Shooters in three different mass killings this year have posted manifestos on a little-known website where extremists gather to cheer on and recruit others.
The 8Chan website has been down and then back online repeatedly since the mass killings in El Paso Saturday.
A growing number of people studying mass shootings say homegrown extremists are organizing and recruiting like the way well-known terror groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda have done, and they are using the 8Chan website to do it.
Robert Evans doesn’t give off the look of someone who has studied extremists academically. The day he met us, he was dressed like a world traveler, wearing a TV, vest, jeans and boots.
“I study how terrorist groups use the Internet to radicalize and recruit," Evans told investigative reporter Jace Larson during an interview Monday in Mexico City.
Ten days ago, Evans was in Syria. He traveled to study extremist groups in Mosel, Iraq in 2016 and 2017.
Since a shooter went on a rampage in March, killing 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, Evans has devoted much of his time to studying how three mass-shootings were connected to the 8Chan website.
“8Chan went from a bunch of disaffected, misogynist videogame fans to outright neo-Nazis,” Evans said.
The site started after users were booted from a similar, but slightly more regulated website called 4Chan, an image-based online bulletin board where users post and discuss images.
8Chan was developed as a place where any speech is allowed. Evans showed how users freely post violence, anti-Semitic themes and race-related extreme views. Pro-white nationalism images are easily found.
Robert was among the first to find a connection between 8Chan and three 2019 mass killings: the Christchurch massacre in March, the Poway synagogue shooting outside San Diego in April that injured three and killed one, and the shooting in El Paso that killed 22 Saturday.
The killers appeared to have left manifestos in each case on the 8Chan website before the killings.
Killing on 8Chan is sometimes likened to a video game.
The phrase “beating his high score” is used to refer to anyone who can kill more than a previous killer.
As evidence of this phenomenon, Evans points out that the Christchurch killer livestreamed his bloodbath with a first-person point of view from a helmet cam.
“There's a reason that the Christchurch shooter livestreamed his massacre for the people at 8Chan, and there's a reason that he put together a music list that was full of songs that were like related to in jokes within that community,” Evan said.
On the site, readers also talk about something called “replacement theory,” which is also referred to as “white replacement theory.” Some express a concern that the white race could be eliminated as more people immigrate from Mexico, other central American counties and elsewhere.
“It's this idea that white people are going extinct because of immigration,” Evans said. He pointed out that he believes the theory is false.
USERS LOOK TO TWEETS FOR VALIDATION
The views of many on the site would have been considered in the past, even by users, as extreme and not shared by the public. Evans now says he’s seen evidence website users feel legitimized by recent tweets from politicians.
Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, posted a headline of a news article in June that read "Texas gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident last year."
His post drew immediate criticism. His spokeswoman said Tuesday he simply retweeted a news headline.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, posted a tweet in March of 2017 that was immediately controversial. It said, "We can't restore our civilization with someone else's babies."
King did not return an email asking for comment about the tweet.
Evans believes online extremists’ interactions on 8Chan are every bit as dangerous as terror tactics used by ISIS or Al Qaida.
He said the U.S. Government should be treating these extremists just like those terrorist groups.
“I think the fact that we are closing in on 80 people dead in the last five months is all the evidence that you need of that,” he said.
University of Northern Colorado Sociology Professor Cliff Leek has read shooters’ manifestos and is familiar with posts on 8Chan.
“When I saw the link to the manifesto, I was completely unsurprised,” Leek said.
Leek says these groups know how to recruit and points to their likening the killing missions to video games as an effort to target a group of people.
“Especially for younger men who are in their adolescence at a time where many of us test our boundaries, if we enter in a space where we’re are anonymous and there’s no one there to push back and say ‘No that’s unacceptable,’ it almost becomes one-up man ship,” he said.
Evans says there is no simple solution.
8Chan is hosted overseas.
Evans says he doesn’t believe the shootings will stop as the notoriety continues to build for shooters, in their own circles.
Evans says not talking about them won’t stop their actions.
“I tried not talking about this. A lot of people tried not talking about this. Now dozens and dozens of people have been shot dead,” Evans said. “It's one of those things where I think I know what not talking about this looks like.”