Yair Cohen talked with Al Jazeera earlier this month about the connection between online gaming message boards and terrorism, following the aftermath of the El Paso shooting.
The terrorist posted a white nationalist manifesto on 8chan (shut down, for now) before sharing the post on social media platforms and then proceeded to kill 20 plus people in a supermarket.
There is a strong connection between the gaming community and extremists and social media platforms need to do a better job of policing since their sites promote the amplification of the hate speech.
Should sites like this even exist? Al Jazeera asked Yair Cohen
Yair: Whether sites like this should exist, depends very much on how far we are willing to stretch the right to free speech. Each society and country places its own limits and carries out its own balancing act. The US has The Communications Decency Act which provides discussion forum operators such as 8chan (and now there are others replacing 8chan, using the same format), immunity from prosecution in relation to third party posts.
The reality is that the immunity exists, regardless of the question whether the website is being monitored or not. To remove these sorts of websites from the internet, there will need to be a change in the law in the US.
Al Jazeera: How can they be better policed and should they be shut down?
Yair Cohen: The US government has found a creative way of policing websites such as 8chan (and Discord). They started to put pressure on public companies such as Google and Bing to completely delist links to those sites from mainstream search results. However, internet users have found ways around this ban on Google by using images which are much more difficult to identify as harmful. They post these images, with content from 8chan on social media networks, such as Twitter, Instagram and Google Image libraries.
Al Jazeera: Do they play a significant role in instigating hate and causing scenarios such as mass shootings?
Yair Cohen: Yes. There is evidence that websites such as 8chan did are used as breeding grounds for young extremists. Ironically, because those websites have been effectively outlawed by the mainstream search engines, they become increasingly attractive to teenagers and to anyone else who feel the need to rebel. Previous mass shooters have acquired a status of heroes amongst some extremists, who follow the murderers’ vision and mode of operation.
On the day of the mass shooting, 8chan users were commentating about the massacre and calling the terrorist 'our guy' as well as congratulating him on the amount of people that he had killed.
Al Jazeera: Does the overall acceptance of online shooting games also "normalise" shootings?
Yair Cohen: Indeed. There is clear evidence that in some instances, online gaming channels normalise extremist websites like 8chan did and now there are others. This is where gamers can move on particularly violent and offending conversations whilst avoiding the risk of being banned from certain gaming platforms.
Al Jazeera: What can be done about that?
Yair Cohen: Tighter control over social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, to be able to identify mass sharing of offending images. At the same time, there are increasing calls in the US for change in the law, which could find operators of discussion forums liable to posts by their users under certain circumstances. The US government are currently citing 'Freedom of Speech' issues as justification to refrain from joining an international initiative in reigning in extremist content on social media but Freedom of Speech does not exist if marginalised groups are being threatened, attacked and killed digitally and physically.
Yair Cohen, Social Media Expert and Internet Law Lawyer, founder of Cohen Davis, is also the author of The Net is Closing: Birth of the e-police. It is a powerful debate about the future policing of the internet and is a fascinating insight into the internet and our society.