Poway Synagogue Attack

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On the last day of the Jewish festival of Passover, on the Sabbath as the Jewish community of Poway near San Diego in California was gathered in prayer, a gunman with an AR-type assault weapon entered the place of worship and shot at the community killing one and injuring others.

The gunman has been named as John T. Earnest, a 19 year old nursing student from Cal State San Marcos. Our analysis indicated this story is sadly similar to one already told. It is a story of online radicalisation through /pol/, a Facebook live stream and an online manifesto.

Note: Updated 30 April 2019 and 4 May.

The Victims

Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed in the attack. A friend of hers, Audrey Jacobs, has posted a moving response on Facebook. Lori’s family have asked for it to be shared.

Lori Gilbert Kaye

In the post, Audrey writes how Lori regularly engaged in good deeds; her final good deed was taking the bullet meant for Rabbi Mendel Goldstein and saving his life. She writes of the devastated husband and 22-year-old daughter.

The Rabbi was not entirely spared and was still shot in the hand, he is recovering in hospital. Also recovering in hospital is 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her uncle 32 year old Almog Peretz.

Noya Dahan is recovering in hospital along with her Uncle and the community’s Rabbi

Peretz gathering the children and leading them to safety. He was visiting from Sderot in Israel, a city regularly under fire from rockets out of Gaza. Noya’s family moved to the United States to get away from that violence.

Audrey ended her post by noting that, “Anti-Semitism is real and is deadly. Hate crimes are real and are deadly.” 

Analysis of the attacker’s message

Earnest radicalised himself online on 8Chan’s /pol/ over the last 18 months. He posted to /pol/ with a link to his Facebook profile saying he would be live-streaming shortly. The post also includes links to two copies of his manifest posted to different sites. This mirrors the approach of the Christchurch attacker (see our analysis on Christchurch). The image included with his post shows a person running into a building while holding a gun – ensuring the message is clear.

In reply one person calls the post spam, while another tells him to “get the high score”, meaning a high casualty count.

The 8Chan and /pol/ connection

8Chan is a copy of a site called 4Chan, but under different management. It promotes itself as a “free-speech-friendly 4chan alternative”. It was created by Fredrick Brennan in 2013 in response to increases in moderation on 4Chan to remove illegal content. The site is owned by Jim Watkins but continues to be run by Brennan. It takes a far more extreme view of free speech than 4Chan.

4Chan itself was founded in 2003 and is an anonymous image board that allows visitors to post without registering an account. Posters without a registered account (just about everyone) have the word “Anonymous” displayed in place of a username. 4Chan is central to much of online culture. On the lighter side, it created the modern concept of a memeLOLCats, and the Anonymous movement, but it has a far darker side as well including encouraging suicides and coordinating extreme harassment, as well as the misogyny that led to Gamergate.

8Chan grew substantially in September 2014 when 4Chan’s administrator, Moot, decided to shutdown the Gamegate discussions. The Gamegate users then migrated to 8Chan.

/Pol/, the “politically incorrect” forum, exists in both 4Chan and 8Chan. It promotes racism, Nazism and is where Alt-Right and their tactics originated. This board / community is responsible for teaching Microsoft’s Twitter bot Tay to become a Hitler loving racist, it also manipulated the mainstream media into believing a boycott of Star Wars was occurring due to the cast being too racially diverse. /Pol/ trolling cartoonist Ben Garrison for years, turning his political cartoons into pro-Nazi and antisemitic propaganda (see our report). It promotes slogans like “race war now” and advocates violence, all while claiming none of it is serious, even as they egg people on to commit attacks.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant was a regular on 8Chan’s /pol/ and used it to post his manifesto and a link to his live feed before carrying out the Christchurch attack on two mosques that killed 30 people.

The Manifesto & White Supremacy

The manifesto begins with the attacker discussing his ancestors outlining his “European ancestry”. It concludes with him claiming, “Truly, I am blessed by God for such a magnificent bloodline”.

Next comes the same white supremacist ideology we saw in the New Zealand attack. The idea of the “white race” being “under threat”. While praising the Christchurch killer multiple times and saying his actions were a catalyst for Earnest’s own actions, the specifics differ markedly. While
the Christchurch killer blamed Muslim immigrates, Earnest’s manifesto repeats both modern and classic antisemitism. It is the same antisemitism that routinely circulates on /pol/ but with the additional elements of more traditional Christian antisemitism added in as well. Earnest has twisted his Christian faith into a thing of violence and hate.

The manifesto repeats antisemitic conspiracy theories about “international Jewry”, a theme going back to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. It brings in the more modern twist of white supremacy claiming there is a Jewish plot for a “white genocide”.

Julie Nathan from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry gave an excellent analysis of this white genocide ideology to the ABC after the Christchurch attack. This is a regular theme on the extreme right spread by places like /pol/ and the Daily Stormer. It is the ideology promoted by Robert G. Bowers when he killed 11 people in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh on the 27th of October 2018.

Associate Professor Cynthia Levine-Rasky (Queens University, Ontario, Canada) traces the origins of the “white genocide” theory back around 100 years. One of the most influential early proponents was Lothrop Stoddard with his 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. In it he built on earlier work of his mentor Madison Grant and his mentor’s friend William Z. Ripley. Prof. Levine-Rasky explains, “With little to no references, research or documentation to support their claims, these writers asserted the inherent superiority of the “Nordic” group of Europeans.” She explains how the 1920 book took things a step further by claiming the continued existence of the white race was under threat. The idea of “race suicide” was introduced earlier, in 1901, by economist Edward A. Ross who argued immigrants were better able to survive under industrial capitalism. The manifesto of the Christchurch attacker is more in keeping with this original thesis and directly referred to reproduction rates.

Prof. Levine-Rasky going on to explain that this is not just about race. Today’s cry against “white genocide” is an inversion. “It is white extremists who insist that they are at risk of annihilation rather than the source of oppression… they seek to establish a way of life built on a power and a status whose enjoyment is unquestioned” she explains. This leads to oppression not only of minorities, but also of women. This ideology about the way the world should work, with unquestioned power for white men who are nominally Christian and straight, is promoted through the red-pilling ideology places like /pol/ promote and which fed trolling movements like Gamegate.

In the ultimate inversion, it is Hitler’s primary victims, the Jews, that are said to be behind the threat. Jews, through the supposed (and classically antisemitic conspiracy theory) manipulation of government and the media, are blamed for feminism, homosexuality and immigration. The slogans of “gas the kikes” and “race war now” were over recent years combined. The manifesto of the San Diego attacker, and that of the Pittsburgh attacker, are based on this more modern twist that sees the threat to the “white race” as coming from an enemy seeking to commit genocide. It is an inversion of the history of a Holocaust where the Nazis sought to carry out a genocide against the Jews and systematically murdered around two thirds of European Jewry.

In the Manifesto Earnest ends by speaking of “The Day of the Rope” a reference to the Turner diaries, part of the American White Supremacist cannon.

His manifesto ends with a message to /pol/ and seeks to directly incite further attacks.

The Manifesto & Traditional Christian Antisemitism

Beyond White Supremacy, the manifesto also refers to blood libel, the false allegations that Jews used the blood Christian children in rituals. It specifically refers to Simon of Trent, a 2 year old child, who was murdered in 1475 in the city of Trent in Italy. The local Jewish community was accused of the murder and confessed under torture after which some were burned at the stake. Later investigations exonerated the Jews. The case was however used to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment for centuries and indeed is still used to promote antisemitism today. The manifesto continues this tends saying Simon of Trent will not be forgotten.

The manifesto also speaks of deicide, the allegation that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus – a claim repudiated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1964. The manifesto states the Jewish community was targeted “for their role in the murder of the Son of Man—that is the Christ”.

Earnest writes that he “did not want to have to kill Jews” but then seeks to justify his premeditated act of murder claiming “they have given us no other option”. He accused Jews of “genocidal instincts” and of “poking the bear until it tears his head off”. He claims his attack is therefore “completely justified”. This is the danger of conspiracies. The lies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion similarly led to pogroms with mass killings in Jewish communities.

Earnest mixes his White Supremacist and twisted religious style of hate. He says, “the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul”. He describes Jews as “vile anti-humans” and speaks about sending Jews into “the pit of fire – where they shall remain for eternity”. This is classic religious demonisation. He pitches the close of his narrative as battle between good and evil, describe Europeans as “the most beautiful, intelligent, and innovative races” and Jews as “one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt”. He later says Europeans are “the greatest race that our God has created” and demands a they “keep this world from falling into darkness”. He again paints Jews as a force of corruption and destruction.

He ends by seeking to incite further attacks.

Facebook live

While the the message spoke about live streaming the attack, there’s no media discussion of such a video. We’ll seek clarification from Facebook, but it seems likely the account was closed quickly enough that the live streaming could not occur or for other reasons the attacker wasn’t able to carryout this part of their plan.

Removing the terrorist manifests from Pastebin and MediaFire

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.

While further improvements in response time would be welcome – the file had been up for under 21 hours before we reported it – we accept there are limits to what a company can do before someone reports the content. Perhaps in the future some form of AI could be used to trigger a review of certain files even before a public report is made. It won’t catch everything, but it will help improve response times at least some of the time.

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.

Responding to 8Chan’s /pol/

After the Christchurch attack, 8Chan acted much more quickly this time around. A tweet from the official account states the post was removed within 9 minutes of appearing.

Despite this, 9 minutes was enough for screen captures of the post to be circulating online. We redacted the address of the manifesto on Pastebin and MediaFire when we posted the image, others did not. This allows the address to spread and the manifesto to reach tens of thousands of people.

There is another aspect to this, which is the long term radicalisation that occurred on /pol/. After a second act of violent extremism posted to 8Chan’s /pol/ action clearly needs to be taken. This can’t be allowed to continue. The forum is responsible not just for hosting the posting prior to the attack but for the radicalisation.

Unless there is full cooperation with US authorities, something that may not be possible given the infrastructure involved, authorities may need to investigate whether 8Chan can be legally prescribe as a terrorist site under the Patriot Act given it is operating outside the United States. Countries like Australia need to consider blocking access to 8Chan so long as it continues t provide a forum for such radicalisation that leads to violence.

Blocking sites should be an absolute last resort, but sites running technology designed to make the job of police impossible, and with a track record of inciting and being part of deadly violent extremist attacks, cross that threshold. The effort to incite further attacks from people on /pol/, as stated in the manifesto, makes this a case of a clear and present danger.

8Chan may consider suspending /pol/ in order to avoid such government responses. Another option would be far greater cooperation with police, not just in the US, but internationally. That would require changes to the software to enable a far greater and longer term retention of data. Even so, greater moderation action against the hate that leads to extremism may well be needed.

Doing nothing is not an option. If Earnest has been stopped after the arson attack he speaks about in his manifesto, an attack inspired by the Christchurch attack, things may not have escalated to the point where one woman is dead and three people are in hospital. If greater action had been taken on 8Chan after Christchurch this latest attack might not have occurred. If the incitement and spread of hate on /pol/ had been stopped earlier both San Diego and Christchurch might have been avoided. The idea of “containment zone” doesn’t work, it just allows the hate to fester and grow. A rethink is badly needed.

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