The founder of the fringe internet message board 8chan has a message for lawmakers and their staff before the website’s current owner, Jim Watkins, is deposed Thursday on Capitol Hill: “He’ll lie through his teeth.”
Watkins is scheduled to answer questions Thursday morning as part of a closed-door session with the House Homeland Security Committee. Lawmakers subpoenaed Watkins last month, seeking answers for how 8chan became a dumping ground for white nationalist manifestos shortly before raced-based terror attacks.
Watkins has insisted that the site would come back online after his closed-door testimony.
While 8chan spent years in relative obscurity on the internet, it has emerged as the focus of international scrutiny because of its connection to people who have perpetrated mass shootings.
Hours before the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March and El Paso, Texas, last month, which left a total of 73 people dead, racist screeds were posted to 8chan’s politics-focused message board that were subsequently cheered on by some of the board’s white supremacist users.
Growing public pressure has put 8chan’s future in doubt. After the El Paso shooting, the San Francisco-based web infrastructure company Cloudflare barred 8chan from using its services, and the site has remained inaccessible ever since.
8chan’s founder, Fredrick Brennan, has disavowed Watkins and his site since the string of terror attacks. Brennan has said the website devolved into a place where “tech savvy white nationalists celebrated and planned shootings while quickly archiving and disseminating the shooter’s message.”
“He has no rules against inciting violence or celebrating mass shootings,” Brennan told NBC News, adding that Watkins and his son, Ron Watkins, have refused to take down the politics-focused part of 8chan where shooters posted their screeds.
Brennan said Ron Watkins “continues to stand behind ‘embrace infamy.’"
On 8chan, the tagline “embrace infamy” was featured on the top of the website, which many users used as a rallying cry to refer to the act of committing a mass shooting. Administrators refused to take the slogan down in the hours after the El Paso attack.
When asked if lawmakers should trust his former confidante’s deposition, Brennan was unequivocal. “No way,” he said. “He’ll lie through his teeth.”
Jim and Ron Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Jason Blazakis, a professor at the Middlebury College Institute of International Studies who served for a decade as a top counterterrorism official at the State Department, noted that Congress may not be able to mitigate noxious speech, as it most likely would be protected under the First Amendment, but that Congress could put press on Watkins.
“In my view, Congress has a role to play in ensuring that people like Watkins are held accountable for the services they provide,” Blazakis said in an email. “Having a hearing to do that is the first step.”
Blazakis said a second legislative step, drafting a law that could make it easier for individual citizens to hold 8Chan liable for the conduct carried out on its platform, would be “difficult to achieve.”
“If the platform has allowed for an imminent act of violence, there could be space to hold 8Chan liable and that could diminish their ability to hide behind the First Amendment,” Blazakis said. “If Congress went down that road, the risk is that it could precipitate a slippery slope that erodes First Amendment rights.”
Brian Levin, the head of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said that he would have some specific questions for Watkins if he had the opportunity to pose them.
“What laws do you think you’re bound by? What are your concerns over civil liberties? Would you feel comfortable testifying in public?” Levin said.
Meanwhile, Brennan has been public about his feud with Watkins in the aftermath of 8chan’s closing. Brennan created 8chan in 2013 and sold it in 2016 to Watkins, who convinced Brennan to move to the Philippines and live rent-free in an apartment Watkins owns.Both Brennan and Watkins still live in Manila, and Brennan maintained administrative access to the site until it was pulled down.
“If they wanna bring 8chan back online, just be aware, I will do everything I can to keep it down because the world is better off without it,” Brennan said on the Qanon Anonymous podcast.