroy families across America.
Watkins is posting ads on the forum promising users a $17,000 bounty to anyone who helps send Brennan back to the Philippines, where Brennan lived from 2014 to 2020.
“I do know where he lives, and I do know the folks that will do the rendition back to the Philippines,” Watkins said during an appearance on an online conspiracy show last June. These threats aren’t totally empty—8chan is where at least three mass shooters have posted their screeds in recent years. And ever since Brennan has publicly attacked the site for facilitating the rise of QAnon, Watkins has seen him as an enemy.
Since June, Watkins has been ramping up his threats against Brennan, beginning with throwaway comments on an obscure livestream then setting up an escrow account to allow others to contribute to the literal bounty he’s placed on Brennan’s head.
Watkins’ threats have continued, and increased in frequency in recent months, but Brennan claims law enforcement has done nothing. “I don't get ignored,” Brennan told VICE News. “They always reply; they just don't do anything, which is just as bad.” Now, Brennan is terrified.
“Every month it gets worse and every month he does more,” Brennan said.
8chan first gained popularity in 2014 when followers of Gamergate, a collection of anti-feminist video gamers, moved en masse to 8chan after they were banned from 4chan. It was on 8chan where Brianna Wu, the American video game developer at the center of Gamergate, was doxed and subsequently faced vicious harassment.
At the time, Brennan was willing to look the other way when it came to actions like this on his site. “I'll be perfectly honest,” he told Jacobin magazine last year. “I had very good reasons to look the other way—look how popular my site is now.”
Struggling to keep up with server costs in the wake of his site’s popularity, Brennan sold 8chan to Watkins. In late 2014 Brennan moved to Manila to work for Watkins on the site; he was an employee for the next two years and left in April 2016.
Brennan has also had a change of heart: He recognizes that the harassment during Gamergate was “very bad,” and told VICE News that he regrets ever having created 8chan.
During Brennan’s time at 8chan there were problems, but in the years since Brennan departed, those problems have become much worse. In recent years the site has become notorious as the home of mass shooters, far-right white supremacists, and, most recently, QAnon.
For the last couple of years, Brennan has been one of the leading voices calling for the site he created to be deplatformed.
Brennan had some success in 2019 after three mass shooters posted violent screeds on the site within the space of six months. The site went dark for three months but reemerged later that year under the new name of 8kun. For the next couple of years, Brennan continued to work to bring down 8kun, but for the most part the site remained online, and Watkins paid little attention to his former employee.
That all changed in June of this year, however, when it appeared that Q, the anonymous poster behind the QAnon phenomenon, had returned after 18 months of silence. However, within hours of the messages appearing on the /qresearch/ board on 8kun, Brennan and other online sleuths were able to prove conclusively that Watkins was behind the posts.
“What I did with the Q post tipped him over the edge, but he really has a lot of reasons to not like me,” Brennan said. “Because that really dashed his hopes and dreams and significantly degraded his assets, because that's what Q is, it's an asset.”
Brennan fled the Philippines hours before the authorities there issued a warrant for his arrest over tweets in which he described Watkins as “senile,” which breached the Philippines’ ultra-strict cyber-libel laws. Given his medical condition, he told VICE News, arrest and detention at the notorious Bicutan Detention Center would have been an effective death sentence.
Two years later, Watkins is suggesting that someone should capture Brennan and bring him back to the Philippines.
“I found out that the Philippines’ government allows renditions back to the Philippines,” Watkins said during the June 30 livestream. “Now it costs $15,000, but I’m thinking a $15,000 rendition could be worth it. I could sell a car.”
Watkins then explained that the rendition would be done by boat, adding, “I could see a wheelchair rolling back and forth in a cage. Have a feeding tube inserted like a French goose, it’ll be fun.” During the livestream, Watkins laughed and clapped his hands. “I have no sympathy anymore,” he said.
From there, the threats continued. On Aug. 10, Watkins threatened to kidnap Brennan again on the same show. He claimed he was "filling out paperwork" in the Philippines to legalize “hiring a bounty hunter" in the U.S., where Brennan currently resides. In September, Watkins posted ads on his own platform seeking information leading to the arrest of Brennan, placing a $17,000 bounty on Brennan’s head.
On a Sept. 22 livestream, Watkins claimed that “putting [Brennan] in a cage on a cargo ship” would be more humane than putting him on a plane in handcuffs. On the same livestream, Watkins also claimed the bounty he put up was in an escrow account but that if “other people who had been wronged by this man, and there have been plenty, they can consider donating to the escrow account.” Watkins and his fellow guests even joked about the possibility of Dog the Bounty Hunter taking the job.
Watkins continued to re-post the ads on his Telegram channel, which has 18,000 followers, claiming that Brennan’s actions were not only about targeting only him but also “about the destruction of 8kun.”
In response, some of Watkins’ followers posted threats against Brennan. “That little turd needs to hang upside down,” one wrote, while another added: “Someone must have blackmail info on that prick.”
However, Watkins denied making any threats against Brennan. “You can rest assured that I have not threatened anyone's life,” Watkins told VICE News in an online message. “There is currently a reward for the arrest and conviction of the fugitive Fredrick Robert Brennan. This is proper and in accordance with the law.” Watkins refused to answer any follow-up questions.
Brennan claimed he’s been in contact with the FBI in relation to Watkins in the past in the wake of the Capitol riot, but he says none of the agents he has spoken to since Watkins made the threats have taken the issue seriously. Instead, Brennan thinks he’s “just an acceptable sacrifice” to the agents who don’t want to jeopardize an ongoing investigation into Watkins and 8kun. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
Brennan knows that Watkins knows where he lives, but believes that staying in Atlantic City is the safest thing for him right now. He said he also spoke to the local police department in Atlantic City about his situation. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
“If I were to relocate, I would be alone, and that's way more dangerous than my current situation because there's safety in numbers,” Brennan said.
Brennan believes his ordeal will only come to an end when Watkins is held to account for these threats and forced to remove the ads on 8kun. But he’s not holding out much hope.
“What [Watkins] wants to happen is for one of the people that read 8chan or believe in QAnon to just come here to Atlantic City.” Brennan said. “He's telling his followers that to do the actual kidnapping is legal.”