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Tracing Extremist Platform Migration on the Darkweb: Lessons for Deplatforming

Tracing Extremist Platform Migration on the Darkweb: Lessons for Deplatforming
18th January 2022 Blyth Crawford
In Insights

There is much debate surrounding the efficacy of ‘deplatforming’ extremist communities online, particularly related to whether taking down community spaces disrupts extremist activities or simply drives users into more radical, harder to monitor platforms. Alt-tech platforms present a particular challenge as they exist outside of (or in opposition to) mainstream social media, and often fall outside the remit of moderation efforts instituted by larger platforms. Furthermore, group formation and community dynamics within alt-tech platforms remains an under-researched field.

Chan sites, a collection of imageboard forums with minimal moderation efforts, are representative of this kind of alt-tech space used by the far right. Chans have been increasingly recognised for playing a role in extremist radicalisation since 2019 when they were linked to a spree of accelerationist violence, beginning when Brenton Tarrant posted to the /pol/ (politically incorrect) board on 8chan prior to initiating a firearms attack across two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people. Further attacks inspired by Tarrant were carried out in the United States, Norway and Germany, with attackers making similar ‘announcements’ to the chan sites 8chan, Endchan and Meguca prior to the shootings.

Since 8chan’s closure in August 2019 following its links to terrorist violence, the broad community of chan users have become fractured, and fringe chan sites have become increasingly important as users continuously seek to recapture the sense of community they had created on 8chan. Drawing on ethnography conducted as part of my PhD research on chan sites, I present here a case study of community fracturing on one fringe darkweb chan site, Neinchan, detailing how and why extremists sought to relocate to new platforms.

This Insight will provide an example of organic community fracturing and the difficulties faced by extremist communities attempting to sustain themselves through platform migrations in the alt-tech sphere. While it is a case study focused on internal conflicts within extremist spaces, it will also be argued that this example can provide some important lessons for researchers and policy makers on the efficacy and potential ramifications of deplatforming interventions.

Community Fracturing

Though it was created as a clearnet site in February 2019, Neinchan did not attract significant traffic until after 8chan collapsed and users went in search of a new /pol/ community. Neinchan was a relatively popular 8chan alternative until April 2020 when it was dropped by its Clearnet hosting service for promoting violence and hate speech, and it moved to being exclusively hosted on the darknet. Though this meant that its reach was restricted, with some users unable to access the darknet, this move was welcomed by many users who felt that the lack of clearnet URL kept the online community small and therefore comparatively free of the kinds of trolls and “shitposting” common on more popular chans. As such, Neinchan’s /pol/ board quickly became the most active extremist chan board hosted solely on the darkweb.

Comprehending why the userbase of Neinchan ultimately fractured requires understanding two key dynamics: Neinchan users’ dedication to celebrating violence, and their fear of outsiders.

Neinchan users were openly extremist in their posts. Encouraging violence was common, tips on how to redpill others were shared, and long lists of Jewish people and the locations of synagogues in the US were amassed as potential targets. Although, like all chan sites, it lacked total ideological homogeneity, a significant number of users posted about their support of accelerationism.

As described by Jade Parker, the accelerationism embraced by white supremacists hinges on the belief that modern civilisation is irreparably corrupt and existing tensions in society should be exacerbated to the point of collapse in order to rebuild a new white supremacist society in its place. As described by Samantha Walther and Andrew McCoy, accelerationists view violence as a “chain reaction that can ignite,” or ““fan the fire,” creating chaos, collapse, and revolutionary change that promotes white power.” Resultingly, attackers are venerated and idolised as “saints” with the potential to inspire further copycat violence, with each attack orchestrated to inspire another. Neinchan took this kind of hero worship to extremes, celebrating Brenton Tarrant as the poster boy of accelerationism and creating an entire board named ‘Brenton Tarrant General’ in his honour.

Perhaps because of their overt embrace of violent extremism, users on Neinchan’s /pol/ were perpetually worried that undercover federal agents might secretly use the site to entrap and persecute users. They also feared that journalists or academics might write about and publicise the site, leading to it being taken down from the Internet. As a result of these fears, users created a thread to monitor ‘hostile observers’ of Neinchan, where they collated any mentioned of the site made in published works, and at times attempted to dox the authors who wrote about them.

These tensions came to a head on 1 February 2021 after a spate of articles studying chan sites – some of which mentioned Neinchan by name – were published. Users became increasingly worried that as a result of this publicity, policy makers – labelled “derad shills” – might be making posts on Neinchan replying to users praising violent action, in attempts to subtly “deradicalise them.” These suspicions quickly gave way to paranoia with users in the “hostile observers” thread scrutinising any posts which didn’t seem to ‘fit’ on the site, particularly those questioning the efficacy of extremist violence, and beginning to point fingers at each other, accusing fellow users of being derad shills themselves.

In the midst of this infighting the board admin of Neinchan’s /pol/ board waded into the debate, commenting that “violence should be the last resort and should not be targeted at non combatants… shooting up schools and supermarkets only helps our enemies,” implying terrorist attacks should target prominent public or political figures, rather than civilians. They went on to critique mass shooters celebrated by other users, adding that “[The El Paso shooter, Patrick] Crusius was an idiot, tactically speaking” and that even Brenton Tarrant was “in ways… a fool.”

The admin’s posts went against principles regarded as fundamental by the accelerationist faction of Neinchan users, firstly that violence has inherent value owing to its potential to sow division among society, and secondly that those who commit acts of inspirational violence should be celebrated as saints in order to encourage further attacks. As a result, users quickly turned against the admin, with one writing “wow, so the Admin of Neinchan is a cuck now?,” and another stating “this board is compromised now, fuck it I’m out. Slandering saints is just too far.” For a large number of users, the admin’s post criticising their heroes effectively rendered unusable the entire Neinchan site, where they had established such a loyal base of users – forcing them to seek out a new online home.

Tracing Extremist Relocation and Evolution

One of the platform-specific quirks of chan sites is that many different chans regard each other as ‘allies’ and may even host “bunkers” of important boards on other chans as a precautionary measure in case of deplatforming. Eager not to abandon the tight-knit community they had built on Neinchan, /pol/ users therefore established a temporary base for themselves on the ‘/fascist/’ board of a chan site they were already familiar with: Anon.Cafe. They created a “Neinchan refugees” thread on the board, and began brainstorming which site would be best suited for them to permanently relocate to.

Most users agreed that chans which existed only on the clearnet were not a suitable option, as they attracted large numbers of users and often contained ‘shitposters’. As such, a handful of other pre-existing darkweb chan sites were considered, although some were rejected on the basis that they regularly suffered technical problems, or were headed by admins the users felt might not condone extremist content being shared on their sites. After some lengthy discussion, one user offered a different solution: building a custom-made new chan site.

Another feature of chans which means they are inherently resilient against deplatforming is that they run on relatively simple, largely open-source code that can (theoretically) be used by individuals with some technical skill to launch create their own chan. Thus, although the prospective new creator claimed never to have created or operated a chan site before, on 9 February – just seven days after the Neinchan admin originally criticised Brenton Tarrant – they were able to launch an entirely new chan site: “Neuchan”. This time, the site was expressly clear in its intentions to cater towards the accelerationist faction of former Neinchan users, titling its /pol/ board “Race War Now 24/7”.

Within a few days, Neuchan attracted a fairly steady stream of traffic as former Neinchan users who had monitored the “Neinchan refugee” thread on 16chan flocked to the site.

One of the inaugural posts made to Neuchan was a thread titled “accelerationist general” containing links to a lengthy pro-Brenton Tarrant documentary, as well as the individual user’s own self-described “manifesto”. In their manifesto they described their perception that modern European society was controlled and manipulated by Jewish people, frequently referring to the Zionist Occupied Government – or “ZOG” – conspiracy theory. Similar to the calls made by Tarrant in his manifesto, they also called for readers to become “accelerationist warrior[s],” writing that it was “therefore the individual responsibility of every man of European heritage who is wise of the Jewish Question to take action against ZOG…. Further polarization of society is necessary to enact the scenario of a fullscale, both-sided civil war.”

Other threads of a similar ilk also started appearing on Neuchan. One, titled “the purpose of knowledge is action,” stressed that it was the duty of all “redpilled” people to undertake violent action. Multiple other threads were created for the reverie of violent actors, although, notably the list of those considered “saints” on Neuchan appeared more expansive than on Neinchan or on many other chans, with violent actors like Joseph Andrew Stack, Yves “Rambo” Rausch, and the Columbine shooters referred to as “saints” rather than just attackers like Tarrant or Crusius who are directly linked to chan sites themselves. This broader scope of saints is consistent with accelerationists’ embrace of violence or action for its ability to promote disruption, rather than simply because of the ideological drivers behind attackers.

Other users also used Neuchan as a base to discuss the finer theoretical points of accelerationism. For instance, users in one thread titled “massacres and their relationship to acceleration,” debated whether they could most effectively sow societal disruption by committing acts of physical violence, or by targeting social media infrastructure like Netflix and Facebook, without which they believe ‘normies’ would “riot.”

With the tenets of accelerationism accepted by many users as the foundational principle which bonded them together, Neuchan adherents were able to recapture the sense of community they lost after abandoning Neinchan, and even become more close-knit and ideologically coherent than they had been before.

Yet, this new stability on Neuchan was threatened by recurring technological difficulties. The site was frequently down and was often inaccessible for periods of a few days. This frustrated many users, who pinned the blame for Neuchan’s frequent downtime on its creator and admin who they deemed to be inexperienced and unable to commit enough time to ensuring Neuchan was always accessible.

Following a series of technical problems which aggravated the site’s otherwise very dedicated audience, on 5 June 2021, Neuchan went down permanently. The site’s creator effectively vanished with no explanation, once again leaving its userbase in search of a new space.

Current Status and Lessons for Extremist Platform Migration

Following Neuchan’s closure, extremists organised in much the same way as they did when abandoning Neinchan. Using 16chan as their base, they again weighed up the pros and cons of other darknet chans they could migrate to. With no individuals volunteering to set up a new site, they eventually settled on a relatively small darknet chan site which would allow them to create their own board. In late June, users relocated to the site’s newly created “/cob/” board – named after Brenton Tarrant’s post to 8chan in which he referred to users as “the best bunch of cobbers a man could ask for.”

Although still active as of January 2022, /cob/ is representative of the attrition rate often associated with repeated relocations of extremist spaces as users begin to experience migration fatigue. The board is noticeably less active than either Neinchan or Neuchan were at their peak, and it is not unusual for days to pass in between posts being made to the board. It seems likely, therefore, that a number of users either lost track of where the group intended to relocate to, or simply gave up attempting to follow the collective after their repeated attempts at relocating.

Notably, Neinchan’s /pol/ board has also never returned to its status as a once very active darkweb board. There is currently only one consistently active board on Neinchan – a Russian-language board – indicating that users never returned to Neinchan en masse after Neuchan went down. It appears likely therefore that after leaving Neinchan many users may have disengaged with the accelerationist community there, neither following the collective to new sites as it migrated, nor remaining active on the original Neinchan site.

Although chan sites are something of an outlier in the extremist alt-tech sphere due to their unique online subculture and focus on anonymity which makes it difficult to trace exact numbers of users who migrate between sites, this case study provides useful takeaways for those studying platform migration. Most obvious is the fact that with each migration studied here, the pace of engagement with each new site appeared to slow: Neuchan was slower paced than Neinchan had been, and /cob/ slower than Neuchan. This indicates that the number of users continuing to follow the collective as they migrated likely became smaller with each move.

That being said, the collective on Neuchan was more ideologically coherent than the original Neinchan userbase. The group found shared common ground in their adherence to accelerationism and were able to use the site as a base from which to strategise. Although as far as we know no acts of violence directly emanated from Neuchan, this increased coherence demonstrates the risk that when users move to a new site after being deplatformed, the userbase may be smaller, but the most loyal members of the group may return more galvanised than before. Yet, this warning comes with the caveat that although galvanisation is a risk of deplatforming, it does not necessarily intensify with each new migration. This is confirmed by the fact that whereas Neuchan appeared to be a valuable space for strategising and theoretical discussion, the slow pace of /cob/ has so far prohibited it from being such a useful resource for its users.

Finally, although this case study can provide some parallels to processes of deplatforming, it must be stressed that the migrations triggered here were not the result of formal deplatforming interventions but of organic community fracturing. This in and of itself is a valuable take away given that many alt-tech platforms fall outside the reach of most traditional deplatforming techniques. In the case of chan sites, remaining online and active requires a loyal userbase with a degree of group cohesion that makes the chan an enjoyable place for users to continue to revisit. It also requires an admin respected by this userbase with enough technical skill to launch, host and run the site, and the dedication to keep the site online and remove ‘shitposts’. Maintaining each of these elements is a difficult balance to strike, which means that chans – like Neuchan – are often short-lived. In short, although alt-tech spaces like chans take measures to harden themselves against the risks of being deplatformed, it is also possible that the biggest threat to their longevity may stem from within.

This Insight has been amended to show that in the first instance, former Neinchan users organised on a (since closed) chan site named ‘Anon.Cafe’ rather than on 16chan.