Opinion: 8chan breeds mass shooters. Can it be stopped?
A few months ago, I defended Facebook’s decision to ban several well-known provocateurs (including Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan) from its platform, arguing that online companies have a right to enforce their terms of service. But what about the opposite scenario — when a site welcomes hate speech? That’s the question raised by 8chan, a platform for anonymous posts too awful for the likes of Reddit or even 4chan. The site has provided a home, albeit briefly, for the racist manifestos supposedly penned by three alleged mass shooters this year. The latest of the three, who is accused of killing 20 and wounding dozens more in El Paso, also cited the screed written by the first, the man who killed 49 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand earlier this year.
That sort of contagion cries out for quarantine. And that’s just what started to happen Sunday, when Cloudflare — the company that helped distribute 8chan’s content and shielded it from denial of service attacks — dropped the message board platform like freshly microwaved potato.
Before you go all Bill of Rights on me, that’s not a 1st Amendment issue. Cloudflare can set its own terms of service, provided it doesn’t discriminate against protected classes (and no, incels and white supremacists don’t qualify). It is, however, a form of censorship, the kind that respectable brands practice when they find themselves besmirched by the company they keep. And it’s effective, to a point; 8chan has been unreachable since Cloudflare cut its ties.
As Cloudflare noted, there are plenty of other service providers out there that 8chan can use. But shortly after 8chan found another one — Epik, which also hosts the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer and the hate-speech haven Gab — its new host was dropped by its own internet service provider, Voxility. That knocked 8chan and every other Epik customer offline, temporarily lowering the level of bile and vitriol in the virtual world.
Nevertheless, it seems like just a matter of time before 8chan finds its way back online. That’s because there’s no shortage of companies such as Epik, whose owners have embraced a libertarian mission of providing service to everyone, regardless of how ugly their views might be.
So what are the options here? The government can’t order 8chan to clean up its boards without running afoul of the 1st Amendment, which gives publishers enormous protection even when they host the manifestos written by mass killers. As Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy and Technology put it, “There’s a lot of things that people are actually permitted by law to say that are hateful, that are spreading dissent and discord.”
Nor would you get very far by pressuring advertisers to avoid 8chan, given that the site doesn’t seem to rely on them. It’s a vanity project of sorts, sustained in part by donations from users. Google has already stopped indexing 8chan’s home page, but that’s just a speed bump for anyone who knows how to use Google to search within specific sites.
In fact, speed bumps are pretty much the only thing that other internet companies can throw in 8chan’s way. And while that’s maddening in many ways, it’s probably better than the existing alternatives.
The internet was designed to have no gatekeeper, which may very well be the best thing about it. Just look at how poorly companies do when they’re thrust into that role on their own sites. Cloudflare’s explanation for why it bounced 8chan seems to be grounded in the outrage over the killings, not in some principle that guides how it evaluates all sites. Twitter’s treatment of hate speech moves in strange and mysterious ways. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube helped Russian trolls meddle in the race for the world’s most important elected office. Given this track record, imagine what the internet would be like if a single company or group of internet infrastructure providers could blacklist a site for nor hewing to a poorly defined set of rules, with no avenue of appeal.
That doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of 8chan and its ilk. It means we have to accept that these sites will exist and, because they refuse to moderate their users’ posts, that they will be magnets for the darkest version of humanity. In other words, they will provide a window into what the most disaffected people among us are thinking. What we ultimately do with that information will depend on how much we value security over unbridled free expression. Will the posts make it easier for law enforcement to identify potential domestic terrorists? Would the sites act as tip lines for the FBI? Or does that smack of a surveillance state?
These are the sort of trade-offs that the internet and the 1st Amendment present. I suspect that your answer to those questions will depend on how closely you identify with the manifesto writers’ victims.
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