The House Homeland Security Committee’s top Republican wants to help police and the tech industry combat 8chan and other “online terror fronts” after a gunman, thought to have to posted a bigoted manifesto on the fringe message board, killed 22 people in El Paso on Saturday.
If the suspect is confirmed to have posted the manifesto, it would be the third mass shooting of the year to be announced in advance on 8chan, which played host to hateful declarations by the perpetrators of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March and the synagogue attack outside San Diego in April.
Following the shooting in El Paso, Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., the Homeland Security Committee’s ranking member, said “hateful ideologies amplified by 8chan and other fringe websites are propelling young people toward violence before law enforcement is able to act.”
“Yesterday’s events were yet again enabled by the echo chambers these fringe websites have created,” he said in a Sunday statement.
Rogers suggested “working with law enforcement and industry to develop a comprehensive strategy to detect and disrupt online terror fronts.”
In comments from the White House on Monday, President Donald Trump said “the perils of the internet and social media cannot be ignored and they will not be ignored.”
“We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump said. “We must shine light on the dark recesses of the internet and stop mass murders before they start.”
It’s unclear exactly what action Congress or the administration could take against 8chan, which is run by Jim Watkins, a U.S. Army veteran, out of the Philippines. Frederick Brennan, who built the site but abandoned it in 2015, called for the site to be shut down in an interview with the New York Times on Sunday.
Watkins has resisted such calls, although public pressure against the site has already hurt it. Cloudflare, one of the service providers that hosts 8chan, said on Sunday it would no longer work with the site.
“The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths,” wrote Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive, in a blog post Sunday. “Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”
Following Cloudflare’s announcement on Monday, Rogers told CQ the government’s efforts “should be focused on containing, counter messaging, and delegitimizing these bastions of hate.”
But Prince’s post also highlighted why free speech and the ideal of an open internet have made it difficult to rein in sites such as 8chan.
“Cloudflare is not a government,” Prince wrote. “While we’ve been successful as a company, that does not give us the political legitimacy to make determinations on what content is good and bad. Nor should it.”
He said the company “reluctantly tolerates content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design.”
8chan appeared temporarily offline Monday afternoon after the web services company Voxility, a second host, severed ties with the site earlier in the day, according to The Verge.
At a hearing in May, law enforcement officials said that mainstream social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have improved their content moderation policies to limit radical content. But asked by Rogers whether they had suggestions for dealing with fringe sites that show little interest in self-moderation, the officials were silent.
“That’s scary,” said Rogers in response. “We can’t make policy without good advisement.”