Why 8chan Founder Fredrick Brennan Wants Site Shut Down After El Paso Shootings

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Who Is Fredrick Brennan? New Details About 8chan Founder Who Wants The Site Shut Down After El Paso Shootings
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In 2006, Fredrick Brennan was introduced to 4chan, an online message board he soon found too restrictive. He began to envision a site where any legal speech would be welcome, no matter how toxic. In due time, he built 8chan: an off-shoot imageboard site where the gunman responsible for the El Paso shooting posted a four-page message filled with white nationalism and racist hatred just 20 minutes before his murder-spree.

What is 8chan? How is it responsible for the El Paso shooting? And who is Fredrick Brennan?

1. Fredrick Brennan is the 25-year-old man who founded 8chan when he was 19.

Fredrick Brennan was born in February 1994 in Albany, New York with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. His parents divorced when he was five, so Brennan lived with his father and younger brother in Craryville along New York’s Route 23. The location was isolating and boring, and so was his disability, as Brennan put it in an interview with WIRED. “What am I supposed to do? Like, I would sometimes sit by a tree and read. But it’s not like I can climb up a tree or play on a swing,” Brennan told the news source. “It’s not like I can chase down frogs or do any of this stuff kids do.” At age 14, his father placed him and his brother in New York's foster care system, where they bounced around until finally being released into their mother's care two years later. She works as a telephone operator at the Caesars Casino in Atlantic City, which Brennan remembers as "the most depressing place on earth."

Unable to occupy himself as easily as other children, he got into computer games instead. By age 13, he'd written his first independent computer program, after being introduced to the online message board 4chan just one year earlier. He took solace in the anonymity of 4chan, where he says he was able to "feel like everyone else" for a change. “Maybe [4chan] wasn’t really a family, but it definitely made me feel a sense of normalcy,” he told Tortoise. He soon found 4chan too censored and restrictive, though. He began to envision a “free speech utopia,” an idea he developed while tripping on psychedelic mushrooms in 2013. Thus, "Infinite Chan" was born. It’s an imageboard on which users can post text, but discussions tend to be driven by images. It uses the sideways 8 symbol for “infinity,” earning it the title "8chan." The site gained popularity after being on the fringes until 2014 when some supporters of GamerGate — “a loose reactionary collection of anti-feminist video gamers,” as The New York Times puts it — flocked to it after being kicked off 4chan.

2. Brennan struggled to keep 8chan online as it kept being kicked off by hosts for offensive content.

8chan has become the 1,846th most visited site in the U.S., and the 4,564th most visited site in the world, according to alexa.com, a data and analytics site (compare this to yourtango.com, which is 5,029th in the U.S. and 13,842 in the world). In the early 2010s, Jim Watkins, a U.S. army veteran, reached out to Brennan after seeing him in the Al Jazeera documentary linked above. Brennan ultimately agreed to let N.T. TechnologyWatkins’ internet service provider, host 8chan while he remained the public face of the site and maintained the domain from New York. In October of 2014, Brennan moved to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where Watkins is a long-time resident and the cost of living is much more affordable. From Manila, Brennan continued to operate 8chan the same way he did in New York, but this time with much cozier accommodations in a large condo provided to him by Watkins. In 2015, Brennan handed over complete control of the site, and Watkins has been running it out of the Philippines ever since.

“Whenever I hear about a mass shooting, I say, ‘All right, we have to research if there’s an 8chan connection,’” Brennan told The New York Times. It didn’t take him long to find one for El Paso. The site has become known as a bullhorn and recruiting platform for violent white nationalists. It remains almost entirely unmoderated, which has made it a venue for extremists to post ideas, share inciting literature, and inspire perpetrators of mass killings. Users on 8chan frequently refer to body counts as “high scores” and create memes praising the murderers.

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3. Moments before the El Paso shooting on Saturday, Patrick Crusius posted a sinister message on 8chan.

In his four-page post, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas wrote on 8chan, “I’m probably going to die today.” A CNN analysis found it was posted less than 20 minutes before police received the first calls about the El Paso shooting. What’s worse is that, apparently, this is a trend: At least three mass shootings this year, including the mosque killings in Christchurch, New Zealand and the synagogue shooting in Poway, California, have been announced in advance on the site, “often accompanied by racist writings that seem engineered to go viral on the internet.”

4. 8chan has been bashed by the ADL.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is an international Jewish non-governmental organization founded over a century ago. Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL expressed, “8chan is almost like a bulletin board where the worst offenders go to share their terrible ideas. It’s become a sounding board where people share ideas, and where these kinds of ideologies are amplified and expanded on, and ultimately, people are radicalized as a result.” Greenblatt has called 8chan the “septic tank of the internet” and described it as a “cesspool” for easily spreading degenerate and hateful content. Other critics rightfully call the site “a breeding ground for violence.”

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5. Critics have repeatedly lobbied its service providers to get it taken down. 

One of the site’s providers is Cloudflare, a security service that protects websites against cyberattacks. Initially, Cloudflare indicated that they wouldn’t cut off 8chan’s network access, but later on Sunday night, they announced that they would stop working with 8chan. At 3 AM, the site went dark. Mr. Brennan, who stopped working with the site’s current owner last year, called for it to be taken down before it leads to more violence. Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive, said the decision to shut off 8chan’s protections was made after determining that the site had “allowed an environment of violent extremism to fester,” and that they also “ignored complaints about violent content in a way that larger platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have not.” Brennan agreed: “Shutting it down, having these Chan sites pushed underground, it wouldn’t totally stop these kinds of things from happening. But it wouldn’t happen every few months.” Graeme Bunton, the manager of public policy at Tucows, which controls 8chan’s domain name registration, announced that they had “no immediate plans” as of Sunday evening to disable the site’s web address “other than to keep discussing internally.”

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6. Brennan regrets his role in the site’s creation.

After Brenton Tarrant’s shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, Brennan told The Wall Street Journal: “It was very difficult in the days that followed to know that I had created that site. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens again.” Even on a social level, he’s remorseful about its creation: “I just feel like I wasted too much time on this stuff,” he told the WSJ. “I didn’t spend enough time making friends in real life.” He didn’t care for his high-school classes in upstate New York. What mattered to him was finding a community of “like-minded provocateurs, trolls, libertarians and conservative thinkers he discovered online as a boy and that formed his identity as a young man.”

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7. Brennan has tried to persuade Watkins to shut down the site.

But Watkins, who now runs 8chan with his son, Ronald, has resisted all calls to moderate it or shut it down. Watkins also refused to even respond to requests for comment. Brennan and Watkins live near each other in the Philippines, and Brennan often drives past his house on his way to church. Brennan doubts Watkins even makes much money off 8chan since it’s free to use, costly to maintain, and undesirable to advertisers because of its toxic content. Watkins himself admitted in a 2017 interview with Buzzfeed News, “It doesn’t make money, but it’s a lot of fun.” Still, Brennan is hopeful that sustained pressure will get them to change their minds and eventually take down 8chan for good.

I’m all for protecting our freedoms, but we have to be able to admit when something has gone too far. 

Leah Scher is an ENFP and recent graduate of Brandeis University. She's an alumna of the Kenyon Review Young Writer's Workshop the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. She's passionate about Judaism, poetry, film, satire, astrology, spirituality, and sexual health.