Free speech debate rages after US killings

Culture of hate: The mass shooting in El Paso was announced in advance on social media.

Should websites that promote violence be shut down? After 31 more deaths in the US, apparently fuelled by racist talk and easy access to guns, is it time to rethink western ideas of liberty?

Saturday morning at the Walmart in Texas: the car park is full, parents are picking up back-to-school supplies, and a grandmother is waiting in the check-out queue.

This is one of the biggest stores in America, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Staff speak Spanish and English and the shelves are laden with Mexican food and football shirts.

A gunman opens fire, leaving 20 people dead and 26 injured.

All those attacked are Hispanic. Many Latinos, today, are calling the killings “a September 11 moment”.

Among the dead lies a 24-year-old mother, Jordan Anchondo, cradling her living, two-month-old baby. Her last act, shielding him from the bullets.

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”.

Less than an hour before, the suspected shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, posted these words in a hate-filled screed to the anonymous internet messageboard 8Chan.

At least three mass shootings, this year, have been announced in advance on 8Chan, often accompanied by racist writings that go viral with comments flippantly referring to body counts as “high scores”, and memes in praise of the killers.

8Chan was set up in 2013 as a utopian space for free speech, no matter how toxic.

But, now, even its founder, Frederick Brennan, admits it has become a magnet for violent extremism. “Whenever I hear about a mass shooting, I say, ‘All right, we have to research if there’s an 8chan connection’.”

Yet 8Chan’s current owner, Jim Watkins, has always resisted calls to moderate or shut down the site.

On Sunday, even after events at El Paso, the 8Chan’s home page said: “Welcome to 8Chan, the Darkest Reaches of the Internet.”

However, after renewed calls to shut down the site, Cloudfare, its cyber-security provider, ended its support and 8Chan has vanished — for now.

How long, though, before another less scrupulous cyber-security firm helps it to reappear?

Hidden in plain sight?

“Shut the site down,” says Fredrick Brennan in The New York Times. He thinks reducing the number of sites like 8Chan will reduce the frequency of mass shootings.

“Pie in the sky,” cry others. That is like banning the tide from coming up. Extremists will just move elsewhere on the web. And, anyway, keeping sites like 8Chan visible makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to track and identify threats.

You Decide

  1. Do you think sites like 8chan should be allowed to exist?
  2. Many link the spread in extremism to social media. Do you think companies like Twitter and Facebook are doing enough to stop it?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are in charge of counterterrorism efforts in your country. Write down five things you would do to find and stop potential attacks, explaining your reasons.
  2. Research the number of times Donald Trump has talked about an “immigrant invasion”. Make a list of quotes where he has used the phrase, giving the date of each example.

Some People Say...

“Anonymity — in some cases, a key civil liberty — also enables society’s worst actors.”

Wil Wheaton, US actor, blogger and writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
8Chan is an online forum, created in 2013 by Fredrick Brennan, as an alternative to 4Chan (a message board popular with gamers). 8Chan promised less moderation of controversial topics and images, that were being removed from 4Chan. As a result, 8Chan has hosted far-right, extremist views and imagery.
What do we not know?
Whether hateful rhetoric always leads to violence. Research shows that the vast majority of people who post extreme views will never commit a violent crime. That isn’t to absolve online communities of their members’ beliefs. And it’s not to say that digital spaces can’t play a major role in ushering people towards violence. But there isn’t an easy answer when it comes to finding the minority of people who will commit extremist violence.

Word Watch

Mexican border
The US-Mexico border is 1,933 miles long. A fence already separates the two countries, but Donald Trump wants to build a “tall, powerful” wall at the border to stop illegal immigrants crossing into the US.
September 11
Date, in 2001, when extreme Islamic terrorists carried out a series of four, co-ordinated attacks on the US.
Screed
A long speech or piece of writing.
8Chan
Internet forum which operates mostly via posting images. The site is also known for its presence of child pornography, and as a result is removed from Google Search.
Three mass shootings
In addition to the mass shooting in El Pason, ‘manifestos’ were released on 8chan for the mosque killings in Christchurch in New Zealand, and prior to the synagogue shooting in Poway, California.
High scores
Conflict journalist Robert Evans refers to this as the “gamification” of massacring innocents.
Utopian
Aiming for a state that is perfect.
Scrupulous
Person or process that is careful or thorough, attentive to details.