8chan going offline is a first step in fighting online extremism and hate, but taking down extremists' platforms of choice cannot be effective if their ideas are allowed to thrive elsewhere—including in European politicsby Cécile Guerin / August 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” These words appeared on the anonymous messaging board 8chan less than twenty minutes before the deadly mass shooting in a Walmart in the Texan town of El Paso on Saturday.
According to news reports, the attacker is the suspected author of a hate-filled anti-immigrant rant, in he which advocated defending the country from “cultural and ethnic replacement.” This is an explicit reference to French theoretician Renaud Camus’s “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which claims that European elites are leading concerted efforts to replace white Christian populations in Europe with Muslim and African people.
Paso is the third attack in the last six months which was accompanied by a text referencing the ideas of “great replacement” and “white genocide”—two notions often used together by extreme far-right militants to galvanise supporters around ideas of racial anxiety and existential threat.
In March, a white supremacist published a nearly 80-page long manifesto on 8chan before livestreaming on Facebook his mass shooting in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The same scenario unfolded in Poway, California when the shooter had hyperlinked an anti-Semitic manifesto before carrying out a deadly attack at the local synagogue.
With its culture of anonymity, trolling and “ironic” racism, unregulated platforms such as 4chan and its more extreme offshoot 8chan have become a haven for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and far-right extremists of all kinds. Now, they are offering a platform for far-right inspired terrorists to make their real-world attacks go viral. Through 8chan, a previously niche conspiracy theory by a relatively obscure French writer has been linked to three deadly attacks and caused dozens of deaths.
8chan has rightly come under fire, and its founder Frederick Brennan called for the platform to be taken down. One of the service providers announced it had severed its ties to the message board, which went offline.
While a crackdown on 8chan might temporarily deal a blow to extremists, similar platforms are likely to resurface in ever darker corners of the web. Greater government enforcement of hate speech laws online is an important step, but seemingly quick-fix solutions that focus on individual platforms will not address the threat of far-right extremism and terrorism.
Gun violence has a particular resonance in the US, but the threat of far-right extremism is global.
A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League showed right-wing extremists account for three quarters of terror attack victims since 2009. According to Germany’s latest intelligence service report, around 12,700 far-right extremists in the country appear prepared to use violence. After Christchurch, the UK started including far-right extremism in its official threat warnings.
The solution lies in combatting the mainstreaming of extremist ideology that created and emboldened the attackers. Our recent research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has shown that the rhetoric of the “great replacement” and “white genocide” at the heart of Christchurch and El Paso attacks is no longer confined to isolated extremist groups.
Members of right-wing populist and far-right political parties across Europe—from the AfD in Germany to the Freedom Party of Austria and France’s former Front National party (today called National Rally)—have referenced it as a legitimate talking point.
Discussions are also spreading fast on mainstream social media platforms. ISD’s researchers found 1.5 million messages referencing the “great replacement” theory between April 2012 and 2019 English, French and German, with mentions increasing three-fold in the last four years. 7 per cent of discussions of the “great replacement” took place in the UK.
As a remedy to the “great replacement” they believe is taking place in Europe some mainstream political parties are now advocating for the “remigration” of ethnic and religious minorities—a euphemism for mass deportations. The AfD, for instance, ran a remigration campaign in the run-up to the European elections in May. Remigration also featured in the election campaign in France.
Donald Trump’s description of immigrants as “rapists” and “invaders,” his retweets of extremist influencers and his calls to “send back” elected politicians to their native countries are part of the mainstreaming of a divisive rhetoric that targets ethnic and religious minorities, encourages a culture of fear and dehumanises immigrants.
The El Paso attacker’s belief he was fighting an “invasion” directly echoed Trump’s words. 8chan going offline is a first step in fighting online extremism and hate, but taking down extremists’ platforms of choice cannot be effective if their ideas are allowed to thrive elsewhere.