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Authorities Have Few Tools To Fight Far-Right Extremism Online


Two mass shootings, two cities, 29 people dead. The attack at a Walmart in El Paso on Saturday is now being treated as an act of domestic terrorism. The suspect there posted a manifesto online right before the attack, describing his imminent action as a response to a, quote, "invasion" of Hispanics coming across the southern border. He went on to say the attack was a way to quote, "reclaim my country from destruction," end quote.

NPR's Hannah Allam covers homegrown extremism for NPR and is in studio. Hannah, let's talk about the digital aspect of this because the massacre in El Paso has a link to a platform called 8chan, right? Can you explain what that is?

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: That's right. 8chan began in 2013 as a spin-off to another site, 4chan. And it came about because a computer programmer named Fredrick Brennan, who had said he was on a psychedelic mushroom trip at the time, had this idea to create a truly unrestricted forum - free speech, no boundaries. But what that's meant is that it has become a gathering place for extremists. And we've seen white nationalists use 8chan for recruiting and, increasingly, as a place to dump their manifestos before going on the attack. And that's what's happened three times so far this year in mass shootings in New Zealand, in California and now in Texas. I talked to William Braniff at the START center - it's a terrorism research center at the University of Maryland - about why people are posting these statements on 8chan, what purpose it serves, and here's what he said.

WILLIAM BRANIFF: It really feels to me like these manifestos are being aggregated into an ideology that is sort of a living ideology, right? And this gives individuals the ability to feel like they can become, like, not just a foot soldier in the movement, but a voice, a touchstone, someone who will be referenced by the next individual.

ALLAM: And so Braniff, there, is describing the copycat or cascade effect of these attacks. And we've already seen that in the El Paso manifesto, which begins with voicing support for the Christchurch shooter.

MARTIN: So there have been repercussions for 8chan since the El Paso massacre, haven't there?

ALLAM: That's right. It didn't come from the authorities or from the site's owners. It comes from the service provider CloudFlare. And that's a digital security firm. It protects 8chan, many, many other clients from cyberattack. And after, it seems like a, sort of a night of soul searching, the CEO of CloudFlare, Matthew Prince, has decided to withdraw services - protective services - from 8chan, something he'd resisted before.

MARTIN: So the site is down as of right now.

ALLAM: It is down. It's been down for a few hours. And CloudFlare issued a statement saying, quote, "the rationale is simple. They have proven themselves to be lawless, and the lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths."

MARTIN: Referring to 8chan there. So what about law enforcement? I mean, we talk about the implications when a service provider for this site severs their ties, but is - does law enforcement have any leverage over this organization, if we can call it that?

ALLAM: Well, authorities say they do keep an eye on these forums and they have initiated investigations based on content. But they have to be really careful because hate speech is protected under the Constitution. So in most cases, just seeing the ugly, racist content isn't enough to trigger an investigation. It really has to rise to the level of a criminal threat.

MARTIN: NPR's Hannah Allam. She covers homegrown extremism for NPR. Hannah, thanks. We appreciate your reporting.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.