Financial ‘So What’s His Kill Count?’: The Toxic Online World Where Mass Shooters Thrive
September 5, 2019
Less than two weeks after a gunman killed more than 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, law-enforcement officials found a disturbing piece of graffiti outside a San Diego County mosque that had been set on fire. “For
-t./pol/,” it read.
The cryptic message, which paid homage to the alleged New Zealand shooter and a dark corner of the internet where such shootings are celebrated, foreshadowed a string of violence.
In April, one month after the graffiti appeared,
the man who police say vandalized the mosque, allegedly
attacked a nearby synagogue, leaving one person dead. Then, in August, a shooting in an El Paso Walmart killed 22. One week later, a Norwegian man allegedly opened fire at an Oslo mosque.
The trio of suspects don’t appear ever to have met, but they all idolized Mr. Tarrant and were part of a hate-filled online community that is emerging as an important front in law-enforcement efforts to ward off future attacks.
The online forums, known as /pol/ for “politically incorrect,” offer a platform for hate speech where posts are almost always anonymous, making it difficult for law enforcement to identify who is using the sites. Hateful ideologies, including white supremacy, are promoted across the sites and used to incite violence, forming a chain of influence that appears to have led from one mass shooting to the next. When one site is shut down, users swiftly migrate to another.
In April, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., killing one.
Denis Poroy/Associated Press
Mass shooters are revered on the forums, which brim with racist and antigay content. Posts encourage attacks against mosques, synagogues and immigrants. Large numbers of fatalities are celebrated as “high scores.”
When a gunman in West Texas
opened fire on Saturday, the forums lit up, with users demanding to know his “kill count” and saying they hoped he was white and his victims Hispanic. The alleged shooter doesn’t appear to have ties to the forums.
most popular site among extremists, 8chan, has been largely knocked offline in recent weeks after tech-support providers cut off service. But extremists and violent rhetoric are popping up elsewhere. The alleged attacker at the Oslo mosque posted on another site, Endchan. A letter New Zealand authorities said Mr. Tarrant sent from jail, which warns of bloodshed soon to come, was posted on another site, 4chan. The sites are unconnected.
Lawmakers and law-enforcement officials are trying to better understand how the sites function and what can be done to combat the calls to violence posted there. Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee subpoenaed
8chan’s owner, to testify Thursday about extremist content. The committee is weighing whether the government should take a more active role in trying to prevent the spread of such content, and how the sites can flag potential violence to law enforcement, according to a person familiar with the committee’s plans. Committee Chairman
Bennie G. Thompson
(D., Miss.) has vowed to hold hearings to discuss how to better fight what he calls domestic terrorism.
Counterterrorism experts and others who study the forums say they provide inspiration for some participants to act, catalyzing a succession of lone-wolf shooters who try to one-up one another. Shutting them down entirely will be all but impossible, said
who has investigated internet extremism for years with research collective Bellingcat. “I expect we will see shootings that are inspired by these manifestos but posted on places other than 8chan because the site is down,” he said.
Law-enforcement officials say Mr. Earnest, the 20-year-old accused in the San Diego attack,
the alleged shooter in El Paso, and Mr. Tarrant all posted racist pronouncements to 8chan’s /pol/ forum ahead of their attacks. In each case, other users responded while the shootings were going on.
“He at least did something, thats respectable,” one 8chan user posted about Mr. Earnest’s alleged synagogue shooting.
“So what’s his kill count?” said another.
director of the Center for Research on Extremism in Oslo, said: “You have this idea that they should outdo each other.” Sites such as 8chan, he said, are “where they find their inspiration….That’s where they expect to get fame and recognition.”
An image taken from video that circulated on social media, apparently taken by the gunman who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, shows him retrieving weapons from his car.
Messrs. Tarrant and Earnest have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Crusius hasn’t yet been arraigned. Mr. Earnest’s lawyer declined to comment. Lawyers for the other two suspects didn’t respond to requests for comment.
8chan didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In postings on Twitter and YouTube after the subpoena, Mr. Watkins, who resides in the Philippines, said he isn’t an extremist, and he defended 8chan as a bastion of free speech.
Mr. Watkins said the site had a million users, and 4chan has said its site has more than 20 million. SimiliarWeb, an internet traffic research firm, estimates 8chan has 10 million to 20 million visits a month.
Founded in 2013, 8chan gained popularity the following year when 4chan, a similar site with less hate speech and more moderation, cracked down on users who were harassing women who developed and reviewed videogames. 8chan embraced those users.
The site calls itself “the darkest reaches of the internet.” Its home page carries a disclaimer saying that some topic sections, or “boards,” might “have content of an adult or offensive nature,” and only content violating U.S. laws is deleted.
Anonymity is protected. Users are given a random ID number for each discussion, and frequently use jargon alien to outsiders—derisively referred to as “normies.” The stripped-down user interface seems straight out of the 1990s. It contains lists of links to discussion boards on such topics as anime, pornography and videogames.
Unpaid moderators on 8chan’s /pol/ forum promote certain ideologies, according to one researcher of radical online communities who has studied the site for years. One moderator deleted anti-Trump statements, the researcher said, while others argue about whether to support patriotism or white nationalism. Recruiters for the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi terrorist group, lurk on the site, he said.
The 8chan forum is most popular with young men.
Often users show up on 8chan airing vague frustrations. The tone often starts as mocking and sarcastic. Then other users encourage them to express anger at groups they identify as the enemy—often Jews, feminists, black people and other minorities—giving the newcomers a sense of purpose, according to the researcher.
Anti-Semitic cartoons, diatribes against race mixing and proclamations of a coming “race war” dominate 8chan’s /pol/ board. A popular meme depicts images of murdered white women, a message intended to persuade white women not to associate with nonwhite men and justify promoting race-based violence. Another popular meme asks users: “What have you done today for the white race?”
the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in 2011, is lionized, and his 1,500-page screed, which was frequently shared on 8chan, is a touchstone. Mr. Tarrant cited Mr. Breivik as his guiding light.
Mr. Evans, of Bellingcat, analyzed how 75 extremists on the internet said they had become radicalized. In about half of the cases, their paths
started with a radical YouTube video, typically anti-Semitic or Holocaust-denying, which pushes conspiracy theories. YouTube has said it has taken steps to reduce extremist content.
Police in Norway investigate the site of a massacre in 2011. The gunman, Anders Breivik, is lionized in some online forums.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
“8chan’s /pol/ board is the end of a journey of radicalization,” he said. “It’s to radicalize you into taking the next step.”
8chan played a major role in Mr. Earnest’s transformation, according to his online message and people close to him. He wrote that he had a lot going for him—a loving family, great friends, a church—and that he was doing well in nursing school. He said his family never taught him the ideology behind his attack.
The people close to Mr. Earnest said he began diverging politically from his family in 2016, when he began supporting then-candidate
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for president. He then started watching YouTube videos from right-wing commentators.
By late 2017, Mr. Earnest wrote, he had found his way to 8chan. People close to him said he began talking about Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character appropriated by white supremacists as a sort of mascot, and started tossing around clichés of anti-Semitism: Holocaust denial and the supposed existence of a Jewish conspiracy controlling government, Hollywood, major organizations and trade unions.
“He made it clear that 4chan was like amateur league, and he had risen to 8chan,” one of the people close to him said.
He also started using the N-word, prompting objections from family members, who noted that the pastor’s wife at their Orthodox Presbyterian Church is black. Mr. Earnest would respond that it wasn’t a big deal.
The 8chan homepage on Aug. 5, just before tech-support providers effectively shut it down.
His family grew concerned and warned him that he could be manipulated by the anonymous people he was talking to online, said the person close to him. “That was not enough to overcome the grab that these ideas had on him that he gained from these anonymous sources,” this person said. Mr. Earnest always had a “canned” response defending his ideology.
In the months before the attack, he seemed more sullen and slower to laugh, the people close to him said. Still, those around him didn’t think he was dangerous. They hadn’t visited the site themselves or seen what he may have been posting there.
“I believed this was going to resolve,” one of them said. “We obviously did not understand the trajectory of where this would land.”
In the wake of the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting, web-infrastructure company Cloudflare took down the online message board where the alleged shooter posted an anti-immigrant screed. So-called deplatforming is a growing strategy to stem the rise of hate speech online, but does it work?
In the statement Mr. Earnest allegedly posted to 8chan shortly before the shooting began, he offered gratitude to 8chan and said Mr. Tarrant had inspired him.
“I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half, yet, what I’ve learned here is priceless,” the statement said about 8chan. “Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally….I only wish to inspire others.”
Mr. Tarrant had worn a camera and live-streamed his New Zealand attack, a practice that experts say turns shootings into a twisted form of entertainment. Mr. Earnest allegedly planned to film his attack, too. During the shooting, a link to a Facebook Live stream was widely shared on the 8chan /pol/ board, although people on 8chan said they couldn’t load it. Users joked and offered critiques, some mocking him for failing to kill more people.
“What the f— shooting style is this,” said one. “Garbage.”
“Go over to the synagogue and finish this retard’s work,” said another.
“I don’t think you get the title of ‘mass shooter’ unless you score at least 2,” said a third.
Still another weighed in: “Contrary to popular belief, shooting them in the nose doesn’t kill a jew?”
For law enforcement, 8chan postings and discussions are potential evidence—and a breeding ground for more violence. After the San Diego area attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served a warrant to 8chan, seeking IP addresses and information about all the people who responded to Mr. Earnest’s posting or commented about it. “Some of the individuals may be potential witnesses, co-conspirators and/or individuals who are inspired by the subject posting,” the warrant said.
Mr. Crusius, the El Paso shooting suspect, cited similar motivations to Mr. Earnest’s in the statement he allegedly posted on 8chan. He wrote: “I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto,” a reference to Mr. Tarrant. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Commenters on the site celebrated. “The new guy deserves some praise, he reached almost a third of the high score,” one wrote, a reference to the largest death toll in any mass shooting.
Under pressure following the El Paso massacre, internet-infrastructure provider Cloudflare Inc. stopped supporting 8chan,
making it difficult to access. Cloudflare called the site “lawless by design.”
John Earnest, the suspect in an attack on a San Diego-area synagogue, allegedly posted a statement on 8chan before the shooting.
Some users circulated a document with instructions for finding 8chan on a hidden server on the dark web, a network of computers that use special software to conceal their true locations. Others migrated to other sites or to encrypted chat apps, where they are finding a thriving community similar to the one they left, according to
a professor of computer science at Elon University in North Carolina, who studies online extremism.
“They are following ISIS. They are under the same pressure to avoid detection,” she said.
Exactly one week after El Paso,
a 21-year-old Norwegian, allegedly posted a message on Endchan, another fringe site that has more moderation and less focus on violence than 8chan.
“It’s my time,” said a posting that carried his name. “I was elected by Saint Tarrant,” a reference to the New Zealand suspect. He also posted a meme celebrating Messrs. Earnest and Crusius as “disciples” of Mr. Tarrant.
Mr. Manshaus then allegedly went to the Oslo mosque and opened fire, injuring one person before being subdued by congregants.
The post attributed to him said he tried to set up a live stream of his attack on Facebook but wasn’t able to get it to work.
Endchan moderators quickly deleted the post and briefly took their site offline. They said a “large influx” of 8chan refugees had hit their site and many sites like theirs.
“This shooter is NOT representative of our regular user base,” Endchan said in a post on Twitter. “We have operated since 2015 without any incidents like this.”
Mr. Manshaus’s message was reposted on 4chan, where it spread quickly, generating scores of comments.
“God i hope he got a solid kill count on some actual shitting islamic invaders, not women and children,” one anonymous poster wrote.
When it became clear no one had died, many commenters mocked Mr. Manshaus in posts riddled with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic slurs.
“what a f—ing disappointment tho. no deads. no livestream,” one commenter wrote. “how many times will this happen? f—ing train at least”
“Some people aren’t made to kill,” wrote another. “He probably freaked out. Anders Breivik was stone cold, he went out like a terminator.”
4chan didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The suspect in the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, allegedly visited 8chan’s /pol/ forum.
larry w. smith/EPA/Shutterstock
A group on chat app Telegram called The Bowlcast—a reference to the bowl-style haircut of Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015—posted a series of podcasts about which of these shooters they should canonize, according to Ms. Squire, who has viewed the posts and listened to the podcasts. Mr. Earnest, from San Diego, earned sainthood, they decided, but not Mr. Manshaus, because he was overtaken by worshipers at the mosque.
Shortly after the Oslo shooting, Mr. Tarrant surfaced again, this time via photographs posted on 4chan of
a letter he allegedly wrote from his New Zealand prison. The letter, which received hundreds of comments on 4chan, concluded with talk of a “great conflict” on the horizon that would involve “a great amount of bloodshed.”
“Enjoy life,” he signed off, “but do not forget your duty to your people.”
Write to Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com and Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com
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