8chan went offline in August after the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. An hour before the alleged shooter killed 22 people, he apparently posted a racist, anti-immigrant screed on 8chan and wrote, “Do your part and spread this brothers!” It was the third instance this year that a shooter had posted a manifesto to 8chan, but this time, the anonymous image board—a haven for conspiracy theories and bigotry—faced blowback from its service providers, including Cloudflare, which the site used for security, and Tucows, its domain host. Both dropped 8chan—which is owned by Americans but is based in the Philippines—as a client.
On Nov. 2, 8chan came back online with a new name and new service providers. It’s called 8kun, and it’s run by the same owner, Jim Watkins. But while the users who made 8chan what it was were certainly hampered by the site’s deplatforming, they didn’t disappear when the site went down. They found other ways to congregate.
8chan and the new 8kun look identical, but they’re not. 8kun is currently only reliably accessible on the dark web, meaning that to reach it you need software like Tor, which allows users to browse the web anonymously and reach unindexed websites. It’s not hard to download the Tor browser, but it’s still an extra step that makes 8kun harder to find and likely to have fewer visitors than its predecessor, which had millions of users. Another main difference: 8kun doesn’t have a “/pol/” board (short for “politically incorrect”). That corner of 8chan—named after a board on its forerunner, 4chan—was where trolls gathered to discuss politics and plan harassment and doxing campaigns against people they disagreed with, like activists and journalists. It’s also where the alleged perpetrators of the El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand, massacres—as well as a shooter in Poway, California—posted their manifestos before opening fire.
There’s no /pol/ now, but there is Q, the mysterious online figure at the center of the stubbornly persistent QAnon conspiracy theory. Missives from Q were posted on 8chan before believers in the theory spread them over other social networks. The wide-ranging QAnon theory posits, among other things, that the Mueller investigation was really an effort for President Donald Trump to arrest a vast Democratic pedophile ring. When 8chan went down, Q’s “breadcrumbs” stopped too. That’s because the way Q has been able to maintain anonymity and still assure its followers that the clues it drops are consistently from the same source was that Q always posted on 8chan using the same anonymizing “tripcode,” which is similar to a unique password but rather is a username that only one poster can have. Without 8chan and the tripcode with which Q posted, Q had no method of proving that its messages were coming from the same Q who had been posting all along. “When 8kun launched, I went to the Q research board, and Q posted within about six hours of the new site launching,” says Alex Kaplan, a disinformation researcher from the left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America. Watkins appears to be a supporter of the conspiracy theory. When he testified to Congress in September, he wore a Q pin. Fredrick Brennan—who founded 8chan but handed the keys over to Watson in 2016 and is now a vocal critic of the website—alleged in a tweet last week that “the point of 8kun is Q, full stop. Every other board migrated is just for show.”
It’s possible Q had nowhere else to go. But the community of white-nationalist trolls that gathered on 8chan for years did.
8chan was originally created to be even less restrained than 4chan, itself an incubator of harassment campaigns and a forum for hate, including white supremacy. But 4chan, which was founded in 2003, does have some rules. When the site’s owners decided to ban some threads about the Gamergate harassment campaign in 2014, Brennan started 8chan as a site where anything, no matter how vile, would be allowed to stay up. That included a lot of discussion of white supremacy, white nationalism, and the formation of a white ethno-state.
This was the community to which the alleged El Paso shooter directed his manifesto, saying he was inspired by the playbook used by the perpetrator of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was the community to which the Christchurch shooter addressed a sprawling, white supremacist essay and with which he shared a Facebook Live broadcast of the massacre. It’s the community that told the Poway shooter to “get the high score” and try to kill even more people than the Christchurch shooter. (He killed one woman.) When 8chan was deplatformed, and /pol/ went with it, this community was able to find new homes.
If you were a dedicated and hateful-enough user of online forums to find your way to a place like 8chan’s /pol/ board, you could handle being kicked off a platform and find your old friends. Many of 8chan users flocked to Discord, the chat app for gamers that’s also become a popular tool for hate groups to organize, chat, and indoctrinate new followers. They shared links and invited interlocutors to join other groups across the internet, including on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app that also has public social pages and where a thriving community of thousands of 8chan and 4chan /pol/ members now connect to exchange racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic content throughout the day. One 4chan /pol/ board on Telegram has more than 5,000 members. “WhiteIsRight,” another Telegram channel popular among displaced 8chaners, has more than 6,300 members. “With the communities that develop in an anonymous message board, they’re using Facebook, they’re using Twitter, they’re using everything else,” said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University who studies hate and disinformation online. Some 8chan /pol/ members also migrated to new online boards and forums that fit more specifically with their ideological leanings, like NeinChan, which attracts a particularly anti-Semitic crowd, according to Friedberg. There’s also JulayWorld, which has a small fascist board that has attracted some former 8channers. Before going offline, 8chan also hosted what disinformation researchers like Friedberg sometimes call “dark libraries,” archives of PDFs and videos about Nazism and racist pseudoscience that are used to convert curious new entrants into ideologies of hate. Those libraries have since moved to Telegram, where there are many channels that appear to have been created for the purpose of hosting this material. (For example, one is called “Redpill Quotes and References,” and another is called “Redpilled Politics.”) The difference is that having a static page on 8chan is far easier to share than a link to a Telegram channel, which is best browsed in a specific app and structured like a chat thread, so certain links can be hard to resurface when new ones are added.
While many former 8channers were probably hoping the original site would come back in some form, Friedberg says that there’s a newer generation of fringe-right internet users who are starting to see the anonymous message boards like the /pol/ sections of 8chan and 4chan as outdated. “Their identities are not as invested in these anonymous communities in the same way that I think the lead-up to the last alt-right was,” Friedberg said. “I feel like even on 4chan people say that the era of the pols is almost something of the past now. The new generation is moving both because they’re afraid of surveillance [of the chans] and because the memes that they were trying to get are so deeply embedded in so many cultural conversations.” It’s not hard to find memes on Instagram, for example, parroting the 13-50 meme, a white supremacist myth. There are dozens of pages on Facebook about white pride. Some of these users want less sunlight now that the chans are so notorious. And others don’t mind operating right out in the open.
Take a feud currently underway between Charlie Kirk, the leader of right-wing student group Turning Point USA, and the YouTuber, podcaster, and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. Over the past two months, an online flame war between the two men has moved offline, as Fuentes has urged his followers, who call themselves Groypers—named for Groyper, a more racist version of the Pepe the Frog meme—to show up at Turning Point USA events and troll Kirk onstage. At a recent event at Ohio State University called where Kirk was onstage speaking, Fuentes’ fans stood up to ask questions during the Q&A session. “How does anal sex help us win the culture war?” one of the trolls in the audience asked, wearing a suit, perfectly comfortable with being filmed making these homophobic remarks.
8chan has been offline for months, but the 8chan set hasn’t. The new 8kun might never have a /pol/ board like its previous incarnation did. But there’s still Discord and Telegram and other private chat apps for those who like to lurk behind screen names in forums. And two years after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there are still plenty of people willing to wear their racism and xenophobia proudly. The deplatforming of 8chan certainly took away one of the easiest to find, most popular watering holes for the hateful and hate-curious. What’s worrying three months later is that many of the online racists who used 8chan appear not to need it anymore.
Correction, Nov. 20, 2019: This article originally misstated that Discord and Telegram don’t have rules. Although the platforms have been criticized for not always enforcing their rules, they do have terms of service and employ workers to enforce them.