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8chan Is a Mysterious Place to U.S. Anti-Terrorism Officials

U.S. intel officials from the FBI, DOJ and DHS seemed fairly unfamiliar with the platform during a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

by Tess Owen
May 8 2019, 9:24pm

On the evening before a shooter opened fire on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, he announced his plans on 8chan and shared a link to his manifesto. Less than six weeks later, a student in California shared his own manifesto on 8chan before opening fire on a synagogue near San Diego.

Posters in 8chan’s /pol section immediately celebrated both attacks, and discussed the shooters’ “scores.”

Sites like 8chan and others where racists can get radicalized online are key to counterterrorism efforts, experts say, but in a Wednesday hearing on domestic terrorism, U.S. intel officials from the FBI, DOJ and DHS seemed fairly unfamiliar with those platforms — or what to do about them.

The purpose of the hearing, convened by the House Committee on Homeland Security, was to assess the nature of the threat posed by domestic terrorism and determine whether current counterterrorism infrastructure was adequate to combat it.

“Do you have any recommendations about what can be done to address the violent hate speech and incitement of violence found on fringe sites like 8chan and Gab,” asked Rep. Mike Rogers, the ranking Republican member of the committee from Alabama, early on in the hearing.

His question was met with silence.

“Y’all don’t have any suggestions for us?” Rogers said. “That’s scary.”

Where racists get radicalized

8chan has been around since 2013 and caters to a diverse range of communities, like anime enthusiasts, tickle festishists, and video gamers. But it’s best known for its /pol section, a hub for far-right conspiracy theorists and racists, and where many get radicalized.

It came under fresh scrutiny in March following the New Zealand mosque attacks that left 50 dead, and later the Poway synagogue attack, which left one dead and many injured. Similarly, the man who attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October posted on Gab right before he killed 11 people.

“Among the new terror challenges is for the intelligence community to be analyzing public information on these platforms to interdict violence when there is a criminal predicate,” said Brian Levin, who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Levin added that intelligence officials’ apparent unfamiliarity with sites like 8chan was “surprising” given recent events.

The officials who testified on Wednesday acknowledged that domestic terror was a growing threat that has evolved over time alongside the maturation of the internet.

“What we’ve seen in the last four to five years is the homegrown violent extremist threat, where someone can get on the internet and self-radicalize,” said Michael McGarrity, assistant director for counterterrorism at the FBI. “We’re seeing that same type of threat in the domestic terrorism world, where individual actors — lone wolves — can find their ideology to justify their actions online.”

McGarrity estimated that the FBI had around 850 ongoing domestic terror investigations, and “a significant are racially motivated extremists who support the majority of the white race.”

Working with social media

Intelligence officials stressed the importance of collaboration with social media companies. “The Department has engaged with social media companies,” said Brian Murphy, principal deputy undersecretary for Intelligence & Analysis, Department of Homeland Security. “And encouraged them to continue to police their website. We’ve been working with them.”

Similarly, McGarrity said that the FBI has held training sessions with social media companies, teaching them how to identify potential threats.

But they had less to say when it came to fringe sites. That kind of coordination may be especially important for 8chan, where posters are anonymous. If the FBI received a tip about a potential threat on 8chan, they’d likely need the posters’ IP addresses to look into it.

“Let’s talk about 8chan,” said Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat from New York. “Is anyone aware of any direct outreach or communication with the owners of 8chan or the administrators, or have they contacted you?”

“I’m not aware of any specific contact between the FBI and 8chan,” McGarrity replied. “But I can follow up and see.”

“I’m especially concerned about this, because this is all based on relationships,” Rose said. “We know much of this is happening on 8chan, and if we have not had any direct contact with the administrators of 8chan, then I don’t know what protocols we have in place to make sure the materials are taken off 8chan as quickly as possible.”

McGarrity added that FBI policy prohibits them from getting involved in First Amendment activity, so they wouldn’t be able to request 8chan to remove something they considered hateful. “If it’s speech, if it’s ideology, and it might be alarming as it is, we are prohibited from that,” McGarrity said.

I’ll get back to you

McGarrity added that he would get back to Rose with regards to contact between the FBI and 8chan on monitoring potential threats. It’s worth noting that a civilian came across the Poway synagogue shooter’s manifesto on 8chan and contacted the FBI only moments before the attack happened.

Similarly, both Murphy and Brad Wiegmann, the deputy assistant attorney general at the DOJ’s National Security Division, punted in response to Rose’s question and said they’d get back to him.

According to 8chan’s monthly “Transparency Report”, the site fielded and complied with three requests from U.S. government or law enforcement agencies, in April down from 12 requests the previous month.

It’s difficult to know whether government agencies were contacting 8chan due to possible threats or other concerns outside of counterterrorism, like cybercrime and copyright infringement. However, the spike in requests in March is notable given that it coincided with the New Zealand shooting, and was up from only two requests in February.

Cover: UNITED STATES - December 12: Max Rose, candidate for New York's 11th Congressional district, is interviewed by CQ Roll Call at their D.C. office, December 12, 2017. (Photo by Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).