For the past week, a battle has been raging in the dark corners of the internet. It’s a fight between the owners of the hate-filled message board 8chan, who are trying to revive the controversial website, and the site’s founder, who's doing everything in his power to keep the site — and QAnon — offline.
Ever since 8chan was de-platformed in August, in the wake of the El Paso mass shooting, the company that owns the site, NT Technology, has been promising to bring it back. Last week it unveiled 8kun as the successor to 8chan, and it's been trying to get its old users back on board.
In recent days, 8kun.net has briefly flickered online before disappearing again, thanks mostly to the work of 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan, who has been pressuring hosting and networking companies to drop support for the site.
Brennan is clear about why he never wants 8chan and 8kun to come back online: QAnon.
“One of the reasons I am trying to get this done, preemptively, is so that QAnon cannot come back,” Brennan told VICE News from his home in the Philippines. “It is critical that 8kun does not come back at all, in any form, for any length of time.”
The conspiracy theory's mysterious leader “Q” told his followers that his communications would never occur outside of 8chan and that 8chan was the military's chosen platform for leaking intel.
So when 8chan went offline in August, the QAnon community was left adrift. Brennan fears that if 8chan is revived as 8kun, it will allow the insidious QAnon conspiracy theories, which have been embraced by President Donald Trump’s right-wing MAGA supporters, to spread online, possibly to other “free-speech” platforms like Gab and Voat.
QAnon supporters regularly appear at Trump’s rallies, and the FBI has warned that the movement could inspire domestic terrorists.
“I don't want there to be any more Q drops. I think the whole Q thing is awful and should stop,” Brennan said.
8chan was taken offline in August because, in the wake of the El Paso Walmart shooting, web infrastructure companies like Cloudflare refused to host the website.
The man suspected of conducting the massacre in the El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3 posted a four-page rant to 8chan attempting to explain his actions. In March, the man who allegedly killed dozens of people at two New Zealand mosques posted a screed to the site just before the attack. Weeks later, the suspect in the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, did the same.
NT Technology and 8chan are owned by Jim Watkins and run by his son, Ron Watkins. Since August, they have been working to get 8chan back online, telling Congress in September that it would only reappear when he was “able to develop additional tools to counter illegal content under United States law.”
The name of the new site appears to be an attempt by Watkins to show he is fulfilling that promise.
In Japanese, the suffix “chan” typically refers to a child, while “kun” typically refers to a young man. However, Brennan described 8kun as “lipstick on the 8chan pig,” saying Watkn's decision to ask all old 8chan board owners to come back shows that nothing has changed.
In a series of off-the-wall videos posted on YouTube this week, Jim Watkins said he was aiming to get the site live by Thursday, Oct. 17, but that effort failed when a UK-based provider he had been using, Zare, dropped support.
“We are not willing to provide services to 8chan or 8kun,” Zare spokesman Harry Beasant told VICE News. “We have had no contact with anyone called Jim Watkins. I can only assume the details used when they signed up were fake, which is why we were not aware they were on our network until informed.”
On Friday, NT Technology revealed a new strategy to try and get 8kun back online and keep it there.
In the early hours of Friday morning, 8kun.net came online briefly, and analysis of its traffic shows that it was being routed through the cloud computing services of Tencent and Alibaba, two of China’s biggest tech companies.
Tencent subsequently told VICE News that had blocked 8kun's IP address "after discovering violations to our terms of service. These violations include, but are not limited to, the posting or transmission of content that is hateful, harassing, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive and harms or exploits any person.”
Ron Watkins told VICE News that U.S. company VanwaTech is now providing hosting services for 8kun, and said that he had no say in where they rout the traffic to and from the site. “I have no input in how they setup their routing, but it now seems to be much more robust than a few days ago.” VanwaTech's CEO Nick Lim confirmed to VICE News that his company was providing services to 8kun but he was not aware of the issues surrounding 8chan.
The irony of the operators of a free-speech website using servers based in the world’s most heavily-censored online spaces was not lost on Brennan.
“All posts, and all IP information, everything, are going to be sent directly to the Chinese Communist Party because that is a requirement of a Chinese ISP,” Brennan said.
NT Technology and Alibaba did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As of Friday morning, 8kun.net remains inaccessible. With China’s censorship apparatus likely to kick the website offline without any pressure from Brennan, it is unclear where the operators of the site can turn next.
But, as the pivot to Chinese cloud services has shown, Jim and Ron Watkins appear willing to try anything to get their website back online.
"I don't think I have ever seen it done before and I've seen a lot of different stuff, I've watched all their moves, trying to avoid deplatforming,” Brennan said. “I've never seen them hop through China cloud computing — I guess because the idea sounds so ludicrous on its face.”
Cover: David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)