Archivists Are Putting Terrorist Manifestos Online. Should They Stay There?

After a would-be mass shooter’s manifesto was removed from the Internet Archive, experts question when it's okay to post the writings of violent extremists.
two people walk down a set of stairs on UCLA campus, where classes were canceled after a man issued violent threats against students and faculty.

A day before a man was arrested for issuing violent threats to over 30 people on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, the perpetrator’s 800-page manifesto was uploaded to the Internet Archive, a massive online repository that seeks to preserve all the world’s knowledge. Then, after about a week, the Internet Archive removed it. 

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The incident caused a renewed debate among some archivists and ethicists over when and how the writings of mass-murderers and terrorists should be preserved.

In this case, the manifesto was written by Matthew Harris, a former UCLA lecturer who was apprehended by police last week after a three-hour standoff at his apartment building in Boulder, Colorado. His arrest came after he sent an email with a link to the manifesto and videos from his YouTube channel to students and faculty of UCLA’s philosophy department. 

The UC student who uploaded the content told Motherboard that he heard about the email on his university’s Discord server. 

“At first I wasn’t really thinking about archiv[ing] the videos,” said Daniel, who requested to use a pseudonym because he feared repercussions for making the documents public. “I just wanted to save them and show some friends. I only decided to upload them once I realized [Harris’ YouTube] channel was going to be taken down.”

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that he says was driven by the kind of morbid curiosity one might experience when driving by a car crash, and a desire to understand Harris—to try to make sense of threats happening at UCLA. 

The need to understand why anyone would want to commit a violent act is a common sentiment. In an article for Psychology Today, criminologist Scott Bonn wrote that “[m]any people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers because they cannot understand it and feel compelled to.”

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But Jonathan Ivy, a behavior analyst at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, whose research explores the role media plays in promoting “copycat” mass shootings, is critical of the notion that manifestos can be used to better understand a shooter’s motivations.

“Attempting to read a manifesto and draw from it some information that could help us ‘understand’ the shooter, the motivation, I think that’s a dangerous assumption to make,” Ivy told Motherboard. 

In recent years, experts on extremism have traced how the amplification of politically-motivated violence has helped motivate future attacks. In 2019, a right-wing manifesto appeared on the online message board 8chan shortly before its author executed a deadly terrorist attack that killed 23 people in El Paso, Texas. The shooter, who detailed racist and anti-immigrant views, wrote that he was inspired in turn by the manifesto of another white supremacist mass shooter, who had killed 51 people and injured 40 while attacking two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier the same year. In the week following the El Paso attack, police claimed they arrested at least six men plotting “copycat” attacks inspired by the shooter. 

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In a 2020 policy brief for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, researchers analyzed the media’s role in platforming violent ideologies by analyzing the far-right’s use of terrorist manifestos in six different cases. 

“Their content certainly has no place being broadcast on social media and television news, as that allows attackers to achieve a degree of fame and spread their ideology,” the researchers wrote. “But they are also important for law enforcement and terrorism scholars, as we wrestle to understand motivations for violence and any future threat.” 

Experts like Ivy warn that the news is not the only form of media that can act as a catalyst for some of these behaviors. 

“Things like manifestos, videos, where the mass shooter is talking about the reasons, the justification, the rationale, all of these can act as variables that could make that behavior perhaps more likely to someone who is considering or who may engage with similar behavior,” he said.

Instead, Ivy says that it’s best to look at manifestos as just another product of behavior.

“It’s reasonable to assume that what is in these manifestos may represent someone’s thoughts and beliefs but they can be certainly independent of the actual reasons why these behaviors occur,” he said. 

But Daniel also said he uploaded the manifesto because he thought it could be enlightening to others.

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“[Harris] described a perspective of society that I hadn’t given much thought [to] before,” said Daniel. “It was interesting to see how a mentally disturbed person like Harris viewed the world. Personally, I had never really explored how mental disorders affect people.”

For organizations like the Internet Archive, the issue of whether or not to preserve manifestos is complicated. In a statement, Brewster Kahle, the digital archivist who founded the Internet Archive, told Motherboard there are many factors that contribute to decisions on what is preserved and what is accessible to users, referencing the Oakland Archive Policy as a guiding document for managing Web collection removals. 

“Factors include the nature of the materials and how active they are,” said Kahle. “The Internet Archive is not a publisher nor does it seek to act like one, but rather as what it is, a library that serves researchers, scholars and the general public.” 

Matt Bailey, PEN America’s digital freedom program director, notes that with the preservation of manifestos, archivists have both short- and long-term issues to consider. He said it’s important to err on the side of allowing the public to maintain access to all forms of self-expression unless there’s a really strong reason to pull it down, such as an incitement of violence. 

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“It does appear that there’s sort of credible belief that there’s incitement to violence, there’s actual threats of violence in the material that’s been pulled down,” Bailey told Motherboard. “But once the immediate crisis in the courts has gone through … we need to look at the long term access to public content or to at some point have metered access in the sense of the ability for researchers and academics and journalists and historians to be able to access these materials to tell a greater story that they’re a part of.”

The long-term issues of preserving manifestos and making them publicly available for study, Bailey says, is something that needs to be worked out. 

“We don’t yet have a solid answer to how we maintain long-term archives that are complete, as part of the historical record and public access to knowledge, while balancing that against the practical ability of people to go on with their lives,” said Bailey. “In the case that you have content that can certainly be inciting violence for a very long period of time, as opposed to a shorter period of time, how you balance the long term need for access to that historical record against the potential danger of the nature of the content itself, we need to know that this is something that’s happening according to informed standards.”

Daniel says he thought the Internet Archive wouldn’t have a problem with him uploading the manifesto, and was surprised to find out that the content was deleted about a week after it was posted.  

Even still, he remains undeterred. 

“I’m going to upload the content again anyway, so it’s not too big of a deal,” said Daniel. “Definitely not to the Internet Archive again since they’ve shown they’re hostile to this stuff. Probably some other archive site or as a P2P torrent.”