Copyright: DFRLab, Atlantic Council, April 30, 2019
19-year-old John Earnest uploaded his terrorist manifesto at 9:11 a.m. PST. The document was an anti-Jewish screed, punctuated with references to white Christian militantism and vitriolic internet memes. To ensure his manifesto remained online, Earnest used two separate web hosting services, MediaFire and Pastebin.
At 11:00 a.m., Earnest took to 8chan, an imageboard popular with white ethno-nationalists, to announce his impending attack and bid farewell to the community. “I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half,” he wrote, “yet what I’ve learned here is priceless.” He shared links to his manifesto and Facebook Live stream. He also included a playlist of “meme-able” songs he intended to play during his livestream: from artists like The Beach Boys and Imagine Dragons; from videogames like Halo; and from the Pokémon television show.
The songs would go unplayed. The livestream would never materialize. Within the hour, Earnest would become the target of mockery among white ethno-nationalists, his deadly attack derided as a failure. It would stir some to wonder how they might do it better.
But as Earnest rehearsed a final time in his head, he did not know that yet.
His target was Chabad of Poway, a synagogue in a small California suburb, 25 miles north of San Diego. Roughly 100 Jewish worshippers had gathered there to celebrate the end of Passover.
At 11:23 a.m., Earnest entered the synagogue. He wore body armor and carried a rifle; he began shooting immediately. He killed a 60-year-old woman and wounded three others, including an 8-year-old girl. He discharged roughly 10 rounds.
The worshippers fought back, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who opened fire on Earnest as he fled. Escaping by car, the terrorist was interdicted by police a short time later and peacefully surrendered.
The Poway Synagogue attack marks a national tragedy. It also represents the latest manifestation of a terrorist movement premised on the racial and cultural superiority of white people of European descent. This movement has thrived on toxic internet imageboards — most notably 8chan and 4chan — through which it has disseminated footage of its attacks and radicalized a new generation of recruits.
In wake of the attack at Chabad of Poway, it is important to examine digital communications surrounding the shooting and what they suggest about future terrorist activity.
The Poway Synagogue attack is directly connected to last month’s attack on two Christchurch mosques. Earnest explicitly cited the March 15 Christchurch, New Zealand, attack that killed 50 Muslim worshippers as inspiration for his own action. He referred repeatedly and reverentially to Brenton Tarrant, the terrorist responsible for the Christchurch massacre. “Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally,” he wrote. A few paragraphs later, he added, “Brenton Tarrant inspired me.”
Accordingly, Earnest sought to copy Tarrant’s style and methods. The similarities began with his 8chan “announcement” thread, which copied the same title (“*ahem*”) that Tarrant used when he announced his attack. Like Tarrant, Earnest attempted to use Facebook Live to record his shooting. Like Tarrant, Earnest peppered his manifesto with references to videogames and internet memes, including mention of the YouTuber Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (“PewDiePie”), to whom Tarrant also referred to by name.
Like Tarrant, Earnest even misled those trying to parse his words. He passed off a line from the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim videogame as a Bible verse, echoing Tarrant’s disingenuous claim that he was radicalized by the Spyro the Dragon series.
The Christchurch attack marked an evolution in white ethno-nationalist terrorism: theatrical, optimized for online engagement, and steeped in the surreality of internet culture. Earnest saw his attack on the Poway Synagogue as a direct continuation of that legacy.
This marks the first act of U.S. domestic terrorism committed by a member of Generation Z. Although Earnest sought to frame himself as the “next” Brenton Tarrant, the backgrounds of these two men also differed in important ways. Tarrant was a 28-year-old Australian man who had communicated regularly with a number of white European identitarian movements. He had been planning his attack for two years and selected his targets months in advance. While committed to a white ethno-state, he was not outwardly religious.
By contrast, Earnest was a 19-year-old nursing student. According to his manifesto, he began his planning six weeks ago (“something clicked in my mind,” he wrote). His total period of radicalization involved less than two years of lurking on 8chan and related web forums. Earnest filled his writing with clumsy Biblical references and invoked God repeatedly.
At 19 years old, Earnest represents the vanguard of Generation Z, the post-Millennial generation who have grown up in a world of ubiquitous social media and the never-ending global War on Terror. Observers have long worried about the susceptibility of this generation to online radicalization and terrorist recruitment. Unfortunately, the Poway Synagogue stands as the first confirmation of these fears.
Content moderation practices cannot fully contain the spread of terrorist content. Although Earnest attempted to livestream his attack, he was not successful. According to the complaints of his frustrated 8chan audience (who were baying for blood), this failure was not due to proactive Facebook action, but rather the fact that Earnest forgot to make his stream public.
Once news of the attack became known, major social-media platforms moved swiftly to limit the spread of terrorist propaganda. Within two hours, Facebook had taken down his account. Within four hours, YouTube had deleted his channel, which featured a single video (uploaded in 2014) of him playing piano. Twitter, meanwhile, proactively blocked links to his manifesto.
These efforts, however, could do little to impede the efforts of determined internet users. His manifesto proliferated across archive and file-sharing services, spread over hundreds of URLs. Not only had his piano-playing video been downloaded and re-hosted on other websites — it had already worked its way into a music video filled with white ethno-nationalist memes.
Ironically, it was casual observers — not white ethno-nationalists — who tried the hardest to circumvent these restrictions, driven by a mix of curiosity and outrage. One Twitter user, seeking to share Earnest’s manifesto, complained that Twitter would not let him post the original URL. He proceeded to break the URL into two parts, explaining to his followers how they could reassemble and read it. Although none of these digital “disaster tourists” seemed moved by Earnest’s text, they played a major role in disseminating it.
As DFRLab’s Andy Carvin observed after the Christchurch attacks, there are few reasons to engage with such content. There is no reason to share it.
8chan has become the top destination for white ethno-nationalist terrorist content. To paraphrase former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum: 8chan is not a terrorist website, but it is a website that terrorists use. It was not surprising that Earnest posted his attack announcement to 8chan. Indeed, it would have been surprising if he had picked anywhere else.
8chan has long advertised itself as the “Darkest Reaches of the Internet.” Created in 2013 to offer a more extreme alternative to 4chan, the imageboard has trafficked in organized harassment campaigns, child pornography, and ultraviolence since its inception. With the global resurgence of white ethno-nationalist terrorism, however, 8chan users have become increasingly fixated with committing acts of terrorism.
Indeed, while Earnest’s attack became the principle topic of conversation among 8chan users — they generally agreed that he had not killed enough Jews — it was far from the only act of white ethno-nationalist terrorism under discussion. Before Earnest’s announcement, users were excitedly dissecting a grainy video that purported to show a man murdering “Muslim drug dealers” by firing his pistol from a moving car. Elsewhere, users argued obsessively about the exact make and model of the guns Tarrant had used in the Christchurch attack. The celebration of violence against religious and ethnic minorities has become an integral part of 8chan’s character.
In this overt championing of terrorist attacks, some 8chan boards are now essentially identical in content to the hidden Telegram channels used by ISIS militants. Both demonize their chosen targets, idolize extreme violence, and advocate and commemorate mass murder.
U.S. internet companies would not long tolerate a popular and public-facing website devoted to ISIS recruitment. It is surprising that they tolerate 8chan today. U.S. internet service providers would be well served to look to the example set by ISPs in Australia and New Zealand after the Christchurch attacks, which have blocked 8chan and its proxies. Cloudflare, the U.S. company that shields thousands of websites (including 8chan) from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks under its “content neutral” policy, might also reexamine its service commitment.
Cloudflare made its first policy exception in 2017, when it ended protection for the Daily Stormer (a popular neo-Nazi forum board) following a deadly white ethno-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. As of 2019, 8chan is more closely tied to terrorism than the Daily Stormer ever was.
Among white ethno-nationalist terrorists, the attack on Poway Synagogue represents a failure to be rectified. The first 8chan user to respond to Earnest’s attack announcement told him to “get the high score” — videogame parlance by which white ethno-nationalists refer to the death toll of terrorist attacks.
“Score” has become an overriding obsession for many online observers since the attack in Christchurch. In the aftermath of that massacre, 8chan users eagerly tracked the hospital status of wounded victims in case another succumbed to their injuries and hence added to the “scoreboard.” Earnest himself referred to an intended “high score” in his manifesto.
The brevity of Earnest’s attack, however, left many observers on 8chan frustrated — a frustration they funneled back in his direction. “[M]anaged a total score of 1. Worst. Mass. Shooter. Ever,” one user complained. “[U]nfortunate the kid got fucking nothing in terms of a score [sic] so it was all a waste,” added another. Users speculated that Earnest had not spent enough time training or that his background as a pianist made him too effete to be an effective terrorist.
This disappointment is potentially quite dangerous. One characteristic of internet-age terrorism is the speed by which mythologies are constructed and spread. In the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, for instance, Brenton Tarrant became a figure of instant awe among white ethno-nationalists — someone whose horrific actions carried the same gravity as the 1999 Columbine Massacre. They were fascinated and terrified by him. They wanted to be like him.
John Earnest also seems destined to join this canon, though not as a hero. Instead, he stands as a public failure whose shortcomings hang heavy on the white ethno-nationalist community. As Tarrant inspires attacks that seek to emulate him, so Earnest might soon inspire attacks that seek to “fix” what he did wrong.