On Saturday, news broke that a gunman had opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, a suburb of San Diego, California. One woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, was killed in the shooting after leaping in front of the congregation’s rabbi to protect him from gunfire; the rabbi and two other people also suffered injuries.
The attack bore striking similarity to other recent attacks on houses of worship, including the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which took the lives of at least 49 worshippers. And despite right-wing commentators’ insistence that the attack was perpetuated by a so-called “lone wolf” who had no connection whatsoever to other racially motivated acts of domestic terrorism, the similarities were immediately cemented with the arrest of a 19-year-old man, who had authored a manifesto explicitly stating that he was inspired by both the Pittsburgh and Christchurch shootings. The manifesto bore striking stylistic and structural similarities to the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, referencing the same Extremely Online in-jokes, linking to the same document-uploading websites and promising to livestream the attack (in the Poway shooter’s case, this effort was apparently unsuccessful). Most significantly, both the Christchurch shooter and the Poway synagogue shooter posted their notes on the same board on 8chan, an online image board widely known as a hotbed of racist and anti-Semitic thought.
“It’s reasonable to assume it’s a copycat manifesto,” says Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. Robert Evans, an investigative journalist who writes for the digital investigative platform Bellingcat, goes one step further, referring to both the Christchurch and Poway synagogue shootings as “act[s] of inspirational terrorism.” “Its goal was to inspire people” to commit violent, hate-fueled acts, he tells Rolling Stone.
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8chan’s longstanding reputation as a respite for internet trolls is deeply woven into its origins: the website was founded after the message board 4/chan (itself known as a hotbed for anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric) started cracking down on Gamergaters and child porn distributors. While not every poster or community on 8chan is explicitly violent or anti-Semitic or racist, over the past few years the /pol/ (Politically Incorrect) board, on which the Christchurch and Poway synagogue shooters both posted their manifestos, has emerged as a hotbed of white supremacist thought and, increasingly, calls to violent action. “When something horrifying happens online that leads people to say, ‘the internet is a terrible place,” they are often talking about something that was planned on 8chan,” Splinter News wrote of the website back in 2016.
Hankes refers to groups like the /pol/ board on 8chan as “apocalyptic communities.” “There’s this idea that they feel like they’re in this life-and-death struggle; that we’re moving towards a civilization of collapse, and a lot of this is in explicitly racial terms. And they feel like they must do something about it now.” There is a great deal of “cheerleading” that takes place on the boards when someone brings up committing an act of violence, says Hankes, as well as “really graphic celebration and lionization” of those who make good on their threats — as was the case immediately following the Christchurch shooting, when posters posted memes of the alleged shooter referring to him as a “saint” and depicting him with medieval iconography. Chillingly, /pol/ posters display a shocking degree of self-awareness about their own radicalization and how far they are in the radicalization process, as evidenced by the Poway synagogue shooter left claiming he had been radicalized by 8chan in just 18 months. “They’re very aware of their own presence on the boards, where they are in the process. A lot of them talk about it in terms of inevitability,” says Hankes. “It’s really striking and very distinct to these places with anonymous, message-board style communications.”
Historically, anonymous message board posters on sites like 4chan and 8chan been portrayed as harmless shit-posters trying to be shocking or offensive for the lulz. It’s true that much of the language on the /pol/ board is coated with a thick patina of irony, to the degree that the jargon is nearly indecipherable to people over the age of 25 who do not spend every waking minute of their lives on the internet. That irony was on full display in the case of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, which was peppered with in-jokes and references to YouTuber PewDiePie intended largely to troll law enforcement and overly credulous journalists. Yet Evans says that while such ironic references should be taken with a grain of salt, the sentiments behind them should be taken at face value. “Because so much of the language is absurd, I think that’s part of why people have taken so long to take it seriously,” he says. “[But] when they talk about exterminating people, [or post] a picture of Pepe frog with a gas chamber, thats not a joke. They want to kill people. They want to inspire more shooters. That’s what should be taken seriously.”
Such hate-fueled rhetoric on anonymous message boards doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Despite criticism following the Christchurch shooting, infrastructure and web security provider Cloudflare has defended its decision to provide services for 8chan, arguing that doing otherwise would not prevent the dissemination of hate speech on the internet. Although 8chan’s founder has expressed remorse over what has become of the platform, those who currently run the site have done little, if anything, to crack down on the wave of hate; although the site claimed on Twitter that the original post by the Poway shooter was taken down within nine minutes, it was archived and re-shared by users immediately afterward. Hankes is skeptical that a crackdown on hate-filled rhetoric is coming anytime soon, despite the recent wave of violence it has inspired. “8chan makes a point of very, very light, barely existent moderation, despite whatever they want to claim,” he says. “It’s very difficult for me to think that 8chan even wants to do anything about this, let alone what they should do.”
For law enforcement, there are also many obstacles inherent to regulating platforms like 8chan: in addition to being anonymous, much of the jargon is virtually impenetrable to the average reader, let alone a staid FBI agent not well-versed in the language of trolling. (For its part, the FBI said in a statement that it had received several tips about the 8chan post — but approximately five minutes before the attack, when it was too late to do anything about it.) Evans also believes that most federal law enforcement efforts are being focused on preventing foreign terrorism, not domestic right-wing extremist groups. “I do think more could be done to disrupt it, to infiltrate it, to track down these people at their homes” when they make illegal threats and share information for how to, say, make bombs, Evans says. “I’m not gonna say it’s an easy solution, because it’s a very new thing in the history of terrorism…this weird sarcastic terror melting pot that is 8chan’s pol board. It’s understandable there’s a learning curve, [but] more could have been done and should be done now.”
Barring drastic efforts to ramp up surveillance of such groups, the most recent attack on the synagogue is “just one more stark reminder that we have hyperbolic apocalyptic, white supremacist spaces online that are in real time radicalizing people to commit violence…clearly this shows no signs of stopping ,” says Hankes. Evans is more blunt: “I’d be shocked if there’s not another [attack] this year,. It might be by the time our phone call’s done, might be another couple months. But it’ll happen. It’ll happen.”