Opening statement: ‘Today, I decided to take TGONN in a more serious direction for the day. TGO is a place that values free speech, having a good time, and getting under people’s thin skin. We take the politically incorrect and offensive route often, but we do it for a laugh and without venom in our hearts. Sadly, some places say they value free speech but really only value pure hate and want to see people die. With that said, I felt that I had to share this news piece. I took out some portions to avoid any sort of copyright issues and deletions, but it remains informative and impactful’
TGONN – Less than two weeks after a gunman killed more than 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, law-enforcement officials found a disturbing piece of graffiti outside a San Diego County mosque that had been set on fire. “For Brenton Tarrant -t./pol/,” it read.
The cryptic message, which paid homage to the alleged New Zealand shooter and a dark corner of the internet where such shootings are celebrated, foreshadowed a string of violence.
In April, one month after the graffiti appeared, John Earnest, the man who police say vandalized the mosque, allegedly attacked a nearby synagogue, leaving one person dead. Then, in August, a shooting in an El Paso Walmart killed 22. One week later, a Norwegian man allegedly opened fire at an Oslo mosque.
The trio of suspects don’t appear ever to have met, but they all idolized Mr. Tarrant and were part of a hate-filled online community that is emerging as an important front in law-enforcement efforts to ward off future attacks.
The online forums, known as /pol/ for “politically incorrect,” offer a platform for hate speech where posts are almost always anonymous, making it difficult for law enforcement to identify who is using the sites. Hateful ideologies, including white supremacy, are promoted across the sites and used to incite violence, forming a chain of influence that appears to have led from one mass shooting to the next. When one site is shut down, users swiftly migrate to another.
Mass shooters are revered on the forums, which brim with racist and antigay content. Posts encourage attacks against mosques, synagogues and immigrants. Large numbers of fatalities are celebrated as “high scores.”
When a gunman in West Texas opened fire on Saturday, the forums lit up, with users demanding to know his “kill count” and saying they hoped he was white and his victims Hispanic. The alleged shooter doesn’t appear to have ties to the forums.
The most popular site among extremists, 8chan, has been largely knocked offline in recent weeks after tech-support providers cut off service. But extremists and violent rhetoric are popping up elsewhere. The alleged attacker at the Oslo mosque posted on another site, Endchan. A letter New Zealand authorities said Mr. Tarrant sent from jail, which warns of bloodshed soon to come, was posted on another site, 4chan. The sites are unconnected.
Counterterrorism experts and others who study the forums say they provide inspiration for some participants to act, catalyzing a succession of lone-wolf shooters who try to one-up one another. Shutting them down entirely will be all but impossible, said Robert Evans, who has investigated internet extremism for years with research collective Bellingcat. “I expect we will see shootings that are inspired by these manifestos but posted on places other than 8chan because the site is down,” he said.
Law-enforcement officials say Mr. Earnest, the 20-year-old accused in the San Diego attack, Patrick Crusius, the alleged shooter in El Paso, and Mr. Tarrant all posted racist pronouncements to 8chan’s /pol/ forum ahead of their attacks. In each case, other users responded while the shootings were going on.
“He at least did something, thats respectable,” one 8chan user posted about Mr. Earnest’s alleged synagogue shooting.
“So what’s his kill count?” said another.
8chan didn’t respond to requests for comment. In postings on Twitter and YouTube after the subpoena, Mr. Watkins, who resides in the Philippines, said he isn’t an extremist, and he defended 8chan as a bastion of free speech.
Founded in 2013, 8chan gained popularity the following year when 4chan, a similar site with less hate speech and more moderation, cracked down on users who were harassing women who developed and reviewed videogames. 8chan embraced those users.
The site calls itself “the darkest reaches of the internet.” Its home page carries a disclaimer saying that some topic sections, or “boards,” might “have content of an adult or offensive nature,” and only content violating U.S. laws is deleted.
Anonymity is protected. Users are given a random ID number for each discussion, and frequently use jargon alien to outsiders—derisively referred to as “normies.” The stripped-down user interface seems straight out of the 1990s. It contains lists of links to discussion boards on such topics as anime, pornography and videogames.
Unpaid moderators on 8chan’s /pol/ forum promote certain ideologies, according to one researcher of radical online communities who has studied the site for years. One moderator deleted anti-Trump statements, the researcher said, while others argue about whether to support patriotism or white nationalism. Recruiters for the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi terrorist group, lurk on the site, he said.
Often users show up on 8chan airing vague frustrations. The tone often starts as mocking and sarcastic. Then other users encourage them to express anger at groups they identify as the enemy—often Jews, feminists, black people and other minorities—giving the newcomers a sense of purpose, according to the researcher.
Mr. Evans, of Bellingcat, analyzed how 75 extremists on the internet said they had become radicalized. In about half of the cases, their paths started with a radical YouTube video, typically anti-Semitic or Holocaust-denying, which pushes conspiracy theories. YouTube has said it has taken steps to reduce extremist content.
“8chan’s /pol/ board is the end of a journey of radicalization,” he said. “It’s to radicalize you into taking the next step.”
For law enforcement, 8chan postings and discussions are potential evidence—and a breeding ground for more violence. After the San Diego area attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served a warrant to 8chan, seeking IP addresses and information about all the people who responded to Mr. Earnest’s posting or commented about it. “Some of the individuals may be potential witnesses, co-conspirators and/or individuals who are inspired by the subject posting,” the warrant said.
Mr. Crusius, the El Paso shooting suspect, cited similar motivations to Mr. Earnest’s in the statement he allegedly posted on 8chan. He wrote: “I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto,” a reference to Mr. Tarrant. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Commenters on the site celebrated. “The new guy deserves some praise, he reached almost a third of the high score,” one wrote, a reference to the largest death toll in any mass shooting.
Under pressure following the El Paso massacre, internet-infrastructure provider Cloudflare Inc. stopped supporting 8chan, making it difficult to access. Cloudflare called the site “lawless by design.”
Some users circulated a document with instructions for finding 8chan on a hidden server on the dark web, a network of computers that use special software to conceal their true locations. Others migrated to other sites or to encrypted chat apps, where they are finding a thriving community similar to the one they left, according to Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University in North Carolina, who studies online extremism.
Exactly one week after El Paso, Philip Manshaus, a 21-year-old Norwegian, allegedly posted a message on Endchan, another fringe site that has more moderation and less focus on violence than 8chan.
“It’s my time,” said a posting that carried his name. “I was elected by Saint Tarrant,” a reference to the New Zealand suspect. He also posted a meme celebrating Messrs. Earnest and Crusius as “disciples” of Mr. Tarrant.
Mr. Manshaus then allegedly went to the Oslo mosque and opened fire, injuring one person before being subdued by congregants.
Mr. Manshaus’s message was reposted on 4chan, where it spread quickly, generating scores of comments.
When it became clear no one had died, many commenters mocked Mr. Manshaus in posts riddled with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic slurs.
4chan didn’t respond to a request for comment.