March 15, 2019, changed everything about our understanding of the real world impact of online hate. A shooter opens fire at two Christchurch mosques - killing 51 people. On an online image board called 8chan, the shooter's actions were anticipated, celebrated and amplified.
What was this site, also known as Infinity Chan? Who's responsible for the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, mysognist material it spreads?
Stuff Circuit journalists traveled to the United States and the Philippines in search of answers. The result of their investigation is a video documentary, Infinite Evil, available now.
This accompanying site includes three interactive elements as part of the investigation: what a viral meme tells us about online hate, how tech companies responded to the Christchurch attacks, and an extended interview with 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan.
Infinite Evil is a compelling yet terrifying portrait of the site which describes itself as "the darkest reaches of the Internet", an anonymous haven for extremists who vow to continue - whatever attempts are made to shut them down.
The Stuff Circuit team can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roles and responsibility
|The internet message board site which hosts racist and extreme-right content becomes what researchers call the "go-to forum" for the alleged shooter. Users of the site's /pol board, who remain anonymous, develop a culture of memes and "s...posting" to advance anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and other extreme views. Moments before the attack, a message is posted to /pol, saying, "Well lads, it's time to stop s...posting and time to make a real life effort post", along with a link to the Facebook Live feed, and links to a manifesto. The post is anonymous, but features the same avatar as the one used on other social media accounts connected to the alleged shooter. The post attracts hundreds of responses from 8 chan users, including many who download the video and manifesto to preserve and spread them. 8chan users begin making memes celebrating and glorifying the attack, and begin posting translations of the manifesto. 8chan owner Jim Watkins issues a statement defending the site, saying it was not responsible for the Christchurch attack and should not be criticised for what a lone person did. A Californian man opens fire in a synagogue, killing one woman and wounding the rabbi and two others, after posting a manifesto to 8chan, citing the Christchurch attack as inspiration and repeating aspects of the alleged Christchurch shooter's manifesto. A man in El Paso, Texas, kills 20 people at a shopping mall, claiming in a post to 8chan that he has drawn inspiration from the Christchurch attacks. 8chan users celebrate his violence against mostly Hispanic victims. After losing its security protection from Cloudflare, cancelled in response to the El Paso killings, 8chan goes offline. 8chan re-appears on the dark web, announcing to users, "8chan is coming back online around the world. Shout out to our team working hard in the background to restore services." Its appearance is intermitent but those behind the site say they are determined to re-emerge. 8chan owner Jim Watkins is subpoenaed to appear before a House of Representatives Committee in the United States over his site's role in three killings this year. In a video response, he says he'll keep the site offline voluntarily until he's spoken to lawmakers and describes the fact that 8chan isn't operating as "really, really sad".|
|Links to the video and manifesto are posted to the American-based website, an internet forum known as "the web's biggest stalker community". NZ Police write to Kiwi Farms regarding the Christchurch shooting, pointing out that posts and links were posted to the site and requesting it to preserve any posts and technical data including IP addresses, email addresses etc linked to these posts pending a formal legal request". Kiwi Farms' owner responds saying NZ has no jurisdiction over the website and it will not be co-operating, signing off, "F... you and f... your s...hole country". The Kiwi Farms' owner clarifies his response to the NZ Police, saying if the detective had asked for leads on the alleged Christchurch shooter, he would have obliged, "because I have no interest obstructing ongoing investigations". The request as it was worded was "an overreach and one without limitations". Excerpts from the manifesto, screengrabs from the video, and comments both celebrating and condemning the attack remain online.|
|Cloudflare, a San Francisco company which provides infrastructure and support, such as security protection, to millions of websites, counts 8chan as a client. Cloudflare faces calls for it to dump 8chan as a client or be boycotted, with critics say its services are enabling the website to continue hosting extreme and racist content. Cloudflare tells Stuff Circuit it will not be halting its relationship with 8chan, citing previous arguments that it is not its job to be a censor of the internet. In response to the El Paso shooting, Cloudflare reverses its earlier position and cuts off its contract to protect 8chan, leading to the site being pulled offline. Stuff Circuit asks Cloudflare why it didn't terminate 8chan's contract after Christchurch but it did after El Paso. Why did it take an extra 22 deaths for it to take action? Cloudflare doesn't respond.|
|Links to about 30 videos, many showing anti-Muslim and white genocide content from the platform are posted to social media accounts in the name of the alleged shooter, in the days leading up to the attacks. Within minutes of the shooting, the first copy of the live video is uploaded to YouTube. It is watched by at least 100 people and more than half a dozen people leave comments. A team of YouTube staff pulls down tens of thousands of copies of the video. Many copies of the footage have been slightly altered to thwart YouTube's attempts to automatically recognise it, and some are turned into animations, so as to make it appear it is a scene from a video game. YouTube faces increasing calls to do more to prevent the spread of white supremacist and other racist content on its site, and to address what is called the "algorithmic nudge" which recommends extreme videos to viewers. YouTube parent company Google joins other tech companies in signing a nine-step plan to implement changes to stamp out hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence. YouTube announces it will ban neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and other conspiracy theorists from its platform as it faces continued pressure over hateful content on its site. Links to at least 15 YouTube videos posted on a Facebook account in the name of the alleged shooter remain live on YouTube. While some appear benign, some have hidden messages including encouraging white European women to have children, and footage of Muslims being attacked. Links to about 10 videos have been removed, including some since banned by YouTube for hate speech.|
| ||Extreme content, including material dealing with white genocide, is posted to an account in the name of the alleged shooter. A video of the shooting at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch is posted to Facebook using the Facebook Live function, via an account in the name of the alleged shooter. It screens for 17 minutes and is watched by hundreds of people on Facebook, none of whom report it to the company's moderators. Twelve minutes after the livestream ends, New Zealand police notify Facebook about it, and the video is removed. In the first 24 hours after the attack, 1.5 million copies of the video are blocked or removed from Facebook - 300,000 of which made it onto the site. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg writes an open letter to New Zealand acknowleging, "We have heard feedback that we must do more - and we agree." Privacy Commissioner meets with Facebook executives in Wellington and criticises the company for doing nothing to prevent anyone else from live-streaming a video like the Christchurch shooting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives an exclusive TV interview to an American network, defending the company's reaction to Christchurch and resisting calls to introduce changes such as a time-delay on live-streaming. In a series of tweets, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards calls Facebook "morally bankrupt pathological liars" over its response to Christchurch and other incidents. Facebook announces it is making changes to its live-stream feature, including saying there would be a "one-strike" policy restricting users who breach rules. It was also investing in research to find new methods to find edited versions of banned videos. Facebook joins other tech companies in signing a nine-step plan to implement changes to stamp out hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence.|
| || Streams of extreme content, including pictures of firearms, are posted to an account connected to the alleged shooter. Just before the shooting, links to copies of the manifesto are posted to an account in the name of the alleged shooter. Hundreds of people respond to the Tweet, including those who abuse him, and some who salute him. An account in the name of the alleged shooter is suspended, as the company continues to remove links to copies of the video. Twitter joins other tech companies in signing a nine-step plan to implement change to stamp out hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence. |
Twitter boss Jack Dorsey meets NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris, the only tech company CEO to attend. Twitter announces that it is updating its rules against hateful content to include language that dehumanizes people on the basis of their religion. While the Twitter account in the name of the alleged shooter has been suspended and taken offline, responses to the March 15 tweet posted just before the attack took place remain online. Among the hundreds of responses to the tweet are people cheering the actions of the alleged shooter, far-right memes, and racist slurs.
NZ internet service providers
|NZ ISPs announce they have taken the radical step of shutting off access to 8chan while it continues to host copies of the video. The ban only effects internet users accessing the site through the normal channels - access via the dark web remains one way New Zealanders can reach the site. Heads of NZ telecommunications companies sign a joint letter to the tech companies calling on them to take action to prevent videos such as the Christchurch attack being uploaded and shared. NZ ISPs lift block against 8chan, even though copies of the video and manifesto remain widely available on the site. Spark says that even if 8chan manages to get itself back up online, Spark customers will not be able to access the site - it is permanently banned from the network. Other broadband providers are considering their positions, with Vodafone saying if 8chan does return to the internet "we will consider options, bearing in mind that we don’t believe, in principle, that it is the role of the ISPs to police the internet".|
Index of Responsibility: stars indicate a rating of technology companies' roles and reactions to Christchurch and online hate, from "worse than useless" (★) to "excellent" (★★★★★).
The anatomy of a tweet
The green face
The clown nose
The rainbow wig
On April 8, 2019, three weeks after the Christchurch attack, actor James Woods posted to Twitter a meme which had many similarities to ones being created and shared on 8chan. It’s not known where Woods got the meme from, but the fact he shared it with his two million-plus followers was celebrated on 8chan and by alt-right Twitter accounts.
So what did it mean?
The overall main image of the Tweet itself is based on a screengrab from the video the alleged shooter filmed during the attack itself on March 15. It shows him in his car moments before the events began. The image has been the basis of many memes created and shared on 8chan. Almost immediately after the attack, 8chan users began creating memes based on the video to capitalise on the incident and spread their message.
The face of the alleged shooter has been changed to green in reference to Pepe the Frog, also known as Pepe Le Pen. The frog, which originated as a comic series character in 2005, became a popular meme character. In 2015-2016, it came to be associated with the alt-right, featuring in popular memes including one Tweeted by Donald Trump (showing himself as Pepe standing in front of a podium with a Presidential Seal).
This references Clown Pepe, or Honk Honk, which became a symbol for racist and pro-nationalist tropes from 2019, believed to have originated on another message board site, 4chan. It has featured in many alt-right, anti-semetic memes, and “Honk honk” has become a phrase used to indicate praise or encouragement from the far-right.
In early 2019, alt-right and nationalist “anons” (anonymous users of 4chan or 8chan) began “Operation Honk” which aimed to “take back the rainbow”. It was an attempt to “steal” the rainbow symbol from the LGBT community. This is a common tactic of the meme creators of the alt-right, driving campaigns to create a moral panic and make “normies” (the uninitiated) and mainstream media think certain symbols are Nazi or racist symbols. Other examples include a successful 4chan hoax operation to associate the “OK” sign with white power.
This is an image of Lil Lunchbox, a vlogger who says she identifies as a clown. On April 5, 2019, she posted a video saying she was going to reclaim the Clown Pepe meme from the alt-right and see to it that it was no longer viewed as a symbol of racism. The video drew a strong reaction, including the Woods tweet.
Immediately after Woods’ tweet, alt-right commenters began posting “honk honk” and one anon posted a screengrab of it to 8chan with the words: “Holy shit! We’ve got one hell of a signal boost here, lads!”
Woods’ tweet three days later, with the hashtag #ClownLady is in reference to the push-back against Lil Lunchbox’s campaign to reclaim Clown Pepe. But after journalist Jon Levine pointed out that the meme Woods had tweeted featured the Christchurch shooting video, Woods quickly posted tweets praising Lil Lunchbox and calling her his “new favourite person on Twitter”.
Sources: KnowYourMeme.com, Twitter, 8chan
Fredrick Brennan founded the notorious 8chan message board site in 2013 after dreaming up the idea while on a mushroom trip. But now he has cut his ties with it, and his relationship with current owner Jim Watkins has soured. In this interview with Stuff Circuit reporter Paula Penfold, Brennan explains what was behind his original idea for the site - and how it all went wrong.