“Where do we go, brothers?”
That's what one anonymous 8chan user wrote in the early hours of Monday morning as news broke that the extreme, hate-filled message board was soon to go offline.
The answer: Into the dark.
Since hosting provider Cloudflare terminated support for the website, in the wake of reports that the El Paso gunman posted a racist screed to the site minutes before his attack, 8chan’s users have fled to the darkest corners of the internet, including the dark web, an obscure Albanian website, and even an alternative bitcoin-based internet.
The demise of 8chan is being hailed as a victory for those fighting the spread of extremism and white supremacy online. But while it may have a short-term impact on the community's ability to spread hatred, in the long run it could make it much harder to track extremist users and understand what they are doing.
“Shutting these sites down can be a double-edged sword,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, told VICE News. “When they are operating, it gives police and law enforcement the ability to see what people are saying. When they are pushed to the margins, we can lose valuable open-source intelligence that can often be useful in figuring out how these individuals and networks operate.”
While 8chan and its better-known sibling, 4chan, remain largely unknown by the vast majority of internet users, their prominence has risen in recent years thanks to incidents like GamerGate and the conspiracy theory QAnon. Most recently, however, the site has been tied to some of the most deadly mass shootings in recent memory.
“When they are pushed to the margins, we can lose valuable open-source intelligence”
In the past six months, at least three people linked to mass shootings have posted content related to their attacks on 8chan.
The suspect in the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, in April, that killed one person and injured three, allegedly posted a racist and anti-Semitic “open letter” on 8chan. The man who allegedly killed dozens of people at two New Zealand mosques in March posted a 74-page rant and a link to a live Facebook stream of the massacre on 8chan.
And on Saturday, 45 minutes before he entered the Walmart in El Paso, the suspect posted a four-page racist screed to the website to explain his actions.
That was the final straw that triggered the cybersecurity and hosting service Cloudflare to pull support for 8chan. The site’s administrators haven’t been able to find a reliable provider since.
With options running out, the site’s administrators may resort to to so-called “bulletproof” hosting services in Russia or Ukraine that typically host spam and malware, or risk operating the site without protection from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which most experts agree would make the site a prime target for attack.
These services, however, are typically blocked by internet service providers, meaning 8chan will be virtually invisible, even it if is technically online.
For now, 8chan’s communities have been driven even further underground. Hours after 8chan went offline, VICE News tracked the movement of 8chan users to various destinations:
- The Dark Web: 8chan operates a mirror site on the dark web, accessed via the Tor browser which anonymizes a user’s location. It is currently online but loading times are incredibly slow and users can’t post new messages.
- The Bitcoin internet: Zeronet is a “decentralized and open-source peer-to-peer version of the internet” that uses the same cryptography as bitcoin to protect users. A version of 8chan is already up-and-running on ZeroNet, but users leave themselves exposed to illegal content like child pornography.
- 4chan: Some 8chan users returned to 4chan on Monday, the site they initially left because they were not happy with the moderation by 4chan’s owner. But they didn’t get a warm welcome, with one 4chan user “calling for a total and complete shutdown” of all new arrivals from 8chan on Tuesday morning.
- Bunkerchan: Hosted in Albania, Bunkerchan.xyz has become the new home for 8chan’s leftypol, a board dedicated to discussions of political events from the left-wing viewpoint. Among the small number of users on Bunkerchan on Tuesday morning, however, the main topic of discussion was criticisms of the site’s PDF attachment symbol.
No simple solutions
Shutting down websites like 8chan that fuel hatred and division is a start, but not the end point, experts said.
In his blog post explaining the decision to finally pull support for 8chan on Sunday, Cloudflare’s Matthew Prince touched on the dangers of viewing the site's removal as a solution. He pointed to the the fact that his company ended support for the white supremacist site Daily Stormer two years ago, but it was quickly back online using a competitor.
“I have little doubt we'll see the same happen with 8chan,” Prince wrote. “While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online.”
Instead, extremism experts said that tackling the epidemic of extremist views being shared online required a large, collaborative effort that includes both lawmakers in Washington and the likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
“Online platforms like 8chan have helped extremist ideologies go global,” David Ibsen, executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, told VICE News. “ If 8chan is shut down completely, then it is incumbent on tech firms to continue to act in a similar manner to keep such content and users off the surface web as they migrate from platform to platform.”
Cover: Law enforcement officials block a road at the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)