Unplugging 8chan, an outlet for mass murderers

August 5, 2019

Over the weekend, another mass shooting took place with a link to 8chan, an online community that serves as a breeding ground for hate speech. The gunman, who killed 20 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, posted on 8chan’s message boards with a manifesto about the rampage, as had the killer in the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in March and the shooter who opened fire on a synagogue near San Diego, California, in April. Commenters on the 8chan threads for these attacks referred to each of the shooters as “our guy” and in some cases talked about the killings as “high scores.”

Until several hours ago, 8chan relied on the services of a web hosting company called Cloudflare, which runs a network of powerful “proxy” servers that can handle incoming traffic when a site sees a sudden onslaught of visitors—either because a piece of content has become popular, or because malicious users are hitting the site with an automated deluge, aiming to cause a dreaded denial of service (DoS). When 8chan’s role in the El Paso shooting came to light, reporters asked Cloudflare whether the company planned to continue providing its services to the site, and Cloudflare said yes, because it stays out of decisions about what kinds of content are appropriate. In other words: Cloudflare defended unfettered free speech, even when it incites violence. But by late Sunday, Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare, announced that he had changed his mind, and said that 8chan would be blocked.

This isn’t the first time the question of who gets a platform has come up for Cloudflare. In 2017, the company went through a similar debate before cutting off The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that routinely promotes racism and white supremacist ideology. Prince finally decided to block it, but he also wrote a long blog post about how he didn’t think his company and others like it should have the power to effectively remove certain websites from the internet by sawing off their platform. “Due Process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary,” Prince said. “Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not.” Today, Prince said something similar in a blog post about 8chan; he repeated the point in interviews. Legal experts such as Kate Klonick of Yale Law School, a scholar of censorship and online misinformation, backed him up.

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A provider like Cloudflare can’t block a site from the internet completely, but denying it services means, among other things, that 8chan could be crippled fairly easily by a DoS or some other exploit. In effect, Prince’s decision makes 8chan unstable, which in turn diminishes its reach. And Cloudflare isn’t the only service provider that has taken action: Google removed 8chan from its search index in 2015, so anyone searching for it gets links to Wikipedia entries and news stories about it rather than a link to the site itself. 

Of course, 8chan’s messages can filter out even when the site itself is down: The Drudge Report, the conservative news aggregator, for example, posted a version of the El Paso killer’s manifesto while most other sites opted not to link to it. Gizmodo notes that, even though Cloudflare booted 8chan, a wide range of other objectionable and hate-filled sites continue to receive tech support. 

As was the case with The Daily Stormer, the loss of service from a company like Cloudflare leaves the keepers of a hate site scrambling to come up with alternative hosting and DoS protection. 8chan quickly signed up with a Cloudflare-like provider called Bitmitigate—a subsidiary of Epik, a company whose founder bragged about helping to host The Daily Stormer after it was taken offline. But an internet utility has to rely on other utilities for its livelihood, which makes its content and services vulnerable; in the case of Bitmitigate, a company called Voxility owns the infrastructure that allows its proxy service to function and, after this was pointed out on Twitter (by Alex Stamos, a former director of security at Facebook, among others), Voxility announced that it was removing Bitmitigate from its service.

In some ways, the responsibility that social networks like Facebook and YouTube bear is more obvious than Cloudflare’s: they not only help to distribute offensive content, but their algorithms make sure that plenty of people see it—that is, as newspapers once did, they serve an editorial function. Cloudflare and similar hosting services are more like power companies, operating the grid that keeps the lights on in the newsroom. Should the power company be deciding which companies or homes should be supplied with electricity? And if so, what criteria gets factored into the decision? 

The analogy breaks down when you consider how influential 8chan can be: keeping the lights on there illuminates bigotry, incites violence, and leads to the deaths of dozens of people—or more, as the hate campaign wages on. We have only just begun to grapple with the role 8chan has played in mass shootings. What we can hope now, maybe, is that it won’t cause more killings in the future.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.