This piece, by Judd Legum, was published in the Popular Information newsletter. To get accountability journalism like this in your inbox, subscribe at popular.info.
You may or may not know about the 8chan website—but you are most likely familiar with its work. The rudimentary message board is a wellspring of racism, violence, and criminal activity online and in the physical world.
Most famously, 8chan hosted a manifesto from the Christchurch shooter, who killed 50 people at mosques in New Zealand. After the massacre, 8chan users flooded the website with posts praising the mass murder. Before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter posted threatening messages on 8chan.
8chan differs from other hate sites in that it has a relatively stable presence online. The white supremacist site The Daily Stormer, by contrast, struggles to find domain hosts and raise funds to pay for bandwidth.
What’s 8chan's secret? It can all be traced back to its owner, Jim Watkins and his company NT Technologies. Watkins has created a mostly self-contained system where he hosts the 8chan domain without the help of third parties. And it’s allowed 8chan to remain on solid footing while its contemporaries struggle. While Watkins couldn’t stop Google from delisting 8chan from its search results, people who wanted to find it still knew where to go.
But Watkins still needs an outside source of cash to pay for the servers, bandwidth, and staff that keep 8chan running. A significant source of the site’s funding is Amazon.
THE ORIGINS OF 8CHAN
8chan was founded by Fredrick Brennan, a software developer from New York who came up with the idea while high on mushrooms.
Brennan, who goes by the moniker “Hotwheels” online, initially tried to finance 8chan through the crowdfunding site Patreon. But he was quickly booted from the platform. After that, 8chan frequently went offline for exceeding its allotted bandwidth or violating the rules of Internet Service Providers, which typically ban hate speech.
That’s when Jim Watkins, an Army veteran in his 50s who runs a pig farm in the Philippines, reached out. Brennan moved to the Philippines afterwards, and 8chan became the property of Watkins’ company NT Technologies.
Brennan, according to The Wall Street Journal, “cut ties with the site in December” and said, “8chan’s administrators were too slow to remove the post” from the New Zealand shooter.
HOW WATKINS RUNS 8CHAN
Watkins circumvents the difficulty of hosting a toxic site like 8chan by handling it himself through a company he owns: NT Technologies.
Watkins also hosts dozens of related sites through NTTEC.com, which can be traced through a search on the website Security Trails.
Perhaps the most important of these sites is books.audio, a site owned by TGW Enterprise Inc., which is Watkins’ company. Among the sites in the Watkins empire, books.audio is one of the few that sells anything, providing him with a source of cash.
Books.audio sells audiobooks, including books narrated by Watkins. And Watkins uses 8chan and other sites that he hosts to run ads promoting audiobooks from the books.audio website. This is clearest on The Goldwater, a news site established by Watkins and hosted by NTTEC.com.
The Goldwater is a news site that caters to the 8chan audience, as BuzzFeed explained.
The site’s videos star attractive Filipina women who deliver pro-Trump news in heavily accented English. And at a time when most news sites obsess over generating traffic from Facebook, The Goldwater largely ignores that platform. Instead, everything it does is catered to the trolls, alt-righters, Trump sh*tposters, and other anonymous members of the internet’s most deplorable message board, 8chan.
Yes, The Goldwater wants to be the pre-eminent news source for internet trolls.
FROM BOOKS.AUDIO TO AMAZON.COM
Books.audio doesn’t sell products directly. They must be purchased through Amazon. Generally, they are also made available through Amazon’s Audible—its audiobook subsidiary. The ads directing users to Amazon.com also appear directly on 8chan, without any Amazon branding.
The books.audio audiobooks are sold through Amazon.com for a fee of between $3 and $17. They are also free if you sign up for an Audible.com subscription. If someone buys a books.audio audiobook through Amazon, books.audio gets a cut of 40 percent of the retail price. If the audiobook is downloaded by an Audible.com subscriber (who pays $15 per month for an all-you-can listen account), books.audio collects about 20 percent of the retail price. If someone subscribes to Audible.com and listens to a books.audio book as his or her first audiobook and then stays a subscriber for two months, books.audio gets a $75 new customer bonus.
As a result, Amazon is likely a significant source of funding for 8chan. The website features a few advertisements from other sources.
Watkins’ selection of Amazon as his financial lifeline to the outside world is not an accident. The company does not run away from websites that others deem toxic. When thousands of advertisers abandoned Breitbart after the right-wing website featured racist categories like “black crime,” Amazon continued to run ads on the site.
Amazon remained mum on its decision, despite an aggressive pressure campaign for it to stop advertising on Breitbart from the citizen activist group Sleeping Giants, as detailed by Fast Company.
The fact that it hasn’t blocked Breitbart has made it a target of Sleeping Giants, a group of anonymous individuals that claims (and third parties have at least partly verified) to have helped convince 3,800 advertisers—from Avis to Zynga—to drop Breitbart since its campaign started in late 2016. Amazon remains one of the most prominent firms to have ads or placements of any kind on the site, and the Seattle behemoth has never responded to inquiries from Sleeping Giants or reporters (including myself) on the topic, even after Sleeping Giants rented a billboard truck to drive around Seattle to ask it to “stop funding bigotry” on Breitbart.
In the case of 8chan, Amazon doesn't display ads directly—8chan runs its own ad server—but it allows Watkins’ audiobooks to be sold on Amazon.com and Audible.
According to the policies it puts up on its own website, Amazon prohibits the sale of items that “promote or contain materials or activity that is hateful, harassing, harmful, invasive of another’s privacy, abusive, or discriminatory (including on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or age).” This would seem to rule out Breitbart and 8chan. But when asked about the apparent contradiction, the company did not respond to a request for comment.
Popular Information reader Seth Brown contributed to this report.