Megan Squire offers insights into online extremism in the wake of El Paso shooting

A professor of computer science, Squire has extensively examined the connections that extremists and hate groups make online.

Just before a shooting in El Paso on Saturday, Aug. 3, in which 20 were killed and dozens injured, an unsigned manifesto was published on the online message board 8chan that investigators believe was penned by the suspected shooter.

Professor of Computer Science Megan Squire

​8chan has become notorious as a platform for hate speech and a mechanism for a variety of extremists of all stripes to connect, with the founder and former owner calling for 8chan to be shut down because it has become what some say is a “megaphone for gunmen.”

Professor of Computer Science Megan Squire has conducted extensive research into the networks that extremists have been able to create online and the connections through social media and message boards between hate groups.

Squire offers the following insights into 8chan and its role in online hate speech.

How has 8chan evolved since it was founded in 2013?

8chan is an “image board” similar to earlier sites like “4chan”. These sites started as places to discuss pop culture, particularly anime, but later evolved into sites to coordinate trolling (i.e. Anonymous used 4chan, #GamerGate was coordinated using 4chan) and later into centers for extremists – particularly of the white supremacist variety – to congregate.

What role does it play in connecting extremist to one another and amplifying their messages?

8chan has a deliberately “ugly” look and feel: it’s hard to use, hard to follow the threads, hard to understand what is going on. This is intentional; the site itself and the jargon used on it serves as its own gatekeeper to keep “normies” out and reinforce the in-group dynamics of people who have stuck it out long enough to understand the culture

How have hate groups responded to attempts to police their messaging on social media?

8chan was a response to perceived over-policing on 4chan, so it tends to be very loose and “anything goes.” There is very little policing going on there. More mainstream sites like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have attempted to remove more extreme voices from their platforms, but usually these bans are quite easy to evade with a little planning. The extremists have also begun building out an “alt-tech” infrastructure that is designed to be very hands-off and will have almost no “policing” on it.

Do you expect 8chan will be shut down?

No. 8chan lost its “denial of service” protection from Cloudflare on Sunday night, but in just a few hours it was back online after being offered a suite of replacement services by Epik, an “alt-tech” infrastructure provider. Epik also provides services to neo-Nazi newspaper The Daily Stormer, and to Gab, the site where Tree of Life Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers wrote his final message before killing 11 congregants.

Squire has been a source to media outlets that are reporting on the El Paso and Dayton shootings, conducting interviews with Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA, Charlotte NBC affiliate WCNC and Houston CBS affiliate KHOU. 

The coverage can be found here: 

WFAA – “El Paso shooter was anti-social loner, former classmate says

WCNC – “Counter-terrorism report: 46 potential warning signs someone might be planning extremist violence

KHOU – “8chan: A look at the website linked to 3 mass shootings”