Over the weekend, following terrible mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left more than 30 people dead, web infrastructure firm Cloudflare announced that it would no longer host 8chan, the controversial online image board. This was after the alleged El Paso gunman posted his white supremacist manifesto to the site. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time 8chan was directly linked to a deadly act of gun violence.
With at least three mass shooters this year having announced themselves on 8chan, the site has become, as The New York Times put it, a “megaphone for mass shooters.” As Cloudflare stated, “They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths.”
In the aftermath, 8chan’s creator himself has suggested that it be shut down. People on both sides of the aisle (including President Donald Trump) have blamed internet culture for the shootings. But is getting rid of 8chan really going to solve the problem? As much as I’d like to, I just don’t believe that to be the case.
Shutting down 8chan won’t solve toxic content online
I’m not here to defend 8chan. No amount of dank memes make up for an extremely unpleasant place that has increasingly been cast as a radicalization tool for terrorists. 8chan offers a window into a part of online culture which often tips over into racism, misogyny, and more. It’s certainly hard to disagree with Cloudflare’s decision to cut off support. No one wants to have a claim to helping prop up a platform that’s been used to spread hate-filled propaganda like the El Paso shooter’s manifesto. My issue comes with the idea that we should get distracted thinking that the end of 8chan is what we should be focusing on to the exclusion of, let’s say, common-sense gun laws.
Terminating Service for 8Chan – https://t.co/q1Oa9mdySY
— Cloudflare (@Cloudflare) August 5, 2019
Closing down 8chan isn’t going to mean the end of toxic content online. In Greek legend, the Hydra is a monstrous serpent with multiple heads. Cut off one head and two more will grow back in its place. This is pretty much the story of the internet, which may as well have been developed entirely for the purpose of being a noncentralized network that makes wiping out the spread of information difficult.
That’s great news when it comes to good causes, involving the dissemination of information in the face of tyrannical governments. It’s less good when you’re trying to stamp out toxic behavior — or worse — online. Recent moves by companies like Apple and Twitter show that it is possible to deny a platform to certain voices by removing their accounts from prominent social networks and app stores. But something like the “chans” of the internet are different. They haven’t been findable on Google since 2015. 8chan’s air of closed doors exclusivity (while, ironically, making itself purposely unexclusive through the anonymity of its users) is a large part of its appeal.
8chan’s air of closed doors exclusivity is a large part of its appeal.
If 8chan disappears, another will spring up to replace it. We know this because 8chan is already the third iteration of the number-chans: Preceded by 2chan and 4chan as places where people can gather together to share information deemed, rightly or wrongly, unfit for society. Even without people purposely pulling the plug, once 8chan gets too “normie” for its posters they will likely move on. And you thought 8chan was bad? Prepare yourself for 16chan and 32chan.
Don’t view 8chan as the endgame
This is something still being grappled with. In Europe, lawmakers are working to put in place legislation that will make tech giants like Google and Facebook directly accountable for any terrorist-related content that they host. Fines could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even for tech companies with deep pockets, that kind of action would hurt.
“Every attack over the last 18 months or two years or so has got an online dimension,” Julian King, a British diplomat and European commissioner for the Security Union told The Guardian newspaper when the laws were initially proposed. “[These platforms have played a role in] either inciting or in some cases instructing, providing instruction, or glorifying [actions].”
Can such initiatives ever work, or are they entirely unfeasible without gutting everything that makes Web 2.0 special — and throwing out everything good along with the bad? I’m really not sure. Making a platform like Facebook free from terroristic content is far easier than doing so on an anonymous wild west platform like 4chan or 8chan. Within hours of it being given the boot by Cloudflare, it had switched over to another company called BitMitigate, which additionally provides security services for the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. This speaks to the challenge of wiping out certain types of content online. It’s the same reason that, while ISIS content has largely disappeared from mainstream social media, it’s just moved onto encrypted messaging tools like Telegram.
Other countries have access to just as much dark corners of the internet, and virtually none have the same number of mass-shootings as the United States.
Ultimately, I don’t think we should view the end of 8chan as the best possible thing to come out of this latest tragic situation. After all, other countries have access to just as much dark corners of the internet, and virtually none have the same number of mass-shootings as the United States. Whatever is going wrong, which lead to this weekend’s horrific events, don’t let it be settled with a simple solution like getting rid of an internet image board.
Few people will shed a tear at the end of 8chan. But getting rid of it would not solve the bigger problem. It just brushes it under the carpet.