The online forum 8chan has been in the news in relation to the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a key element in the radicalisation of far-right and white supremacist extremists.
The more extreme version of the better known 4chan – itself often referred to as a “cesspool” in other social media – 8chan hosted the so-called manifesto of the shooter, as well as links to the Facebook livestream videos shortly before the shooting commenced.
Online far-right and white supremacist radicalisation is a growing concern, and for many the gut reaction has been to simply attempt to ban all presence of it from the online world. But according to one expert on the subject, driving such platforms underground is a more effective approach.
Online radicalisation: 8chan and beyond
For many, 8chan is increasingly been seen as central to online radicalisation, blending extremist messages with memes and other social media content. However it is one of a number of forums where this kind of radicalisation occurs.
“White supremacy extremists often describe radicalising via video-hosting platforms and going down ‘the rabbit hole’,” explained Patrick Pugh, physical security analyst Flashpoint.
“Platforms like 8chan and 4chan are better for shitposting (making patently false, insincere, or fantastical statements), sharing original memes to ‘trigger normies’ (triggering meaning to provoke; normies meaning anyone not open to radical or extremist ideologies), and to get ‘lulz’ and ‘kek’ (both meaning laughs).”
While many of the users of these sites never take any action on the attitudes encouraged by sites such as 8chan, for some this translates into acts of far-right terrorism.
“They radicalise on platforms on which videos are hosted where they can absorb narratives that European people/culture are victimised and under existential threat,” said Pugh.
“Some who become convinced of this narrative radicalise further to potentially attempt to engage in redemptive violence.
“The issue of radicalisation is inextricably linked to narratives that permeate culture and conversations among a wider base of any population. What distinguishes extremists is the belief that violence is both necessary and justified to counter the perception of an existential threat.”
Extremism and the Christchurch shootings
The horrific attack on two mosques in Christchurch, which saw 49 people murdered, was enacted by a person characteristic of this type of radicalisation.
“From the manifesto, it’s clear that the shooter is engaged in ‘accelerationist violence’ wherein extremists try to escalate tensions between ethnic, cultural, or political groups with the goal of pitting one side against the other,” said Pugh.
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“Extremists literally say that they want to force people ‘to choose a side’. White supremacy extremists talk about this all the time. They want civil war and societal collapse.”
Combatting online extremism
Given the horrendous impacts of this kind of online extremism, it’s clear that far more needs to be done to prevent online environments such as 8chan from so effectively fostering growing far-right and white nationalist attitudes.
But it’s important to note that 8chan’s reach has already been muted: it has been de-listed from Google for some time, yet is still readily found and used.
According to Pugh, the focus should not be on trying to ban such platforms, but instead starve them of the tools that make their radicalisation efforts effective.
“The US government, at least, cannot abridge free speech, including advocacy of violence. But since mainstream video-hosting platforms have no such obligation, it would feasible and encouraged for them to address the presence of extremist content that implicitly or explicitly advocates for violence or paints a picture that violence is both necessary and justified in order to meet an existential threat,” he said.
“Driving it underground would deprive extremists of technologically-reliable hosting platforms.”
There are concerns that forcing such attitudes underground can make them harder to effectively combat, however he indicates that this is not necessarily the case.
“While this may make it harder for investigators to discover, it will also make it harder for folks susceptible to radicalisation to find,” he said.
“Discussion of ‘traitors,’ ‘invaders,’ and needing to do something “in real life” or “IRL” are the watchwords for investigators trying to find a particular needle, not in a haystack, but in a stack of needles.”