Guilty Plea to Poway Terrorist Attack

On Friday John T. Earnest, the terrorist responsible for the 2019 attack on the Poway Synagogue in California, pled guilty to 113 Federal Hate Crimes. The announcement from the United States Department of Justice outlines the details of the attack, including the manifesto Earnest posted online just prior to the attack. The Online Hate Prevention Institute congratulates the Justice Department on securing this plea and bringing a resolution to the victims. The sentence being recommended to the judge is life plus 30 years. A life sentence in most of the US is 15 years before the possibility of parole, making this a minimum sentence of 45 years.

As reported by the US Justice Department, Earnest stated in his manifesto that he was inspired by the Christchurch attack where two mosques were targeted and the Pittsburgh attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue. The manifesto was filled with antisemitic and Islamophobic statements. The Justice Department highlight how Earnest lamented, “I can only kill so many Jews” and “I only wish I killed more.”

In our work combating extremism the Online Hate Prevention Institute has removed numerous terrorist manifestos. In the case of the Poway attack, it was out work that saw the original copies of the manifesto uploaded by Earnest get removed. As we note in our report into the Poway Attack:

When we started writing this post, a little over 20 hours after the attack, both original copies of the manifesto were still online. We report both to their respective companies.

The number of people who saw the copy on MediaFire is unknown, but in response to our report this file was removed. MediaFire acted swiftly to remove the file. By the time we conducted our first re-check on the file, a little under 4 hours after first reporting it, it had already been removed. Within 24 hours of our report we received an e-mail updating us on the action taken. Well done to MediaFire for their swift and thorough response.

The copy on pastebin remained online until a little over 50 hours after the attack. A little less than 21 hours after it was first uploaded, the time we first reported it to the company, it had around 53,000 views. 24 hours after upload it has over 63,500 views. 50 hours after upload it had 75,950 views. Half an hour later it was removed.

Pastebin’s FAQ says “We try to handle all removal requests within 24 hours”. In this case is took a couple of hours longer. Even 24 hours is not good enough when the content is a terrorist manifesto directly inciting violence. Pastebin needs to review and improve their removal processes or create alternative systems for handling violent extremist content.

Reflecting on this attack in our subsequent report into the Halle terrorist attack we noted how:

Pastebin did not meet its own goal of responding to complaints within 24 hours and took a few hours more than this to take action on our report. The delay allows the content to be viewed by far more people [as shown in the figure below.]

In our Poway Report we were also the first to call for 8chan to suspend /pol/ the board where a number of these terrorist attacks were announced. 8chan latter took this action, under pressure from upstream providers who for a time cancelled it service.

The action of the Online Hate Prevention Institute have played a significant role in stopping the spread of terrorism and the messages that incite further attacks. We have also helped to make platforms accountable, monitor compliance, and recommend policy changes that improve online safety.

As part of our continued contribution in this space, we have been helping spearhead the IEEE Computer Society’s Tech Forum into social media and societal harms which will occur online later this week. Both our CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, and our CTO, Baden Hughes, are on the forum’s steering committee. We encourage anyone interested in tackling these issues to attend.

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