How the FBI handles online forums like 8chan

National

NEW YORK (AP/WOOD) — An anonymous online forum called 8chan has drawn attention in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio because violent U.S. extremists have used it to share tips and encourage one another. The site suffered sporadic outages Monday after its cybersecurity provider cut off support for what it called a “cesspool of hate.”

WHAT IS 8CHAN?

The online message board dates back to 2013. It allows users to post graphic and extremist content and doesn’t censor posts.

“8chan is something that holds a lot of information where people can be pretty hateful,” FBI Special Agent Kenneth Lavictoire told 24 Hour News 8.

The site has been linked to violent extremists. Police are investigating commentary posted on 8chan believed to have been written by the suspect in a shooting Saturday that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas.

If there is a connection, it would be the third known instance of a shooter posting to the site before going on a rampage. In March, the gunman in mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques posted a rambling manifesto to the site, as did another who injured several people and killed one at a California synagogue in April.

Lavictoire says the FBI has had 8chan on its radar. But he doesn’t blame its creators for the problems.

“I don’t go back to the founders of 8chan or anyone else. It’s the people who want to use that mechanism to do harm,” said Lavictoire. “You don’t blame GM for people who drive drunk; they’re just misusing a very valuable tool.”

8chan is just one of hundreds of online platforms that allow like-minded people to meet and exchange ideas.

“It’s like a road,” said Lavictoire. “There are hundreds of roads here in Grand Rapids, and there are literally thousands of roads in the United States and you use it for transporting ideas verses cars.”

WHY DID 8CHAN GO DOWN?

The site went down briefly after security provider Cloudflare said it would stop supporting the site. Without Cloudflare, the site was vulnerable to outside hackers who shut down the site.

“8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote. “They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths.”

CAN 8CHAN BE REGULATED?

8chan’s popularity rose after the similarly named but unaffiliated site 4chan cracked down on more extreme posts. Because the U.S. doesn’t specifically outlaw domestic terrorism the way it does foreign-sponsored extremism, such sites enjoy broad protection from government oversight under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

“The internet itself is really ungoverned,” said Lavictoire.

And factoring constitutional freedoms, it can get complicated.

“We do try to balance what is considered free speech and harmless banter with something else that could be considered serious,” said Lavictoire.

HOW THE FBI RESPONDS

Once the FBI feels a post could cause imminent danger, there usually isn’t enough time to figure out who posted it and from where before the act is carried out.

“It’s very difficult for law enforcement, any law enforcement entity to go from a post to a location within four hours or something like that,” explained Lavictoire.

In the case of El Paso, the post was uploaded minutes before the shooting.

SITE SHUTDOWN IMPACT

Lavictoire says its unclear how shutting down 8chan would impact public safety. Sites like 8chan are difficult to regulate because users can simply move on if moderations grow more strict or if a site shuts down.

“Sometimes dispersing it can have the opposite effect of keeping it contained in one area,” said Lavictoire.

“Dealing with incitement to violence and hatred online goes well beyond any one platform,” the American Defamation League’s Oren Segal said.

However, it’s also an open forum which means law enforcement have easy access to the information posted.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 8chan or a gaming forum, they’re out there and people are going to associate themselves with like-minded people. they are going to exchange bad ideas just like they do when they meet in person,” said Lavictoire. 

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