Brennan, wheelchair-bound from a genetic disorder, dreamed that he was being hauled away by police and locked behind bars while dressed in an orange jumpsuit. “In my waking life, I could rationalize that that would never happen,” he says. But at night, in his dreams, denying the risks of operating the site he built and obsessively defended for years through a combination of slippery deflections, free-speech absolutism, and personal attacks was “getting harder and harder.”
Brennan, 25, is telling me about the days he spent running 8chan while living in a small studio apartment some 20 stories above the sprawl of Manila, far from New York where he began building the site as he came down from a psychedelic mushroom trip in 2013.
Brennan was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly referred to as brittle bone disease. His arms and legs are severely bowed from the condition, which, he says, also afflicts his mother and younger brother. He has, by his own tally, suffered dozens of broken bones over his life.
Many of the photos of Brennan found online are screenshots pulled from a documentary made about him, a portion of which was filmed when he was 19 at his then-home while he was dressed in bright blue and red Super Mario pajamas. A lava lamp and a stuffed Mario mushroom in the background, he appears considerably younger, barely a teenager.
But when Brennan’s wife opens the door to his apartment on an afternoon earlier this year, two small dogs pinging excitedly across the tiled floor and around his electric wheelchair, he looks far older. A pair of glasses sit slightly crooked on his face. He jokes about the weight he has gained since moving to the Philippines in 2014, where he lives in part because of the cheaper cost of living compared to the United States.
Brennan split fully with the current owner of 8chan last year, but even in this new phase of his life—wife and dogs and all—his role as the gatekeeper of one of the internet’s most controversial sites remains etched on the public record. That association catapulted him into the international media spotlight again and again, most recently last weekend in the wake of two mass shootings in the US—one in El Paso, Texas, the other in Dayton, Ohio.
The El Paso shooter posted an anti-immigration manifesto on 8chan minutes before he opened fire on people in a WalMart not far from the US-Mexico border. Its customers are largely immigrants, people of Hispanic descent, and visitors from across the border. Twenty-two were killed and more than two dozen wounded. In Dayton, nine died and 27 were wounded.
Cloudflare, the internet infrastructure company that provides content delivery services and protection against denial-of-service attacks across the internet, cut service with 8chan on Sunday, following the attack. The company’s CEO, Matthew Prince, said he was nervous about the decision, but that the site was considered a “problematic user," for a long time.
After Cloudfare’s decision, 8chan briefly found refuge with another provider but was quickly offline again. The site’s current administrator, an American named Ronald Watkins, said in a string of tweets that he was working on getting the site back online. “We have mitigations going up and strategies are being developed to bring services back online. Doing my best to #StayTheCourse,” he said.
Ronald Watkins’ father, Jim Watkins, who owns the site, on Tuesday addressed 8chan’s recent troubles in a YouTube video. Speaking in front of an image of Benjamin Franklin, with taps playing in the background, Watkins denies that the El Paso shooter uploaded his manifesto to 8chan and says it was posted by another person.
He goes on to complain that 8chan is being treated unfairly. “It is actually sinister behavior,” Watkins says of being kicked offline, a decision he attributes to Cloudfare’s upcoming IPO. “Ours is one of the last independent companies that offer a place you may write down your thoughts free from having to worry about whether they are offensive to one group or the other.” He ends by calling Cloudflare’s actions “cowardly” and “not thought out.” (After some preliminary emails, Watkins declined to be interviewed by WIRED.)
Also on Tuesday the House Homeland Security Committee sent a letter to Jim Watkins demanding that he appear to answer questions about 8chan's extremist content.
For his part, Brennan was delighted to see that the site he created had been knocked off line. He hopes it’s permanent. “If this is not the end, maybe there will be another shooting and that will be the end,” Brennan told me in an interview Tuesday morning. “I just hope that they give up and throw in the towel. It is time.” He continued, “The only people that are really going to suffer are mass shooters that wanted to post on 8chan because they knew people would archive their stuff. So they will have to find another way. Boo hoo.”
Fredrick Brennan founded and, until 2016, served as the administrator of 8chan, which has provided an anonymous digital safe haven for the type of discussions that made many of its users unwelcome elsewhere on the web: abhorrent racism, violent misogyny, and rampant anti-Semitism.
It has continuously tested the limits of acceptable online discourse, and in its early days served as a safe haven for the most fervent proponents of the GamerGate controversy, which centered on an online harassment campaign targeting women in the videogame industry. But from that small community it has grown in prominence and notoriety, apparently serving as the inspiration for some of this year's most heinous acts of mass violence and raising questions about the role sites like it play in online radicalization.
When the 28-year old Australian shooter stormed into two New Zealand mosques in March, camera strapped to his head, and opened fire, users of 8chan were among the first to know. The self-professed white nationalist, a frequent user of the site, posted his rambling diatribe and plans there and found a cheering squad of other nameless, faceless 8chan users like him. “It’s time to stop shitposting,” he wrote—a reference to the ironic, misleading, and provocative content that is a hallmark of 8chan discussions, designed to lead less familiar users astray—“and time to make a real-life effort post.”
Slightly over a month later, a 19-year-old took to 8chan, posting a goodbye note beginning with a nod to the people he considered his tribe: “It’s been real, dudes.” A visitor to the site noticed and called the FBI. But by then, armed with an AR-15, the poster had entered a San Diego synagogue and fired on worshippers.
Together, the gunmen took the lives of 52 people, 51 of those in the two New Zealand mosques and one in the synagogue. Meanwhile, 8chan, their online sanctuary, reached peak mainstream notoriety. After the New Zealand attacks, the site was blocked by internet service providers in Australia and New Zealand.
Now it appears that the freewheeling days of 8chan in Manila could be at risk. Jim Watkins and his son have long argued that the site’s US-hosted content only need abide by American laws, which extend generous protection to online speech. For them, Manila was a kind of safe haven. But Jim Watkins has set up a string of business entities, employing Filipinos and (according to immigration records) a handful of expats on Philippine work visas. This appears to make 8chan subject to scrutiny by Philippine law enforcement.
And, indeed, Philippine law enforcement authorities are growing increasingly frustrated with 8chan’s presence in the country. One high-ranking agent told WIRED that they are investigating the website with the help of US counterparts.
Those involved with the site, most notably Jim Watkins, have taken on an air of extreme paranoia. Watkins has accused documentary filmmakers of attempting to break into his house, filming a disjointed speech chastising journalists who sought to contact him and comparing himself at different points to a Jew being pursued by Nazis and his site to Facebook.
But it all started with Brennan: the programmer who dreamt 8chan into being. Now—after what Brennan calls a bitter falling out with Watkins, an intense period of nihilism, and some tinges of guilt—he has become increasingly conflicted about his brainchild and his role in modern internet history.
His misgivings began long before the horrific events in El Paso last weekend. In the days following the New Zealand shooting, Brennan began fielding numerous requests from the media looking for insight into 8chan and its users. Instead of the full-throated defense of the site tinged with a hostility toward the media that he’d served up in the past, Brennan began offering more introspective comments. He questioned the direction the website had taken and claimed the administrators were too slow to remove violent threats.
Most startlingly, he said he didn’t care if the site, once his defining accomplishment and identity, was shut down. “Since the time I resigned, I sometimes wonder whether creating 8chan was a good thing. I sometimes wonder about the things that I said in the past while I was being its admin,” he told me in April, less than a month after the New Zealand attacks. “Sometimes I think I should have been harder on violent threats. I think maybe I should have worked much harder to improve the moderation systems.”
But while he was running 8chan, Brennan fiercely defended the site as users exposed the personal information of and launched harassment campaigns against those who challenged it. One member of the media who reported on the site said the blowback was terrifying, as users shared the personal information of the reporter’s parents, whose identities were later stolen. The reporter’s publication eventually contacted the FBI for assistance.
As the debate grows over how to address extremist speech online, Brennan is grappling with questions about the site and its impacts himself. He now compares 8chan to a cult, but it was one that he nurtured and remained at the center of until his departure in 2016.
Brennan was born in February 1994 in New York state. His parents divorced when he was 5, and Brennan lived with his father and younger brother in Craryville, along the state’s Route 23. His family was, Brennan says, poor. The rural location made life isolating, and boring for someone with a severe disability. “What am I supposed to do? Like, I would sometimes sit by a tree and read. But it’s not like I can climb up a tree or play on a swing,” Brennan says. “It’s not like I can chase down frogs or do any of this stuff kids do.”
The internet offered much of what Brennan was lacking: entertainment, a way to socialize—and, crucially, anonymity, a great equalizer for a kid in a wheelchair among judgmental peers. Brennan played online games, keeping a virtual pet on the cartoonish Neopets site, but ran up against the limitations of the internet of the day. When his father would kick him offline to make a phone call, Brennan would continue to tinker on the computer, enraptured and determined to discover how the machine worked.
His interest grew when his aunt gave him an old laptop in need of constant maintenance. With no computer shop nearby, Brennan began repairing the machine himself. As his interest in computers grew, he also continued to play video games.
His introduction to image boards, and the eventual founding of 8chan, would not have happened without the videogame character Sonic, the anthropomorphic, super speedy blue hedgehog. A group of fans of Sonic Adventure 2 used an online message board to swap tips and cheat codes. The board, of which Brennan was an active member, was raided by users from 4chan’s /b/ board. As a 2014 Washington Post explainer put it, /b/ is “a kind of catch-all/release valve for all the rape porn, self-harm pics, and creepy drawings of scantily clad children that aren’t allowed” in other 4chan forums.
During raids, /b/ users flood another site, hijacking the ongoing conversation and upending the existing community. Brennan, then 12, watched the raid unfold on the Sonic message board. 4chan users involved in the raid, Brennan says, broke their own rule, boasting that they came from the /b/ board. It was a blunt introduction to the brash, monkey-wrenching world of 4chan. Brennan’s curiosity was piqued, and he soon began visiting 4chan daily.
Two years later, according to Brennan, his father, whom he speaks of with contempt, placed him and his brother in the care of the state. As he bounced through New York’s foster care system, Brennan says he was isolated. He would return to 4chan for hours, hacking the wireless routers at his foster homes to gain internet access. “I don't want to sound like a victim, but it really dominated my whole life and my whole childhood,” he says of 4chan. “Especially for somebody with a disability like me, being anonymous on there gave me a way to feel like everyone else.”
At 16 Brennan was released into the care of his mother, a telephone operator at the Caesars casino in Atlantic City. Though he loved being reunited with her, Brennan has few kind words for Atlantic City. What New Jersey marketing materials call “America’s Playground,” Brennan remembers as “the most depressing place on earth.”
Upon turning 18, Brennan began looking for work, taking small jobs via Mechanical Turk, the online crowdsourcing marketplace run by Amazon. He graduated a few months later from Atlantic City High School. A program for the class of 2012 notes he attained a GPA of 3.0 and had no final mark lower than D.
He eventually made his way from New Jersey to New York, finding work as a programmer. By this time, Brennan was totally immersed in the world of image boards, logging hours a day on the sites. In addition to 4chan, he frequented alternative boards, or “alt-chans”—smaller, more niche image boards catering to any number of peculiarities.
He briefly owned Wizardchan, a site for male virgins, but was forced to give up the position after having sex for the first time with a fan. “It wasn't fair to the users for me to lie and pretend that I was still one of them,” he says of the decision.
During this period, Brennan was becoming increasingly upset with the founder and administrator of 4chan, Christopher “moot” Poole. Poole started 4chan in 2003 at the age of 15, modeling the site on the popular Japanese site Futaba Channel. By the time Poole’s identity as the founder of 4chan was revealed by The Wall Street Journal five years later, the site was well on its way to establishing itself as a “cultural juggernaut,” as academic Whitney Phillips described it in her 2015 book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.
4chan spawned countless memes that would make their way into the mainstream. It was also the launchpad for the hacktivist group Anonymous. Poole cemented himself as a much-sought-after diviner of internet culture, mixing with tech’s biggest names at the industry’s highest-profile gatherings—including giving a keynote speech at South by Southwest in 2011.
At first, Brennan says, 4chan looked like the Wild West. That was part of the attraction. With its stripped down, no-frills look, 4chan was the antithesis of a Twitter or Facebook. As a result, it can be baffling for first-time users—“new fags” in the site’s lingo—and veteran users delight in singling them out for harassment.
This culture of abuse, says Patrick Scolyer-Gray, an associate lecturer on cybersecurity at La Trobe University in Australia, whose PhD research focused on 4chan users, is simply an aspect of 4chan’s ethos. “Being mean to each other is just part of operating on 4chan,” he says.
As he logged more hours on the site, Brennan became perturbed by the power held by Poole to remove content and ban users, decisions he says he felt were undertaken arbitrarily. This Wild West had a sheriff.
Fueled by a dose of psychedelic mushrooms and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of anger toward Poole, Brennan began building 8chan in October 2013. (He dubbed it Infinite Chan, using the sideways 8 symbol for infinity. That eventually morphed into a regular 8.) “What was important to me was unseating ‘moot’ in any way I could,” Brennan says, referring to Poole by his 4chan handle. “I don't know why, it's just so weird. But I was like in this very competitive spirit, like, I want to be the top imageboard in the world, and it didn't really matter to me how they got there.”
Brennan advertised his new creation in his old haunts on 4chan, touting features like the ability for users to create their own boards. The goal was to give the communities using the boards more power over them and thus more of a personal stake in the site’s success.
The pitch, for all its idealism, fell largely flat. A few foreign language boards migrated to 8chan after being shut down elsewhere, but Brennan says, it was “basically nobody for months.” He estimates the site got around 10 posts a day. He continued to work his day job, improving 8chan on the side.
The boost Brennan was looking for would come thanks to his nemesis, 4chan founder Poole. In 2014, GamerGate—the intense battle over sexism in the videogame industry—was spreading from chat rooms and Twitter posts to the front page of The New York Times and the pages of The Atlantic. GamerGate, coupled with the dumping of hacked nude photos of celebrities on the 4chan /b/ board starting in August 2014, created the biggest crisis in the site’s 11-year history.
Poole decided in September 2014 to ban the GamerGate discussions from 4chan for violating the “no personal information / raids / calls to invasion” rule, he wrote in a statement. Incensed users accused Poole of selling out, going against the ethos of the site he had created.
When some of these disenchanted, angry users decided to head for another digital home, Brennan was waiting, parroting the ever-shifting defenses of GamerGate and promising extremely limited oversight. “I was the only administrator that just took it and was like, ‘Hey they got to go somewhere. Why can't it be my site?’” he says.
His new site would offer the kind of freedom that 4chan’s users now perceived they no longer had. They would be constrained only by 8chan’s global rule, “Do not post, request, or link to any content that is illegal in the United States of America and do not create boards with the sole purpose of posting or spreading such content.” (The wording of the rule was tweaked slightly in May 2017.)
Copyrighted content and child pornography ran afoul of this rule and were supposed to be policed by the mostly volunteer moderators, but that didn’t always happen. Boards on pedophilia and “doxxing”—releasing someone’s personal information like home address and phone number, which often led to online and offline harassment—were allowed, as were legally gray-area images like softcore pictures of kids.
The migration to 8chan was huge. By the fall of 2014, posts spiked to around 5,000 an hour from around 100 a day, Brennan estimates. “So yeah, it really got crazy there,” he says. With 8chan’s popularity growing, Brennan increasingly poured more hours into the site, quitting his work as a programmer to focus on it full-time.
Almost immediately, though, he ran into financial issues. Image boards are expensive to run, due in part to the large amount of data they use. And as Poole had learned earlier, advertisers were not lining up to risk having their products showcased alongside photos of things like dismembered bodies. Brennan turned to crowdfunding site Patreon to solicit much needed donations but was booted off the platform in December.
While Brennan was building 8chan, his offline life briefly became the subject of interest from the media. The difficulty of living in New York was detailed in two profiles in The New York Times in 2014. One was published in mid-January after Brennan was robbed and then left to find his own way home in a snowstorm after police officers dropped him off at a subway station. The second was a follow-up piece in late March on the police department’s efforts to correct its mistakes.
The initial New York Times piece generated considerable interest in Brennan’s hardships. In a video filmed at the time, Aaron Parnes, the CEO of Razor Clicks—a company Brennan was then working for—says the outpouring of donations to help Brennan purchase a new wheelchair was restoring Brennan's "faith in the good of humanity and his courage to continue doing his best for himself and others.” (The news network Al Jazeera America also covered Brennan, producing a short documentary “The Other America: Fredrick Brennan.”)
But just a few months after Parnes, who is Jewish, was appealing for help for Brennan, Brennan was soliciting advice from 8chan users for a piece he was planning to write for the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer. He posted a list of potential article ideas on 8chan, a list that was accompanied by images of beer cans dressed as members of the Klu Klux Klan attending a lynching.
One idea was “shitting on ‘moot’ and 4chan,” but he ultimately settled on writing about his support of eugenics for people like himself with genetic diseases. The article, which was published four days later, ran under the headline “Hotwheels: Why I Support Eugenics.” (Brennan used Hotwheels as a handle online.) He says he wouldn’t write for the The Daily Stormer again, but he stands by the article’s content. (The article argues that people who can pass serious diseases on to their children should not be allowed to reproduce.) “Was it smart to be in a Nazi newspaper? I have no idea. Probably not,” he says. “But if you actually read the article, it’s very tame.”
Keeping 8chan online continued to be a struggle as it exceeded bandwidth limits and was kicked off by hosts for offensive content. A lifeline came in the form of an email from a stranger named Ronald Watkins. The son of current 8chan owner Jim Watkins, Ronald, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Brennan that he’d seen the Al Jazeera documentary. In short order, Brennan agreed to let Watkin’s company, N.T. Technology, host 8chan, while Brennan maintained the domain and continued as the public face of the site.
Under the agreement, N.T. Technology gave 8chan space in its data center and agreed it would not shut down the site over abuse reports unless they were not quickly acted upon. N.T. did not charge for its services, agreeing instead to receive 60 percent of any profits 8chan made while it was 8chan’s hosting company, according 8chan’s own site history.
Brennan says he did not even know how to spell Philippines, but as part of the deal, he moved in October 2014 to Manila, where Watkins is a longtime resident. Brennan set about running 8chan much in the same manner he’d operated the site from New York, but now in a different time zone and from cushier accommodation, a large condominium in Manila provided by Watkins, according to Brennan.
In January 2015, after the site, then hosted on a .co domain was kicked offline, Brennan decided to “make the marriage to Jim permanent,” transferring the site to its current domain maintained by Watkins. Jim Watkins now owned the servers and the domain.
Jim Watkins, 55, has built his second career and family business exploiting and monetizing the loopholes of the internet. He’s currently petitioning to become a naturalized citizen of the Philippines with a hearing scheduled for October. A notification of his petition published in the English-language Manila Times newspaper in February says Watkins was born in Dayton, Washington, a town with a population of just over 2,500 in the state’s southwest.
In a video entitled “Meet 8chan,” filmed after the Christchurch attacks—during which Watkins answers questions from a Filipina host such as “Are you a Jew?” and “How do you feel about Muslims?”—he says he grew up next to a Boeing airlines factory. The factory was surveyed by his father, he says. His mother later worked there, he says. Watkins served in the US Army for 16 years, where he got his introduction to computers, he said in a 2016 interview with the news site Splinter. He left the service, he told the publication, in 1998.
His early internet success came through a streaming porn site called Asian Bikini Bar. The company thrived, Tom Riedel, a longtime business associate and friend of Watkins told Splinter, by working around the strict regulations Japanese authorities imposed on pornography in the late 1990s. Their solution: host content outside of Japan. “The work we did in the following years was really just marketing uncensored Japanese content to users in Japan,” Riedel told the site.
Watkins arrived in Manila on October 2, 2001, according to his naturalization petition, and married a Filipina woman that same month. The couple have a child together. Over the next few years, Watkins began establishing businesses in the Philippines, according to incorporation documents and company records filed with the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission and obtained by WIRED.
These include at least two technology companies, an organic food company that ran a now shuttered restaurant in a mall, and a property firm. Additionally, Watkins’ naturalization petition notes land holdings outside Manila—likely the location of a pig farm that he has posted about on 8chan.
Watkins’ Instagram account has not been updated since last year, but much of it is dedicated to documenting his travels and his interest in yoga. 8chan, while recently the most notable and certainly the most scrutinized of Watkins imageboard sites, is neither the only one he owns nor the largest.
After hosting 2channel—a hugely popular Japanese bulletin board—on N.T. Technology servers for years, Hiroyuki Nishimura, the current owner of 4chan, launched into a lengthy domain dispute with Watkins. Watkins wrested control of 2channel from Nisihmura in 2014 in a disagreement that drew considerable attention and speculation among imageboard users. Nishimura did not respond to request for comment.
Philippine company documents illustrate the web of companies Watkins has established to run his online properties, including 8chan. Brennan worked on a business visa granted by one of Watkins’ companies, Race Queen, documents from the Philippine Bureau of Immigration obtained by WIRED show.
Race Queen operates from an office on the 23rd floor of a dated, drab building in Metro Manila where a torn paper sign “Software Development and Outsourcing Company” is taped to a dirty frosted-glass door. The company is owned primarily by Watkins’ wife, though Watkins is named in its most recent financial filings as chairman and treasurer.
Race Queen was listed as the employer on the Philippine work visas of at least four foreigners in 2015, including Brennan. Johann Oskarsson, an Icelandic computer programmer whose visa was granted in 2015 and was subsequently renewed until March 2020 said in an email that he had “nothing to do with 8chan” and there was no reason to interview him. After that he stopped responding to further questions.
Two Japanese nationals were also listed as being employed by Race Queen, according to the 2015 documents. Neither could be reached for comment. Employees at Race Queen also wrote Softserve, 8chan’s self-serve advertising system, according to the site’s history, and worked on 2Channel-related projects.
Brennan says he got along well with Riedel and Ronald Watkins, but he was never particularly fond of Jim Watkins. Brennan was unimpressed with the elder Watkins’ computing skills and felt that many of his suggestions were “’90s technical advice.” Brennan attempted to undertake a major upgrade of the site, an effort that ultimately failed and is a continued point of contention with Watkins, who Brennan claims never fully supported the project.
Publicly, Brennan was the face of 8chan, granting interviews and partaking in debates to defend the site. One of his most popular defenses was likening 8chan to the phone company or the postal service—just providing the conduit for the messages. “It's not our fault that these people are using our service like that,” Brennan says of the excuse now. “If you don’t say that to yourself, you are not going to want to keep going in your job. You know you’re going to want to quit, you’re going to want to just throw up your hands and say, ‘Oh my God this world is a terrible place. Lord Jesus come quickly,’ is what you’re going to want to say.”
At the same time, Brennan says many people were unaware that Watkins owned the site, a situation he believes Jim Watkins encouraged. “Most of the world genuinely believes that I was the owner of 8chan and that I could shut it down whenever I wanted,” he says. “When the truth was, he's the owner.” The stress pushed Brennan to relinquish his role as administrator of 8chan in 2016, handing the position to Ronald Watkins. Brennan continued to work on the Japanese site 2Channel developing new features.
Brennan says his relationship with Jim Watkins was damaged beyond the point of repair in the autumn of 2018. Brennan had grown increasingly unhappy working for Race Queen, which he says lacked direction and operated at Watkins’ whims. According to Brennan, when he requested time off from the company, Watkins appeared at Brennan’s condo and berated his employee. Brennan, who says he was naked when this incident occurred, felt vulnerable and afraid. “Because I had a really awful childhood, it kind of put me back in that mode,” he says, “of just dealing with an angry parent or foster parent.”
Brennan severed ties with Watkins in December of that year, leaving behind not just a job but a virtual world that had consumed years of his life. He quickly lost any sense of purpose. “I wasn't really sure what to do with myself anymore,” he says. "I kind of felt like either I'm going to try to find religion or I'm going to commit suicide. It was getting really serious. Because I just didn't see a reason to continue.”
Brennan found community in a Baptist church where he met his wife. The two married on Valentine’s Day. “I found some peace in the Bible and in believing in Christ,” he says. “To me it doesn't really matter if it’s technically true. It just really helps me get through the day.”
The violent threats that proliferated after the New Zealand shooter posted his manifesto should have been quickly removed, but would Brennan have taken down the video of the shooting if he were still in charge? Probably, he told me this spring, but he isn’t exactly sure. “Maybe not. You know? And, that's why I don't want to be an admin anymore. Because I don't want to be making these decisions anymore. It's too hard on me,” he said. “I just don't have the stamina to make them and defend them anymore. Sorry, I just don't, you know. I'm only 25, but I'm worn out.”
A far simpler, and easier, reason to justify shutting down 8chan is that the site does not make money and, Brennan contended, never will. “If I was like, miraculously given control of the 8chan domain, I would shut it down for economic reasons, so that I don't have to think about the moral reasons,” he said. “Because there are definitely moral reasons, and I see the arguments. But if I was trying to explain to someone why I shut it down, I would always go to the economic reasons. Because I feel like it’s too difficult for me to go to the moral reasons. Even though I feel them, I really do.”
After the El Paso shooting, Brennan’s views appeared to have evolved, and he was unequivocal. “The reason 8chan should be shut down is because the owners don’t care at all that people use it to incite violence,” he said Tuesday. “They don’t care, and that is the problem. You see it is not really free speech to post that you are going to go kill a bunch of people. Even if you don’t do it, that is not free speech.”
Watkins has tried to monetize 8chan and the brand created around it. He appears to have had some success. Following the Christchurch shooting, a new feature with the anti-Semitic-tinged title “King of the Shekel” was unveiled on 8chan. The feature allows users to pay for their threads to appear at the top of the site.
Payments are made through Susucoin, a cryptocurrency developed in part by Ronald Watkins. Development of Susucoin, according to a press release, was taken over last year by the Japan-based Shinoma Co. Japanese business records list Ronald Watkins as the president and representative director of the company.
The most ambitious project to capitalize on 8chan’s notoriety came in 2017, when Watkins launched a news site called the Goldwater, with the seemingly contradictory tagline “Banned, Biased, Honest.” Watkins, who appeared in early Goldwater videos under the name Jim Cherney wearing thick-rimmed glasses, described the outlet as “a public service to provide news to the 8chan community.” He told Buzzfeed in 2017 that he had 15 million visitors to his various websites and wanted to create a place where they could get their news.
The idea was to post the Goldwater videos and stories to 8chan’s political boards in an effort to drive traffic to the news site. Watkins sometimes awkwardly joined a cast of Asian women, most prominently a host who goes by Diana Printz, a pseudonym which is perhaps a nod to Wonder Woman’s alter-ego. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Printz and the rotating cast of characters appear in disjointed, rambling news videos that often run for over an hour. Major James Burdock, the name used by the site’s editor-in-chief, appears frequently, often wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat, his face sometimes streaked with black and green camouflage face paint.
The two are regularly joined by Tennessee native Philip Fairbanks, who was often a writer on the site’s “PedoGtate Section,” dedicated to conspiracy theories about pedophilia, a popular topic among the alt-right. Fairbanks, after initially agreeing to an interview, backed out and stopped responding to messages. Burdock, too, declined to be interviewed on the record.
The Goldwater’s deepest foray into actual reporting came when Burdock and Fairbanks were accredited to cover the historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hosted in Singapore in June 2018. They were among the 2,500 journalists who were granted press credentials to cover the highly secure and stage-managed event. “Accredited like a boss,” Fairbanks boasts in one of the multiple videos the duo filmed at the event. Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information declined to comment on the accreditation process, saying only that it was an “internal process.”
The coverage the two provided is decidedly amateurish, punctuated by bumbling mishaps. They struggle with their camera equipment; at one point, while attempting a lengthy livestream tour of the sprawling press center, the picture freezes while the audio continues. The problems don’t dampen the duo’s enthusiasm.
Ronald Watktins, in an email sent to Buzzfeed in 2017, said the Goldwater “seems to be gaining more and more momentum each day.” Whatever momentum there may have been was short lived: The Goldwater is currently on hiatus, according to a statement on the site. Watkins has pivoted to a business called books.audio, which produces audio versions of books. The recordings are sold on Amazon. Many of the people associated with Watkins’ other businesses—among them Printz, Fairbanks, and Watkins himself (though under the name A.J. Watkins)—have provided voice-over services for the recordings.
The company behind books.audio is TGW Enterprise, which is registered in Nevada, where business records list Jim Watkins as the president and director and Riedel as the treasurer. When reports about Watkins' connections to the narration company were first published in May, he reacted angrily and said the business had been damaged. A post on the Goldwater referred to the story, published by the Daily Beast, as a smear. The report claimed that books.audio is a main funder of 8chan, but that seems unlikely given its upstart status and the relatively small number of books that its narrators have voiced.
But a key asset of Watkins, and a likely moneymaker, is 2Channel, now called 5ch.net. Nishimura, the site’s former owner, told WIRED in 2008 that 2Channel brought in around $1 million a year. Alexa currently ranks the site as the 44th most popular in Japan, one spot below Yahoo. The site is owned by Loki Technology, a company Watkins incorporated in the Philippines in August 2017; Watkins and his wife are its majority owners.
Those in charge of running 8chan have maintained that because N.T. Technology is a US company and the data center is located in the US, American laws are the only ones applicable to 8chan. A warning at the top of the site telling users of potentially offensive or adult material posted to some boards carries a disclaimer reading, “In the interest of free speech, only content that violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) or other United States laws is deleted.”
Any DMCA takedown requests received by the site are posted on a dedicated board. Additionally, the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which laid much of the groundwork for online free speech, gives immunity to internet service providers and webmasters for content created by users.
Victor Lorenzo, chief of the Cybercrime Division at the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation, has a decidedly different read on the situation. In an interview this spring, Lorenzo apologizes for the disorganized state of the bureau’s headquarters. An earthquake shook Manila in late April, badly damaging the building, and he was preparing to move into temporary offices set up in the gymnasium.
Lorenzo’s desk is cluttered with figurines of comic book crime fighters; a silver Batman stands tallest among the crowd. Lorenzo joined the NBI in 1992, before, he notes, the “I Love You” virus, created by two Filipino computer programmers, churned through email lists globally causing billions of dollars in damages and leading the country to begin treating cybercrime as a serious threat. Lorenzo became the head of the Cybercrime Division in 2018.
8chan was a site of interest to law enforcement prior to the Christchurch shooting, Lorenzo says, and that interest only intensified after the massacre. About a month after the attack he was contacted by what he describes as his counterparts in the United States who were interested in 8chan. He declined to name which law enforcement agency reached out to him. But the NBI has a close relationship with the FBI, which maintains a field office at the US Embassy in Manila.
A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to request for comment. The FBI declined to comment. There is an active investigation into 8chan, Lorenzo says. “The investigation is ongoing and definitely we will approach them, but we haven’t formulated a specific plan yet. Some government counterparts are already coordinating with us on this and we are working with them.”
While Lorenzo says he believes the site is used to promote violence—and he is concerned about that problem—he says the bureau needs to focus on a specific violation of one of the Philippine’s laws to take action.
To do this, he says, the NBI’s investigation is targeting the alleged prevalence of child pornography on the site, which would violate the country’s Anti-Child Pornography Act. “Considering that the Philippines was tapped as the epicenter of child pornography materials, we are interested in this issue,” he says. “If you are going to visit his site, he is actually trying to promote, or catering to, child pornography, and it is a serious offense here.”
Asked about the Watkins’ longstanding position that they only need to abide by US laws, Lorenzo is unmoved. “Considering that the registration is here,” he says. “We have jurisdiction.”
Timothy McLaughlin (@TMclaughlin3) is a freelance investigative journalist based in Hong Kong.