Last Saturday was another dark day in American history.
In El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, two men inflicted carnage on their communities and took the lives of 31 innocent people. They also left the US in a state of shock, searching once again for answers as to why this keeps happening.
To the outside world, the answer is pretty clear. All of the reasons for these latest attacks, put forward by US politicians exist in every country around the world. Mental illness, violent video games, racism… all except one. Only in the US does everyone have easy access to guns.
But within the US, the issue is a lot less clear cut.
The right to bear arms is enshrined in the US Constitution and even though that document never envisaged a gun being the high-powered weapon of mass destruction they are today and the second amendment was intended for the Wild West era, it is a right that still matters to many Americans today.
This is why whenever the next mass shooting takes place, issues other than guns are put forward as being the cause. And worrying for those of us who value our rights to a free and independent internet, the online world has now become one of the scapegoats too.
The 8Chan dilemma
One of the fall-guys from the shooting in El Paso, Texas, has been the 8chan website. It was here that lone gunman Patrick Wood Crusius, 21, posted a hate-filled manifesto outlining his anti-immigrant views shortly before he walked into a Walmart Store and killed 22 people. Eight of his victims were Mexican. More were Hispanic Americans.
The motivation for his actions is pretty clear. The question is, should the website where his manifesto appeared by blamed for his views?
8chan has always been proud of its status as a forum for free speech and somewhere that does not censor content and opinions, no matter how distasteful many others may find it. Freedom of speech is, of course, another right that is enshrined in the US Constitution.
Yet, despite this, the 8chan website is now down after security company Cloudflare withdrew its security platform leaving the site exposed to cyber-attacks. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince posted a blog explaining that they believed the site was lawless and this had led to the deaths of innocent people.
But is that really true? The founder of 8chan has gone public with claims that the manifesto was not published on their site first. The manifesto is believed to have gone up on 8chan just 27 minutes before the El Paso shootings began.
Yet, it is still believed that moderators had taken it down before the attacks commenced. Links to the document were still being circulated by users but it does beg the question of what more 8chan could have done.
We wouldn’t for a moment endorse the type of content that 8chan provides a platform for. But the question of whether their users have the right to express those views is much more complicated than the current debate suggests.
Backlash targets online freedoms
Despite this, 8chan in particular and the internet freedoms they apply to their site more generally have been targeting by pro-gun politicians in particular.
President Donald Trump has said, “We must recognise the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalise disturbed minds and perform demented acts. We must shine a light on the dark recesses of the internet and stop mass murders before they start.”
“The perils of the internet and social media cannot be ignored and they will not be ignored,” he added before saying he had directed the Justice Department to work with local authorities and social media companies to improve their ability to detect and act on early warning signs.
What this is likely to mean is more internet surveillance, more online censorship, and more attempts to trawl the internet output of everyone in the hope of catching the few bad eggs there are out there.
That is bad news for everyone who uses the internet whose online freedoms and privacy will inevitably be compromised as a consequence.
The FBI is already looking to acquire a tool which would allow them to surveil social media platforms in real-time. They want to watch what we are doing on Facebook and Twitter as it happens 24/7.
The only solution to mass shootings is gun control
This approach is destined to fail. Those who want to commit terrible acts like the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, as well as terrorist atrocities, and other horrific crimes, will continue to do so regardless of how thoroughly the Justice Department scours the internet.
They will just go deeper and deeper into the dark web to share their thoughts and opinions without being detected. These people will just end up further underground, beyond the reach of law enforcement, while the rest of us suffer an erosion of our rights as a result of their actions.
You cannot get rid of racism in America, or anywhere. You cannot stop people holding and expressing hateful views about their fellow humans. No amount of online restrictions will solve this issue.
What you can do is stop people being able to walk into a supermarket and execute people with a high-powered rifle. This is impossible in almost every other country apart from the USA. The answer is simple, if not easy for some Americans to hear. The answer is gun control laws.