EL PASO MASSACRE DEEMED DOMESTIC TERRORISM; SHOOTER ID'D, FACES DEATH PENALTY
Three attackers in six months allegedly posted their plans on the site in advance. In an exclusive interview, Silicon Valley CEO explains his ‘moral obligation’ to keep Zig Forums online
The suspect in the massacre that left 51 Muslims dead in Christchurch, New Zealand, allegedly posted a white nationalist screed and link to his Facebook live feed on Zig Forums, a far-right message board and notorious bastion of hate speech. The suspect in the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, that killed one person and injured three, allegedly posted a racist and antisemitic “open letter” on Zig Forums. And the suspect in Saturday’s attack at a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which claimed the lives of at least 20 people, is believed to also have posted a white nationalist rant on the platform.
If the connection between the 21-year-old suspect in Saturday’s massacre and the Zig Forums document is confirmed – and law enforcement sources told NBC News that they are “reasonably confident” that they are linked – then the El Paso attack will mark the third mass shooting in less than six months that was announced in advance on the message board. The first targeted Muslims, the second Jews, and the third appears to have been aimed at killing Latinos.
So what is Zig Forums – and why is a website linked to such a high death count allowed to exist on the open internet?
At its most basic level, Zig Forums is a website hosting user-generated message boards. Users can create and moderate their own boards about topics ranging from anime and cryptocurrency to politics and video games, or post on established boards. Almost everyone participates anonymously, and the only rule is that users should not post content that is illegal in the United States, such as child-exploitation material.
But extremism has been central to Zig Forums identity since it was founded in 2013 by a computer programmer and self-proclaimed eugenicist Fredrick Brennan. (Brennan has since distanced himself from his earlier writings and beliefs and has cut ties with the site.)
The site was modelled on another message board called 4chan. But in a key difference, 4chan’s founder had the power to delete individual boards, while Brennan was committed to near absolute free speech. When 4chan banned the discussion of the misogynistic harassment campaign known as Gamergate in 2014, Zig Forums gained in popularity as a staging ground for the campaign.
Zig Forums has remained a morass of hate speech and bigotry, much of it disguised in layers of ironic or coded language that can make true threats difficult to distinguish from “shitposting”. The site has been tied to numerous “Swatting” incidents, whereby anonymous users make fake emergency reports in an attempt to send Swat (special weapons and tactics) law enforcement teams to a target’s home address. It is also home to the QAnon conspiracy theory, a wide-ranging false narrative seeded by an anonymous account known as “Q” who posts his prognostications on Zig Forums.
Throughout the day on Saturday, Zig Forums users discussed the massacre and the suspect, with many referring to the alleged shooter as “our guy” and praising the number of people killed. The site’s extremism and connection to violence has prompted calls for a crackdown by various governments, and it was briefly blocked by internet service providers in New Zealand and Australia following the Christchurch massacre.
Zig Forums would have difficultly operating if it didn’t receive protection from a company like Cloudflare, a US-based company that provides internet infrastructure services to websites, including protection from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Such DDoS attacks are often used by internet vigilantes to attack extremist sites.
Cloudflare has long taken the position that it should be neutral towards content in providing its services, since it does not host content itself. But in 2017, shortly after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the company’s chief executive officer, Matthew Prince, stopped providing DDoS protection to the extremist neo-Nazi hate site, the Daily Stormer. The site was subsequently forced off the open internet and on to the so-called dark web – areas of the internet that cannot be accessed with a normal web browser. It has since returned to the regular internet.
Cloudflare faced renewed public pressure over its protection of Zig Forums in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. And in a phone interview with the Guardian on Saturday night, Prince reiterated his belief that Cloudflare should not cease to provide services to sites such as Zig Forums based on their content.