The owner of the extremist message board 8chan broke his silence on Tuesday in a defensive video statement that attempted to deflect blame for the role the platform plays in disseminating hate speech and inciting violence by lashing out at service providers, journalists and Instagram.
Jim Watkins, a US military veteran who lives in the Philippines, defended the website amid growing outcry over reports that the alleged El Paso gunman, as well as several other mass shooting suspects, used the site to publish white nationalist manifestos ahead of violent attacks.
“My company takes a firm stand on helping law enforcement, and within minutes of these two tragedies, we were working with FBI agents to find out what information we could to help in their investigations,” Watkins said, in a lengthy statement read over the sounds of the military bugle call Taps as he sat before a backdrop of Benjamin Franklin. “We have never protected illegal speech, as it seems that we have been accused of by some less than credible journalists”, he added.
Watkins went on to denounce as “cowardly” the decision of infrastructure provider Cloudflare to stop providing 8chan with its services on Sunday, a move that has jeopardized 8chan’s ability to stay on the open internet. After Cloudflare cut ties, other service providers followed suit on Monday; on Tuesday, a version of the site was available, but with severely limited functionality.
Watkins also alleged without providing any evidence that a different internet platform was involved in the El Paso massacre.
“First of all, the El Paso shooter posted on Instagram, not 8chan,” he said. “Later someone uploaded a manifesto. However, that manifesto was not uploaded by the Walmart shooter. I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but it was not uploaded by the murderer.”
A spokeswoman for Instagram said the company has “found nothing to support this theory”. The suspect’s Instagram had not been used in more than a year when it was deactivated on Saturday, she said, and Instagram has been cooperating with law enforcement. The Cloudflare chief executive, Matthew Prince, also confirmed on Sunday that the company had seen evidence that the manifesto was uploaded to 8chan prior to the attack.
Attempts to derail a conversation or muddy the waters with specious allegations are the lingua franca of Watkins’ site, where racist and homophobic slurs are common and anonymous users delight in the shocking and obscene.
As major internet platforms try to halt the dissemination of toxic content, Watkins’ site has become an essential tool for those trying to spread it.
When Ted Kaczynski, the terrorist and triple murderer known as the “Unabomber”, wanted the world to read his thoughts, he demanded that the New York Times and Washington Post publish his 35,000 word “manifesto” or he would send a bomb “with intent to kill”. The newspapers weighed the decision for three months, despite the threat. When they finally decided to publish at the recommendation of the US attorney general and Federal Bureau of Investigation, the terrorist screed was packaged with context and analysis.
Twenty-four years later, white nationalist terrorists can skip the blackmail and go directly to 8chan to attain notoriety, spread their ideas and inspire copycats. In the first 24 hours after the live-streamed massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, Facebook removed 1.5m copies of the video.
8chan was founded in 2013 by Fredrick Brennan as an even less restrictive alternative to another notorious message board, 4chan. The site’s popularity exploded in 2014 when 4chan banned discussion of the misogynistic harassment campaign known as Gamergate, prompting a migration of 4chan’s most committed harassers to the newer forum.
Brennan and Watkins started working together in 2014, according to a profile by Fusion.
Watkins had learned computer skills in the US army, and while serving in the military made money with a side business – a pornography site and web hosting services catering to adult Japanese sites.
He left the army in 1998 and his company, NT Technology, began hosting the popular Japanese message board that inspired 4chan, 2channel, two years later. Watkins eventually took control of that site in 2014. That same year, he offered his assistance to Brennan, who been struggling to keep 8chan functioning.
Brennan moved to the Philippines to work with Watkins, who eventually took ownership of 8chan, too.
Brennan stopped working for 8chan in 2016 and cut ties in 2018.
Brennan has called for the site to be shut down in a number of interviews since the El Paso shooting, arguing that Watkins has failed to manage the site responsibly and even encouraged extremism with decisions such as running the tagline “Embrace infamy” on the site’s homepage. In the past, Brennan had cheered the site’s involvement in harassment campaigns. The Guardian has contacted Brennan and Watkins for comment.
On Monday, Brennan tweeted: “The only ones who will suffer from 8chan going down are mass shooters who planned to use it as a platform and Jim Watkins.”
Watkins’ problems now go beyond his service providers. On Tuesday, the chairman and ranking member of the House committee on homeland security wrote to Watkins demanding that he “provide testimony regarding 8chan’s efforts to investigate and mitigate the proliferation of extremist content, including white supremacist extremist content, on your website”.
“Americans deserve to know what, if anything, you, as the owner and operator, are doing to address the proliferation of extremist content on 8chan,” representatives Bennie Thompson and Mike Rogers wrote.