For almost three months, QAnon conspiracy theorists have been anxiously awaiting the return of 8chan, the defunct, extremist-friendly message board that’s integral to their far-right fringe movement. The site’s administrators have been scrambling under mounting pressure to bring it back online, but at each turn, they’ve encountered an unlikely adversary: 8chan’s own creator.
As the self-described “Darkest Reaches of the Internet,” 8chan is an anonymous, minimally moderated platform where bigotry, depravity and violence have been not only tolerated but encouraged, leading to the radicalization of some of its millions of users. The site has faced an uncertain future since August, when its network provider pulled it offline in the wake of an alleged 8chan radical’s shooting rampage.
That massacre, which targeted Mexican immigrants in El Paso, Texas, was the third 8chan-linked terror attack in five months. Prior to gunning down their victims, all three accused perpetrators posted hateful screeds to 8chan, where they were lauded after the bloodshed.
With 8chan now inaccessible, the message board’s hordes of displaced hatemongers are searching for a new place to share vile content without retreating to the dark web. Proponents of QAnon, a hyperpartisan, cult-like conspiracy theory network, have grown particularly restless. 8chan was their only verifiable line of communication with their mysterious leader, “Q,” a person (or people) who claims to be a government insider. Q would post cryptic messages to 8chan under a unique user ID, or tripcode, but has been silent since 8chan went dark.
8chan owner Jim Watkins, a rumored QAnon supporter himself, has been trying to fill his site’s void in recent weeks by resurrecting it as “8kun.” But behind the scenes, anti-extremism activists have been blocking his efforts by tracking which web service companies he’s been attempting to use to launch 8kun, then lobbying those firms not to do business with him.
Spearheading that campaign is 25-year-old 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan.
“8kun will be just as bad as 8chan,” Brennan, who sold 8chan to Watkins in 2016, told HuffPost in an interview from his home in Quezon City, Philippines, on Thursday. “It’s a bad-faith rebrand.”
Brennan says he has been a “thorn in [Watkins’] side” since El Paso, which is when he says he realized just how toxic his former site had become.
In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, Cloudflare, the notoriously content-neutral network provider 8chan was then using, steadfastly refused to boot it offline. Continuing to service 8chan was a “moral obligation,” CEO Matthew Prince told the Guardian at the time. But less than 24 hours later, Prince announced that his company would, in fact, pull the plug on 8chan due to its “lawlessness [that had] caused multiple tragic deaths.” Prince’s head-spinning reversal came shortly after The New York Times published a front-page interview with Brennan in which he called for the message board to be shut down.
Under pressure from Brennan and social media activists, other web service companies such as British firm Zare have cut Watkins as a client before 8kun could take off, VICE’s David Gilbert first reported Friday. After Zare pulled out, Watkins, who was not available for an interview with HuffPost, then pivoted to Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba. That didn’t last long, either: Alibaba dropped 8kun over the weekend; on Twitter, a company representative thanked Brennan for writing an open letter to Alibaba to bring the matter to public attention.
Tencent also shut 8kun down for violating its terms of service after noticing “recent reports about 8kun and [discovering] that 8kun resolved one of its domains to a virtual machine on Tencent Cloud,” a spokesperson told HuffPost.
Brennan’s crusade against unbridled online hate marks a conspicuous change from his past advocacy for free speech absolutism and ardent praise of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 law that shields online intermediaries from liability for user-generated content. As the owner of 8chan, Brennan repeatedly shirked accountability for abusive user conduct on the platform — even at a time when it was being used as a vehicle for Gamergate, the harassment campaign that drove targeted female video game developers out of their homes. “Imageboards are a haven for [terrible things],” he told Know Your Meme at the time. “That’s exactly what makes them such wonderful places.”
Although 8chan’s successor site is off to a rocky start, Brennan acknowledged that Watkins may eventually find a way to sustain 8kun long-term. If and when that happens, it will likely bring about “the second coming” of QAnon, according to Travis View, a leading researcher of conspiracy theories and a co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous.
“When 8kun comes online, that will certainly reinvigorate the [QAnon] community,” View told HuffPost. “Q can’t post in any other place.”
QAnon’s “8chan refugees” are eagerly anticipating that site administrators will migrate the tripcode technology Q used as a manner of identity verification on 8chan to 8kun, thereby enabling Q to communicate with them yet again, View explained.
The QAnon movement, which View suspects has accumulated hundreds of thousands of supporters since its origins in 2017, operates under the baseless belief that a “deep-state” cabal of satanic, liberal pedophiles are trying to overthrow President Donald Trump. Sheltered by anonymity, Q has used 8chan to falsely accuse a litany of Democrats and Hollywood elites of committing crimes including murder, child sex trafficking and rape.
These entirely unsubstantiated allegations have enraged members of the QAnon community, who commonly call for the mass incarceration and execution of Q’s targets. Just this year, a fervent QAnon believer shot and killed mob boss Francesco Cali because he suspected Cali was “a prominent member of the deep state,” according to the assailant’s defense lawyer.
Two days after Cali died at the hands of an obsessive QAnon supporter, a man posted a manifesto laden with white nationalist conspiracy theories to 8chan, then killed dozens of worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. His victims are among the more than 70 people killed by alleged 8chan radicals this year alone.
Should 8chan — and by extension, Q — come back for good, it will likely only be a matter of time before more lives are lost to senseless violence incited online, Brennan argued.
“If 8kun manages to stay online, there will probably be another connected shooting,” he said. “Nothing has really changed.”
UPDATE: Oct. 25 — 8chan owner Jim Watkins responded to this article in a handwritten letter threatening HuffPost with a lawsuit for reporting on the fact that his website and QAnon are linked to acts of violence, which he claims could not “be further from the truth.” A copy of Watkins’ letter is below.