CORRESPONDENT Wildfires raging out of control in California. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As California burns again, we ask do the prevailing media narratives serves us?
QUINN NORTON We really need to start framing this differently. I despair that our contemporary politics can in any way deal with the challenge that this century presents us. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. After being linked to a series of mass shootings, hate site 8chan is in exile, and that’s where the activists want it to stay.
FREDRICK BRENNAN If 8chan comes back, it's only a matter of time before there is another 8chan connected shooting. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in one newsroom journalists struggle with the responsibility of deciding who gets to be forgotten on the internet.
CHRIS QUINN Every month I'd get more of these requests from somebody saying your story is wrecking my life, imploring you to help them overcome a mistake. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It’s all coming up, after this.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD In WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone with this news alert: California is on fire.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT A dangerous wildfire is threatening hundreds of homes in Los Angeles near the world famous Getty Center. In the north, the Kincaid fire, so big it looks like this. This is 85 miles away in San Francisco.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT California's governor has declared a statewide emergency as the-- [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then the placing of blame. Quick and dirty construction of homes and fire prone areas, climate change and, of course, the electrical utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.
MALE CORRESPONDENT This morning, Pacific Gas and Electric blacking out about one point five million people in thirty counties to prevent high winds from toppling power lines, sparking new fire.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Dion and Dan, these documents were just filed with the California Public Utilities Commission today. They outline how those two fires that happened in Lafayette could be tied again to PG&E power lines.
MALE CORRESPONDENT We've now learned that PG&E equipment may be to blame. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's here on the subject of blame, says writer Quinn Norton, where we lose the forest for the burning trees. As she wrote on emptywheel.net this month, when you zoom further and further out, what you begin to see is an all encompassing crisis of technical debt.
QUINN NORTON So technical debt is a term largely used in software development. When you talk about doing the quick and dirty and not really figuring out what things need to look like in the long term. The classic example of technical debt is the Y2K bug. The quick and dirty there was that they used two spots for the year instead of four. So when the year 2000 came up, everything was going to reset to being 1900 instead of 2000. And computers need to know what time it is, they need to know the date in order to function. So all the sudden they were going to time travel in the wrong direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And this was because they simply kicked the can of a problem they knew was going to come down the road. The sky didn't fall but that doesn't mean there wasn't the possibility that it might.
QUINN NORTON Oh, yeah. It could have really stopped our infrastructure. But we pulled together all over the world and put in billions of dollars, millions of man hours and largely fixed it and things didn't fall apart but I think people kind of think it was overblown when it wasn't, it was fixed. It was a great moment for society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you argue that technical debt isn't just an apt metaphor for the wildfire crisis, but really refers to a kind of global infrastructure problem?
QUINN NORTON Yes, infrastructures of the way we engineer the world. And when we do it fast and dirty, when we do it in a way that works now without an eye towards what's going to happen in the long run, we're building up technical debt in exactly the same way we did with something like Y2K. Exactly the same way we do now when we build computer systems or your phone or anything like that, that just doesn't work as well as it should.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the case of the wildfire, the infrastructure problem was that people built homes out of materials that weren't appropriate, regulations weren't followed.
QUINN NORTON Or regulations didn't exist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the wide ranging criticism of Pacific Gas and Electric? It was their lines that in some cases sparked these wildfires.
QUINN NORTON And they're getting a lot of criticism when they turn off those lines, too. I think the danger of putting everything on PG&E, isn't that PG&E is particularly good at their job. They're not. But that we miss the larger point that there's a lot of moving pieces and if you concentrate on one, you're not going to be able to fix it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What are the moving pieces we're missing?
QUINN NORTON One of them is obviously climate change. The fire season, which has existed in California for longer than humans have existed at all. It's a little longer and deeper than it was before the climate start changing. But there was a lot of resilience in the ecosystem for that fire season before we started a policy of 100 years of fire suppression. It's tough for people to kind of think, ‘OK, we're just going to light this area on fire that's going to help thin the forests and the proper way, the way they were before humans got here.’ The same way, it's been really tough for people to say we're going to cut power in order to save lives, even though cutting power threatens lives. As the mayor of Paradise said, it's kind of a no win situation. The forests aren't correct for California. They're full of invasive species. They're stressed out by their density. There's all sorts of factors going on there that create a tinderbox in a place that's already prone to burn. And then people move into what's called the wildland urban interface. And they probably just shouldn't be there in the same way that we probably should stop building on flood plains, we probably should stop building on places that naturally are going to burn down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that all over coastal America, anyone building a small seawall is just miring in technical debt.
QUINN NORTON Yes. And I want, I don't want to say there are probably specific cases where a small seawall is called for, but in general, people are still building on a coast that is threatened by sea level rise. Unless they're building in a way that resists the ocean, which you can do, but almost nobody has done in America, then you're just going to get washed away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you've called California the perfect microcosm, but part of your point is that we need to zoom out. So where else are we in deep technical debt?
QUINN NORTON I would say one of the things you can look at is just the map of Louisiana, like a third of the state isn't there anymore because we haven't done anything to shore up that coastline and we've continued to exploit resources in that area in a way that doesn't allow for natural resources to shore it up themselves. The trees that would lock in the land aren't there anymore. And the natural thing that happens is the Gulf of Mexico creeps in and takes over more of Louisiana. It's a very expensive jump. We probably can't or don't want to save all of that land, but we aren't choosing. We're just kind of letting it happen and keeping that big old boot that we're so familiar with on our political map.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing I love about your use of the term technical debt is something you just alluded to. When we're saying we're deferring spending on infrastructure, it suggests that we've chosen not to act on it. But your phrase applied here technical debt implies that choosing not to spend on infrastructure is in fact in itself a palpable action. It's actually borrowing big time. You've chosen to go into debt.
QUINN NORTON Yes. We are definitely acting through inaction here, or in some cases we're acting counter to what needs to happen. We aren't just defering something. We're buying our future. We're deciding what kind of future we want to live in. We are living with the decisions in California that were made a hundred years ago by people who didn't want to deal with the system they were in, or some cases didn't understand the system they were in. I mean, much of our technical debt around the globe comes from not really understanding how the world worked, but we understand a lot more now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about some of that technical debt around the world. There's Jakarta, for instance. You said it's easy to drill for water there until the city sinks rather than figure out water policy. Where else do you see the bills coming due?
QUINN NORTON The slashing and burning of forests in Indonesia and Brazil. We're cutting down old growth forests without thinking about how we're going to replace the services those forests were providing. They set up the weather patterns of the world. We're not thinking about what that's going to do to rain. We're not thinking about what that's going to do to carbon or biodiversity. There is an effort right now to handle some of the technical debt that is coming from climate change along the edge of the Sahara, an area called the Sahel, where they're trying to do replanting in order to kind of stop the spread of that desert and keep the land below it healthy and good for generating all sorts of exports and living services, food and water and all that. One of the reasons the Sahara is spreading is that as the planet gets warmer, deserts get bigger. We're actually pulling water out of aquifers beneath the Sahara to to try and maintain life in that area. It's growing that desert and it's spreading down into this region where hundreds of millions of people live. Africa didn't release that carbon, but they're going to try and pay that down in the spot that they're in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've got short term and long term. We have levees, and closer to my home, subways falling apart.
QUINN NORTON And a seawall that needs to get built.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Roads, bridges, tunnels.
QUINN NORTON Yep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what are the biggest contributors to technical debt?
QUINN NORTON Short term thinking and compartmentalized thinking. So when you’re the legislature in New York state and you want some money for a thing you're looking at right now and you want to take it from the MTA, you're not really thinking about the whole system. So we need to go from a short term niche mind frame to a systems thinking mainframe. And I think that's really difficult in contemporary politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what about class and race? I was just thinking of the water in Flint, whereas the water in a different district wasn't tainted in nearly the same way.
QUINN NORTON Yeah, yeah, and we're thinking in these very narrow ways we're going to prioritize in narrow ways. And that's why we decide these people aren't as important. Putting one person ahead of another rather than saying, ‘‘OK, what does a water system need to look like?’
BROOKE GLADSTONE The irony is that in favoring the powerful and the wealthy, you've actually condemned--
QUINN NORTON Everyone. Yeah, by thinking of like, ‘I'm going to privilege this system above this system,’ you don't get the benefit of realizing there's not two systems there. There's one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why did you write this article?
QUINN NORTON Because I think that we really need to start framing this differently. I despair that our contemporary politics can in any way deal with the challenge that this century presents us. We tend to say these are the things that are happening. They're discrete events and then we have to rank how important they are. And everything about that framework is wrong. You know, Jakarta and the fires in the Amazon and the fires in California and all these different things, they are fundamentally part of the same system. They are part of the way that we have engineered our lives on this planet. Until we see that as one system, if I go back to the software metaphor, it's a guy fixing his little bit of the iPhone code who doesn't care what happens to the rest of the iPhone code. And that's how you get like a huge bug in the Iowa system that's gonna have to be emergency updated in a month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So in terms of technical debt, are we heading to a place where perhaps Google or Amazon or Apple or Microsoft or Facebook, they have their own fixes, but they are proprietary. And as we increasingly rely on them, we'll have areas where things just fall apart, the center doesn't hold.
QUINN NORTON Well, I think when we talk about natural systems, you don't get more than one operating system. So when the planet says, ‘no,’ you can't switch to, you know, the Martian operating system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we'll still be able to do that in, in the technical world.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
QUINN NORTON Yes, the technical world is a world we built. But as powerful and amazing as humanity is, it's still constrained by this planet, and that needs to be how we think about how we build stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you, Quinn.
QUINN NORTON Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Quinn Norton writes for emptywheel.net. Her piece is titled "A World We Built to Burn".
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, a toxic Web site runs aground, but is fighting for another chance to befoul the Internet. Can it be stopped? Does it really matter?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. 8chan has been offline since August. You probably haven't noticed, but then I'm guessing 8chan was never meant for you.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a dark hell scape of a website.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Now 8chan is one of the 5,000 or so largest web sites on the internet, and I would describe 8chan and other similar sites as almost a 24 hour a day clan or neo-Nazi rally.
MALE CORRESPONDENT For years, people on those sites said that the racism that they posted was basically just a game where the winner is whoever posts the most offensive thing possible.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT These communities have been able to organize harassment campaigns as well as share the personal information of their enemies. People's addresses, credit card numbers. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The notorious anonymous forum played host to the worst of the Gamergate trolls, alt-right hate groups, and pernicious conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, about a cabal of Democrats running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. But in 2019, 8chan finally hit the skids when the shooters at the Christ Church Mosque in New Zealand and those behind the Poway California synagogue shooting and the El Paso, Texas Wal-Mart shooting, each used 8chan to spread their manifestos. That's when the cybersecurity firm servicing 8chan backed away.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The website security and network provider Cloudflare says it will no longer provide support to the website 8chan. That's where the suspected gunman in Saturday's attack posted a four page manifesto just minutes before opening fire in a Walmart. More than 20 people were killed. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hackers swarmed the now unprotected servers of 8chan following the August El Paso shooting, forcing the site off line. But this has been a month of feverish activity for the small group of 8chan administrators anxious to launch a new site with a different name, which raises crucial questions: Can 8chan stay dead? Does the saga of 8chan offer insights into the mechanics of digital media and how it enables bad actors to lethally overheat the so-called national conversation? Our producer, Micah Loewinger is on it.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'm fairly confident 8chan would be back up and running right now, if not for one social media activist.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I know that if 8chan comes back, it's only a matter of time before there is another 8chan connected shooting. And that's what drives me to do all this. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan and now its most vocal critic. By pressuring web companies like Cloudflare to deny their services to the relaunch, he has attracted an onslaught of attacks from 8chan's devotees.
MICAH LOEWINGER Can I read one of the messages that you posted?
FREDRICK BRENNAN Sure. Go ahead.
MICAH LOEWINGER ‘It says you're a pathetic, fat, disgusting, little misshaped afterbirth that should have been slammed against a wall seconds after birth.’ It obviously goes on and it gets more gruesome. You are subjecting yourself to, I imagine, quite a bit of emotional distress.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Yes, there is emotional abuse. And, you know, a lot of them have been trolling me nonstop, even drawing pictures of me being thrown down the stairs, which would be lethal due to my disability. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Brennan, who is 25 years old, was born with brittle bone disease. The white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, all the people trolling him now, all used to hang out with him on 8chan.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I know that these people are living pathetic, sad lives. If they're sending me that kind of stuff. I know that that's true because, you know, I was a kind of person who didn't have anything going for them in life.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MICAH LOEWINGER You were 19 when you started 8chan, right?
FREDRICK BRENNAN Yeah, that's right. Everybody knows the famous story where I was like, down a mushroom trip and I was coming down. And that's when I came up with the idea for like a 4chan and Reddit combined. It sounded really good to me while I was in that state. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But obviously hallucinogens, and he used them a lot when he was living at his mom's house in Atlantic City after ditching high school, didn't cause the 8chan we know today. It's potent brand of toxicity took time to develop. It started with Gamergate and 8chan spiritual precursor 4chan. In 2014, 4chan banned the discussions of a group of angry male gamers who used the forum to terrorize female cultural critics who wrote about sexism in the gaming industry. Steve Bannon nudged those trolls into the alt-right and Fred Brennan gave them sanctuary on 8chan. He says to boost traffic.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I used them basically. We forged this unholy alliance. And I was kind of aware of the political arguments that image board users make about free speech. You know that it's all just about the marketplace of ideas and the best ideas fall out. As 8chan's admin, I never saw any good ideas fall out. I just saw each community getting more and more extreme in their rhetoric. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Brennan incubated a cesspool of racist rhetoric and harassment campaigns. And he only removed material that blatantly broke U.S. laws. Brennan told me that he had little at stake in this free speech experiment because all the legal liability fell on 8chan's eccentric middle aged owner and financier Jim Watkins. He and Watkins were so close that Brennan moved to Watkins neighborhood in the Philippines, where both still live. But then their relationship soured.
FREDRICK BRENNAN With 8chan getting more and more radical. He basically admitted that he didn't care if it made money or not. He just likes the infamy that it brings him. And he had always said that his plan was to try to monetize it. So that came as a surprise. I just felt like he was acting in a very weird way and I did not want to be around him. So I resigned in 2018 and lo and behold, the Christchurch shooting happened three months later.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Police are working to identify the bodies of the 50 people killed during an attack by heavily armed gunmen on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The accused shooter announced his grim intentions on the controversial message board 8chan.
FREDRICK BRENNAN But, you know, I figured all. Let's see if they'll clean up their act, and they didn't. After that shooting, they kept their slogan, embrace infamy. And then happened, the Poway shooting, and then happened the El Paso shooting.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The suspected gunman in Poway posted praise for 8chan just before the shooting, saying, ‘I've only been lurking for a year and a half yet, what I've learned here is priceless. It's been an honor.’
MALE CORRESPONDENT There are some clues emerging in the aftermath of the shooting in El Paso, Texas. The suspect there posted a manifesto on the website 8chan moments before the shooting. [END CLIP].
MICAH LOEWINGER This week, the family of a woman killed in the El Paso shooting filed a lawsuit against the alleged 21 year old killer, his parents, his grandparents, Jim Watkins, the CEO of the 8chan's former cybersecurity provider, CloudFlare, and Brennan. But the lawyers face a considerable hurdle. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that says that websites are not responsible for the content posted by their users. Brennan thinks that the lawsuit against him is, quote, ‘bogus’. He says he was just an employee at 8chan and he points to his recent activism against the site.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I believe victims of radicalization who say that they were radicalized on 8chan. And I'm sorry to them that I made, you know, a website where they were radicalized, I clearly did not recognize the harm that I was doing and the harm that sites like 8chan do.
MICAH LOEWINGER I can't tell if you're fighting it because you're disturbed by what it's become or if you're just really upset with this person you used to work with.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Oh, well, why can't it be both? I understand why I'm a complicated figure. Preventing more 8chan connected shootings is the main reason. But it is also true that I have a dislike for Jim Watkins. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Watkins declined our request for comment. Almost two months after it went offline, 8chan tweeted out a video. An anarchic black flag ripples in the rain. A new logo emerges and a flash of lightning. It reads 8kun.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MICAH LOEWINGER Brennan says the name 8kun is intended to herald a more mature site. Chan in Japanese means child, but kun means young adult. He doesn't buy it.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I don't believe they've changed. I believe that it's the same as it's always been, get as much infamy as possible for Jim Watkins. Just nonsensical 8kun rebrand and it just made me really angry and I decided I'm going to do whatever I can to get it shut down. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Watkins reassured followers on a far-right podcast that the new site would be more secure.
JIM WATKINS We'll have less points of failure. Nobody in America would do business with us. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER So he looked for help overseas, first with a British web company called Zare.
FREDRICK BRENNAN They tried to get on it, like four or five times. And I got him kicked off each time.
MICAH LOEWINGER How did you do that?
FREDRICK BRENNAN I just lit a fire under certain journalists that I knew. And I tweeted at Zare, kept including their name, send them some information. They reviewed it and then, boom, they took them offline. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER So 8kun tried elsewhere, including the giant Chinese Internet service providers, Tencent and Alibaba.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Tweeted. Tweeted. Tweeted. Tweeted. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER When those fell through. Watkins turned to Selectel, a web hosting firm in Russia, where 8chan was officially banned in 2015.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Tweeted, tweeted, tweeted. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER So far, Brennan and other social media activists have kept 8chan on the run, but the game is far from over because there's another dark wrinkle to the 8chan, 8kun story. Another reason why Brennan is racing the clock to keep the site offline.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Tom Riedel, Jim Watkin's main lieutenant told me that their main focus is getting the QAnon people back. And we all know that QAnon is a ridiculous scam. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Who is Q, what is QAnon and why should it concern us at all?
MIKE ROTHSCHILD Okay, the big questions. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Mike Rothschild, conspiracy theory debunker and contributor to the Daily Dot.
MIKE ROTHSCHILD QAnon is a conspiracy theory that holds that a Trump administration insider with access to highly classified military intelligence is leaving clues to an upcoming purge of the deep state by using the message board 8chan to deliver riddles and prompts and out of context pictures that followers will decode so they know what's really going on.
MICAH LOEWINGER I saw a story about this QAnon Bible shooting up to the top 20 Amazon best sellers list.
MIKE ROTHSCHILD Yeah.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Out ranking authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Seuss. Anonymously written, the book contains a compilation of unproven radical conspiracy theories suggesting high ranking Democrats are part of a cult that eats children, claiming the government created AIDS and saying it's also behind the movie Monsters, Inc.
MICAH LOEWINGER Oh, there was also that one murder in the name of QAnon.
MIKE ROTHSCHILD Yeah, the mob boss allegedly shot dead on Staten Island by the young man who drew the letter Q on his hand along with some Q catchphrases. QAnon is a philosophy that revolves around extrajudicial violence. The entire idea of this event they call "the storm" or "the Great Awakening" is essentially a massive unsealing of tens of thousands of indictments against basically every prominent liberal in every field of industry, and that they will all be taken into custody by some kind of militia force that answers to nobody and then they'll be tried in the field and then they'll either be sent to Guantanamo Bay or they'll be executed. You can't tell people that there is a pedophilic cabal running every aspect of their life and at some point not expect someone to do something about it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER You'd probably think the impeachment inquiry would be red meat for the QAnon crowd. And yet we haven't heard a single word from its anonymous hearten hero, it's spinner of theories. The person known only as Q. He's silent. Why?
FREDRICK BRENNAN He had so much faith in the untouchability and invincibility of 8chan that he tied himself to it with iron chains. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Q, the real Q, whoever he or she or they are, was tired of all the impersonators on sites like Reddit and 4chan feeding off of its mystery and sapping its power. So Q vowed to prophesy on 8chan only, but 8chan is no more. Q is buried itself alive.
FREDRICK BRENNAN I find it absolutely hilarious. It's all his fault and there's no way that the Q believers can like it even start a new Q because, because it would just break the entire mythology. It would be saying that Q is so weak, that a disabled man in the Philippines can take down his home just by sending a few emails and the entire U.S. military intelligence operation is not powerful enough to stop me, right? This is why it's so important that we don't let them get online. If 8chan comes back for even a few hours, Q can move. Q can post a cryptographic key. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And with that code, followers can find the true Q wherever he wants to post. And Brennan says that could happen soon. Late in my reporting, I learned that Jim Watkins had struck a deal with VanwaTech, a new U.S. based cybersecurity company run by its CEO and only employee, Nick Lim.
NICK LIM I've been doing this stuff for over a decade but VanwaTech itself is a relatively new company.
MICAH LOEWINGER You said over a decade. Yeah. Oh, okay. Just cause you sound kind of young in the picture I saw of you online, you seemed like you were like in your mid 20s or something.
NICK LIM Yeah, I'm 22 right now. But I mean, I've been running businesses since about 8 years old. Just to pay for my bills and all that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Wow. Okay. Are you familiar with the context for why your old company BitMitigate, and now a number of other companies, were not willing to do business with 8chan?
NICK LIM Yeah, I'm not. I mean, I've never been to that website before, I don't really know much about it, in fact, when I got them as my client, that was the first time I heard about them. And also when they got dropped.
MICAH LOEWINGER When did you acquire them as a client?
NICK LIM Probably within the last month.
MICAH LOEWINGER So, it's been a month but you haven't read any articles about 8chan or talked to anyone else in the cybersecurity web infrastructure community about the drama surrounding the website?
NICK LIM Yeah, I just try to stay away from drama. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Several days after our conversation, Lim tweeted, 8kun will be back and stronger than ever. So maybe Lim will be providing security to enable the launch of 8kun. What does that mean for Q? If Q can post his key on 8kun, even briefly, he can go anywhere. But what if 8kun never launches? Could you really kill his conspiracy theory by getting rid of his platform? I asked Brennan whether he thought this strategy of deplatforming could effectively curb the power of QAnon and other extreme ideologies.
FREDRICK BRENNAN Everything is a short term solution and these people will always find a way. They have a lot of legal protection on their side in the United States. Stopping people from being radicalised for a few months, I think, is a victory. Young men all over the United States are not being exposed to some of the propaganda on 8chan and they will not grow up with that in their lives. So I, I would say that even if it's not a total long term solution, that doesn't mean to not try.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MICAH LOEWINGER The virtual disappearance of right wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy peddler Alex Jones thrown off of Twitter and YouTube respectively, demonstrates that deplatforming works. But those are individuals, not communities. Some researchers of the far-right say that shutting off sites like 8chan is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. But at a time when our politicians seem unwilling to enact policies that would curb mass violence, if internet companies want to take greater responsibility, it's worth a try. For On The Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, a major regional media outlet grapples with the right of citizens to be forgotten, at least in internet searches.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. If the story about 8chan is a tale of bad actors with worse intentions, this next piece is the mirror opposite. It emerged a few months back when Radiolab reporter Molly Webster was searching for stories and being from Ohio, naturally checked out the website cleveland.com. There she found a piece about the site's own experiment in applying what's known as, quote, "the right to be forgotten". Using a complex and evolving set of criteria, cleveland.com was trying to determine who has the right to have stories about them deleted so that they don't come up in internet searches in perpetuity. Intrigued, Molly called up Chris Quinn, whose byline had been on the story. Quinn had started out at the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a reporter and then became an editor, and then in 2013, the head of an entirely new newsroom. Molly takes it from here.
MOLLY WEBSTER He basically became the editor in chief of their online paper, cleveland.com.
CHRIS QUINN What we really were trying to do was figure out what kind of content does the digital audience want?
MOLLY WEBSTER The audience was different. The format was different, the speed at which they had to put up stories was different. But there was one part of the online process that stuck out to him and it had to do with time and memory.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
CHRIS QUINN Yeah, I think it was in 2014 when I first wrote about it.
MOLLY WEBSTER Back in the day, if you did something stupid, got arrested and ended up in the paper, people would read it in the morning and then they'd throw it out.
CHRIS QUINN And it drops out of sight. I mean, there's some newspapers that kept indexes that would be at the library.
MOLLY WEBSTER If someone really wanted to find it.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MOLLY WEBSTER They'd probably have to spend hours or days just scrolling through microfiche slides, to discover that thing about you from your past. But now that everything is online, it's there.
CHRIS QUINN Right up front, forever.
MOLLY WEBSTER So as cleveland.com started putting up all these stories about people driving drunk or vandalizing property or streaking across the football field. Chris started getting these emails.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
CHRIS QUINN Requests from people to take down stories about them.
MALE VOICE OVER I made a big mistake, owned up to it and paid for it.
FEMALE VOICE OVER The situation has had a horrific effect on myself and my entire family. [END CLIP].
CHRIS QUINN Because they're embarrassed or it hurts their ability to get jobs.
MALE VOICE OVER These stories have come up in every job interview I've had in the last five years. [END CLIP].
CHRIS QUINN We were crushing them psychologically.
FEMALE VOICE OVER "I'm just in a corner and don't know what to do". [END CLIP].
CHRIS QUINN It didn't feel good, but there was a longstanding feeling that we're the first version of history and that these archives are sacrosanct and you would never change them. Every month I'd get more of these requests from somebody saying your story is wrecking my life, imploring you to help them overcome a mistake.
MOLLY WEBSTER So Chris made an announcement. This was the column that I read. And it said something like, you know, if you've had an article written about you and it was bias and you want it taken down or your name deleted or something, send us an email and we'll consider it. And I just thought, who has a right to be forgotten? And for reasons I don't entirely understand, he just said, why don't you just come see for yourself?
CHRIS QUINN We talk it out. Just acknowledging this continues to be very much an experiment.
MOLLY WEBSTER So that brings me into the room. Hey, I'm Molly Webster. They meet about once a month. When I visited, there were seven people in the room. There was the special projects manager, the social media editor, the public advocacy manager, crimes editor, a former rock critic who is now the head of the Culture Desk.
MIKE I'm Mike.
MOLLY WEBSTER And sports editor. You're?
MOLLY WEBSTER OK. And we all sit around a long table.
CHRIS QUINN We're not going to name the peoples we talk about and we'll just use the numbers for the cases.
MOLLY WEBSTER And everyone has in front of them this document, that's about 50 pages, it has 12 different cases outline and each case has got the articles attached to it, the statement of the person about what they want removed, is it a name or a mugshot and a personal plea for why they want it taken down.
CHRIS QUINN We're ready to start?
MOLLY WEBSTER Yes.
CHRIS QUINN Right, so this is an attorney that did plead to a misdemeanor and did have it expunged. I mean, this would seem to me, to me a no brainer.
LAURA He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
CHRIS QUINN A misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice [BLEEP]..
MOLLY WEBSTER Quick note for a morass of legal and ethical reasons, we are going to try to keep all the people we talk about anonymous. So you're going to hear a number of bleeps.
DAVID You have no context. You don't know what and he's had the record expunged.
LAURA He's pleaded guilty to something.
DAVID Yes, but he's saying.
MOLLY WEBSTER They started getting in these arguments about how much value an article had and whether or not it was serving a public good.
KELLY MCBRIDE We need to put names because it's part of the public record.
MOLLY WEBSTER This is Kelly McBride. She's an ethicist at the Poynter Institute.
KELLY MCBRIDE I did have this experience where my kid was on a soccer team and there was this coach who seemed really questionable to me in the way that he acted around the kids. And sure enough, on the mug shots site in my local hometown, this guy showed up for domestic violence. So I went to the athletic director and I was like, hey, this guy can't be working for us. And that's the use that journalists point to. You should be able to find out the bad information about somebody because you might be considering employing this person around your children.
MOLLY WEBSTER Or employing them at all. Is this thing the lawyer did bad enough that all of us need to know about it?
MIKE If I'm one of his customers, I would probably want to know that. But he's licensed to practice law, right? The bar here, I mean, they're pretty thorough about deciding whether somebody is fit to practice law.
MOLLY WEBSTER You can hear them putting a lot of weight on whether or not a court has sealed or expunged a record.
CHRIS QUINN The court said, yes, you've done your time. You can have it sealed. And we would need a very strong argument here not to do that. You want to make your argument stronger, Laura?
LAURA I mean. No, I guess.
MOLLY WEBSTER In the end, they decided that this lawyer had the right to be forgotten. And so they just sort of like vanished his name from the article. And that was one of the simpler ones. Like after that, things definitely got tougher because some of the cases were so complicated, like someone who killed somebody and then it was labeled self-defense. That's still killing somebody. Does that person have the right to be forgotten? And then one of the hardest cases.
CHRIS QUINN All right. On the fourth one, he did have it expunged.
MOLLY WEBSTER It was actually a cop. His record was sealed.
CHRIS QUINN But it is a police officer.
MOLLY WEBSTER Over the course of a few years. He lied on his time sheet and walked away with thousands of dollars.
CHRIS QUINN We've said on the front end of this that sex crimes, violence, crimes and corruption were were much less likely to do this. So would you view this as corruption or more as a theft than office kind of thing?
MOLLY WEBSTER The cop said basically, look, I've been on the force for many years. This was just one mistake.
MARK This was not some elected official. This was not use of force. I mean, this guy was skimming overtime. But when the firefighters were having time stuff, too, I mean, that was a big problem. But this is one guy doing one thing. I'm so back and forth on this one.
CHRIS QUINN He didn't abuse his authority as an officer. I mean, this is like any other theft.
MIKE But I hold him to a higher standard for being a cop.
MOLLY WEBSTER You can see people's just like opinion shift.
DAVID This was not a momentary lapse in judgment. This went on for [BLEEP] years.
MIKE And I'm with Mark, the public trust issue here, you know, this isn't some water department guy skimming copper off the job site, like this is a police officer stealing overtime over the course [BLEEP] years.
LAURA I don't know, I first read this and I was like, yes, I think we should let him be forgotten. But now I'm kind of on the other side. He's not a public threat, but because he is in a public position, he should be held to a higher standard.
CHRIS QUINN Get back to our central question. Is the value of having his name there greater than the pain it's causing him for being there?
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MOLLY WEBSTER Again and again? Chris just steered the conversation back to that question. But how do you know what information will be valuable in the future?
DAVID I mean, what stops him from going to get a job, if he gets it sealed and this story goes away? Other offices might not be--
CHRIS QUINN I wonder if he lost his certification. We should look that up because if, if, I mean, we're talking about another Tamir Rice case.
MALE CORRESPONDENT That's 12 year old Tamir Rice waving-- . [END CLIP].
MOLLY WEBSTER Hovering over the conversation was what happened to Tamir Rice?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT 12 year old Tamir Rice.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Holding a toy gun. [END CLIP].
MOLLY WEBSTER So in 2014 in Cleveland, police officers shot and killed Tamir Rice after they saw him holding a toy gun.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The two policemen said that Rice was warned three times to show his hands. But no bystander heard that or any warning before the shots. Lowman and--. [END CLIP].
MOLLY WEBSTER I did not know this, but the cop who shot and killed Tamir Rice, before he worked in Cleveland, he worked at another police department where he was deemed unfit to serve. And then when the Cleveland Police Department was hiring him, they didn't dig into his records. And then the other police department didn't, like, offer the records. And since it had never been a news story that was Googleable, like no one knew about it, so he was hired.
CHRIS QUINN If if all records of this disappear and he applies to be a cop again, you're, you're, it would be basically our fault that he's able to do bad things?
MOLLY WEBSTER And so in this case, one of the thoughts in the room is--.
CHRIS QUINN What if one of these people in a future year does something horrendous? Right. Wouldn't you want to know about their past transgressions?
MOLLY WEBSTER I actually talked about this with Chris in one of our interviews.
CHRIS QUINN I mean, wouldn't that make those past transgressions relevant again? And he told me that when they do decide to delete someone, we're keeping a spreadsheet of the names that we've taken.
MOLLY WEBSTER Wow that feels like a crazy, powerful spreadsheet.
CHRIS QUINN Yeah, I know.
MOLLY WEBSTER Is it in a vault?
CHRIS QUINN Like I keep saying is this is an experiment.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
CHRIS QUINN And we're not we're not there yet.
MOLLY WEBSTER With time sheet cop guy, once Tamir Rice walked into the room, you could kind of feel the energy shift to the non deletion side. So they just wrapped it up. Decided not to delete him. And then like onto the next case.
KELLY MCBRIDE Newsrooms are tearing their hair out, trying to figure out how to deal with this.
MOLLY WEBSTER That's Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride again.
KELLY MCBRIDE Because there are thousands and thousands of people who did one stupid thing, and that is the thing that the internet remembers them for.
MOLLY WEBSTER It is a huge conversation happening now because of something that's like bubbling up in Europe.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MOLLY WEBSTER In Spain and this guy, Mario, in 1998, he had basically gone into bankruptcy, at which point the local newspaper published an announcement about it. And then 10 years go by. Mario cleaned up, got his money back, got his life back on course. And so he reaches out to the newspaper and he was like, hey, I've cleaned up my life, can you take this bulletin down so it doesn't show up on the internet? And the newspaper says no. And then he goes to Google and he says, hey, can you delist this from your search engines? And they say, no. And so long story short, he actually takes Google to court, gets all the way up to the European Union Court, which is like the Supreme Court of the European Union. And in 2014, the judges make a decision that if something is out of date, irrelevant or not accurate, a person can request a search engine to take it down. A new right is established, this is when you start to hear the phrase "right to be forgotten".
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER The unfortunate element of human remembering is that because our brain forgets automatically, we never had to deal with deliberate forgetting.
MOLLY WEBSTER This is Victor.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER Victor Mayer-Schonberger, professor of Internet Governance, Oxford University. We can't deliberately forget. If I tell you, please forget that my second name is Michael. You will remember that. And so the problem is we don't know how to disregard memories of our past. We don't know how to forgive if we remember. And so as we become a remembering society, we become an unforgiving society.
MOLLY WEBSTER So he is a strong proponent of policies that help us forget even just a little bit.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER I'm not in favor of annihilating memories. I'm in favor of putting them in the shoe box and stashing them in the attic so that if you really want to make the effort to go up there, you can take them down, pour yourself a glass of wine and go through them, but you don't stumble over them every day.
CHRIS QUINN All right. This is a good one. It's college kid who got involved in [00:44:54][BLEEP]. [0.0s]
MOLLY WEBSTER So one of the cases that Chris and the other editors talked about while I was there was this college student who got involved in a drug operation.
CHRIS QUINN It is college kid doing something very, very stupid, but it's going to dog him for the rest of his life if it stays on our site. Everybody knows about it. Yeah, but this is a college kid doing something really bad, I mean he was enabling people to do drugs [BLEEP] years later, he's trying to get on with his life.
MOLLY WEBSTER So the first thought you hear in the room is just, oh, my God, we were all idiots in college. We should take these articles down.
CHRIS QUINN I didn't have an issue with this one, but if somebody does, speak up.
MOLLY WEBSTER But then on the other side.
MIKE There is something to me that's different between [BLEEP] and, you know, selling pot on the side when you're in college or something and getting called for it.
CHRIS QUINN He's getting it expunged. I mean, the other thing we could do is say when you're expungement is complete, let us know and we'll take it down. But it's [BLEEP] [0.0s] years later, he was in college. He was 25. He wasn't like he was 18.
MARK So remove the fact that this is a clean cut kid who was going to a private college, move this scenario to the same age, the same race. But not in college and in some rural community.
MOLLY WEBSTER And at this point, questions of race and class come into the room. All the editors are white. Most went to college themselves. Is that biasing them in some way?
MARK Would our willingness to forgive this kid be different if the socio economic issue changes here?
CHRIS QUINN This isn't about forgiveness. It's about the idea that on our site, because we're so big, when you search for somebody, this is the first thing you find. And we haven't set any kind of economic strata for this, we haven't studied geographic strata, we're considering each case as it comes in. Does this kid deserve to have his name removed?
MOLLY WEBSTER As you heard, Chris reacted pretty abruptly to the word forgiveness.
CHRIS QUINN I think it's almost presumptuous for me to think that I can forgive these people.
MOLLY WEBSTER But in a sense, you've taken on. If we if we acknowledge these people and offer them respite, we'll help the rest of the world do that, too. That to me sounds like forgiveness.
CHRIS QUINN I don't feel like we're forgiving the seven people who asked for this relief. I feel like we're enabling them to carry on with their lives without the baggage of the mistakes they made, because society is very judgmental. I think what we can do is kind of revert back to the way things worked before the internet.
DEBORAH DWYER Well, if we think the answer to this is to unpublished everything that somehow we collectively think ought to be unpublished, that is a pipe dream.
MOLLY WEBSTER I Ran Chris' thought by Deborah Dwyer, who is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
DEBORAH DWYER School of Media and Journalism.
MOLLY WEBSTER She has been saying journalists, how they're approaching takedown requests in this whole like right to be forgotten issue. And basically what she told me is you can only delete so much.
DEBORAH DWYER We're never going to be able to eradicate our past. That ship has sailed. But organizations I talked to said they were considering not covering arrests or court cases, actual trials, unless they could see them through their completion. There's never going to be a perfect way to clean up everyone's past. We've got to learn to live with it. And if we can decide, maybe that we oughta address it with a little bit of compassion, that gives me hope.
CHRIS QUINN We're not doing that one. I'm looking for one of the simple ones just to delete.
MOLLY WEBSTER Yeah for delete.
CHRIS QUINN Here's one.
MOLLY WEBSTER Okay. So this is just deleting like a two sentence paragraph maybe or one sentence paragraph that just says his name, this guy's name.
CHRIS QUINN I had a note at the top.
MOLLY WEBSTER This story was updated to remove someone's name, and according to the cleveland com right to be forgotten policy.
CHRIS QUINN And hit save. And it's gone.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
BOB GARFIELD Molly Webster reported this piece for Radiolab. That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield.