Police checking Philippines link of 8chan tagged in US shooting

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 06 2019 02:47 PM | Updated as of Aug 07 2019 12:46 AM

A cross for each of the victims waits to be taken to a growing memorial site two days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, US, Aug. 5, 2019. Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters

MANILA (UPDATED) - Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Oscar Albayalde said Tuesday authorities were verifying reports that online message board 8chan, which was used to announce a mass shooting in the US, was being operated out of the country.

The PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group is checking whether 8chan owner Jim Watkins is still in the Philippines and if his group broke local laws, Albayalde said.

Watkins has been in the Philippines since 2004 and operates a pig farm outside the capital, according to website Splinter News. The report, published in 2016, did not specify his location.

The gunman who killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas on Saturday is believed to have posted a 4-page statement on 8chan before his attack, calling it a "response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

8chan, which promotes itself as a site devoted to the "darkest reaches of the internet", is home to posts from right-wing extremists, misogynists and conspiracy theorists.

Critics on Monday pressed Twitter and other tech companies to shun 8chan, which was previously used this year by shooters who attacked 2 mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and a synagogue in Poway, California.

FREE SPEECH?

Without help from Watkins, a US Army veteran in his 50s, 8chan would have collapsed because it doesn't have paying customers, according to the Splinter News report.

"As long as they are not making imminent threats of harm against someone, their speech is protected political speech," Watkins was quoted as saying in the report.

Watkins shuttles between Manila and his pig farm since relocating to the Philippines in 2004 in the wake of the dotcom crash. He learned computed skills while serving in the army according to the report.

The report said Watkins first learned about 8chan from his son, who had watched an Al Jazeera America documentary on 8chan precursor 4chan and its founder, Fredrick Brennan, the report said.

Brennan told the broadcaster that he came up with the idea for 8chan while high on mushrooms to relieve his osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition characterized by brittle, deformed bones.

US cyber security firm Cloudflare on Monday said it would terminate online message board 8chan as a customer.

"Based on evidence we've seen, it appears that he (gunman)posted a screed to the site immediately before beginning his terrifying attack," Cloudflare said on its blog.

8chan creator Fredrick Brennan listens to questions during an interview in Manila on August 6, 2019. Peter Blaza, Reuters

'Final nail in the coffin for 8chan'

Brennan, the site's founder, said Tuesday he hoped the El Paso carnage would be the "final nail in the coffin" for the forum, which he accused of harboring "domestic terrorists".

Brennan told Agence France-Presse in an interview in Manila that he sometimes regretted setting up the unmoderated message board in 2013 -- adding that turning it over to a new owner last year was a mistake.

"Obviously he (the El Paso suspect) is a domestic terrorist. What else can you call him? He killed American citizens, he hates American society as it is set up," said the 25-year-old.

"Is it a cesspool for hate? The site is really big but yes, there is definitely a cohort on the site that's extremely hateful and that is very happy whenever these shootings happen."

Brennan, a wheelchair user who moved to the Philippines in 2014 for more affordable medical care, repeated his call for the site to be closed, adding: "I should have shut it down when I had the chance."

Handing the site to former colleague and fellow Philippine-based American Jim Watkins was also something he regretted.

"There's so many things he could have done... and he didn't do any of them," he said, including temporarily shutting the site as a warning to users, instead of only deleting the reported El Paso post.

Brennan believes that the US government will soon have to come down hard on online hate speech that encourages real-life violence, threatening sites like 8chan.

"If you keep having obstinate people like Jim who are just saying 'We are not gonna regulate ourselves,' well the government is gonna come in (and) regulate them eventually.

"It might not happen because of this shooting but if there's another 8chan-linked shooting, and another one, and another one, eventually the Congress is gonna step in. I don't see any other way," he added.

Brennan praised the decision of Cloudflare last weekend to cut ties with 8chan, which he said would require the new owners to spend a lot of money to keep the site up and running.

The pull-out could leave the site more exposed to hacking attacks.

"It's gonna be expensive to keep it going and might even be impossible because Cloudflare was so important to them," he said. - with reports from Reuters, Agence France-Presse