The website 8chan thrived because 4chan, its predecessor, wasn’t extreme enough. In 2014, when the anonymous extremists of the internet wanted to organize harassment campaigns against female gaming journalists and developers, 4chan started cracking down. 8chan welcomed the activity, and became the new home of misogynist, racist, coordinated abuse on the internet.
8chan’s founder, Frederick Brennan, promised to protect the site’s users, including those who wanted to post about every extreme idea. There were forums dedicated to pedophilia, suicide and harassment. Technically, 8chan banned illegal activity, but those rules were rarely enforced by Brennan, who no longer controls the site and wishes the monster he created would go offline for good. The site was briefly silenced in 2015, after users reported the presence of child porn there.
On Aug. 5, 8chan was offline once again, after another alleged mass shooter appears to have used the site to promote a white-nationalist manifesto. (The alleged shooter in El Paso, Texas, — who would be the third mass shooter this year to promote such a manifesto on 8chan — killed 22 people at a Walmart on Aug. 3.) It’s not clear at the moment how long 8chan will remain down. That will depend on the decisions within a complicated chain of companies involved in hosting and protecting the site, and how many partners 8chan’s operators will be able to keep.
So maybe this is the moment of 8chan’s obituary, after a nearly four-year run as the go-to space for the worst people on the internet. After three massacres that were, in part, performed for the audience of 8chan’s extremists — a man in Christchurch, New Zealand, literally live-streamed a massacre at a mosque so that 8chan users could watch and cheer along — the obituary feels past due.
But can you really kill something like 8chan? Or will the internet’s white-nationalist and misogynist extremists simply find somewhere else to coordinate online harassment, radicalize new visitors, and celebrate the murder of women, religious worshipers, and people of color?
You have to understand: 8chan wasn’t just a community of mutually radicalized racists. Its culture was self-aware, steeped in memes and prepared to make the most of mainstream attention. The fact that multiple mass shootings had an 8chan connection was celebrated like a fun game there. Robert Evans, a writer who has researched the online culture of radicalization, wrote shortly after the El Paso shooting that, on 8chan, body counts have become “high scores,” a meme encouraging others to try to “beat” the total of the Christchurch mosque shooting.
Memes are designed to spread, and 8chan happened to be the base for those who knew that, on the internet, a share — even when the person sharing is condemning you — is still a victory. The goal is attention. After the El Paso shooting, anonymous 8chan posters encouraged each other to create more “OC,” or “original content” about the shooting. The audience for that content wasn’t other racists, it was everyone. Journalists know to look at 8chan after racist violence because there might be a connection; 8chan treats members of the mainstream press like the audience at a concert.
Simply pulling the plug on online cesspools has had mixed results: Reddit has banned some of the worst discussion boards that once thrived on the site in recent years, forcing users to flee to alternative places that have promised not to censor their content. Individual personalities, like Alex Jones, have struggled to retain the size of their audiences after being kicked off mainstream platforms like YouTube. And while the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer has managed to stay online in some form, its traffic did diminish after mainstream companies stopped providing hosting services to the site following the deadly white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, said Rebecca Lewis, a research affiliate at Data & Society Research Institute who studies far-right political subcultures online.
It’s not clear what effect the current deplatforming of 8chan will have. “Practically speaking, any downtime is going to be detrimental to an organizing space like 8chan,” Lewis said. “It takes away their immediate ability to organize, and also their sense of security,” she said.
The environment online his shifted since the site splintered off from 4chan. Back then, the companies that control the Internet (and many media organizations) were still dismissing much of the extreme speech on those sites as “trolling.” Now, there has been years of evidence to the contrary, including violence, and a change in public perception. It’s not a given that another 8chan will be able to rise up under the aegis of techno-libertarians who love free speech.
Up to this point, 8chan has benefited from its mythology as the darkest place on the Internet. Banning it won’t stop the Internet’s extremists from finding another dark corner — and tempting the media to similarly “fetishize” it, as online-extremism researcher Joan Donovan wrote in the wake of El Paso. In BuzzFeed, reporter Ryan Broderick has argued that shutting down 8chan won’t fix the fact that anger and bigotry are driving American young men to extreme spaces, and that the next 8chan may already exist on a decentralized platform like Telegram or Discord, which have both been used by online racists to commune and organize.
Still, it’s possible that the current backlash against 8chan might actually hamper online extremists — partly by depriving them of the stage that gave them access to mainstream audiences. It may at least take some time for the users to regroup. “8chan had become so deeply entrenched,” Lewis said, “that any downtime could impact that.”