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Did 8chan Radicalize Mass Shooters?

a computer keyboard

Before the mass shootings in El Paso, the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand and the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego, the alleged shooters each posted racist manifestos on the same online forum – 8chan.

After Saturday's shooting, web security services provider Cloudflare said it was axing 8chan as a client, effectively muting the site. But the broader question of how to limit the influence of such sites still remains. 

Joan Donovan is director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She says 8chan is both a message board and an image board, where participants post memes, GIFs and other images "with or without explanation."

8chan participants are anonymous if they wish to be.

"Another thing that's distinctive about this board is that there are no accounts," Donovan says. "Every single post is labeled anonymous. And so while it does allow you to see what posts are yours, every post shows up as if it's a new, fresh post, and you can't tell the difference between  it someone's posting in rapid succession, or if they post sporadically."

Donovan says 8chan may be an attractive place to host racist manifestos because posters know that journalists and experts like herself are observing the site. 8chan also plays host to calls to create mass movements or rallies, Donovan says. 

"Part of the organizing for the "unite the right" rally in Charlottesville occurred on 8chan," she says. 

Anonymity, and an inability to track the locations of posters, are also appealing aspect of 8chan for its users, Donovan says.

It's unclear whether 8chan serves as a radicalizing force, Donovan says, though racism and white nationalism have grown on the platform in recent years. 

"They do tend to evangelize in a way that does draw new people in," Donovan says. 

People who hold white nationalist views tend to express them in forums like 8chan, which have no content moderation. Donovan says those same people don't typically express those views in forums that are moderated. 

The creator of 8chan, who no longer owns the platform, has urged that it be shut down. Cloudflare's role is to ensure that 8chan and its other clients, remain available on the Internet, and aren't subject to attacks by hackers. With Cloudflare withdrawing its support of the platform, 8chan is no longer available online.

"While we wouldn't want to have to rely on a corporate denial of service to be able to stop what... I would consider terrorism, we're in this position right now where corporations are the only groups in a position to moderate this," Donovan says. 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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