The recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, an extremist assault which claimed 22 lives, had online roots in the Philippines via a Dark Web-hosted forum run by American expatriates.

Patrick Wood Crusius, the white nationalist terrorist behind the lethal attack, posted his xenophobic manifesto on the popular far-right website 8chan, where he warned of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and encouraged like-minded “brothers” to “spread the contents far and wide.”

The same site also hosted similar posts by the perpetrator behind the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 Muslims and injured 49 others, according to media reports.

While the troubled backgrounds of the shooters are now widely known, attention has now turned to the 8chan website and the Philippines’ Dark Web, a collection of websites on an encrypted network that cannot be accessed by traditional browsers or search engines.

Philippine authorities have said they will investigate the right-wing website in the wake of the El Paso shootings, a tragedy that has provoked a new heated debate about America’s gun laws and easy access to high-powered firearms.

CCTV image of gunman identified as Patrick Crusius, 21, before killing 22 people in an El Paso, Texas Walmart store on August 3, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via KTSM 9 News Channel

But it’s unclear how far Filipino authorities can and will get in a country that has recently emerged not only as a global hub for the Dark Web’s various illicit trades, but also as a testing ground for disseminating hate speech online.

Criminal syndicates involved in drug dealing, sex trafficking, fake identification cards and even explosives sales are all active on the Philippines’ Dark Web, according to law enforcement authorities.

Filipino agents are now working with US and South Korean authorities to stem the drug trade on the Dark Web. But it’s not clear until now that resources have been dedicated to curbing hate speech and disinformation spread over the Dark Web.

Online hate speech has become an everyday political reality under President Rodrigo Duterte, whose backers have unleashed vicious online campaigns against his critics and opponents, often punctuated with death and rape threats.

That fits with 8chan’s profile. The now notorious website, a popular platform among neo-Nazis and white nationalists worldwide, was established in 2013 by then New York-based computer programmer Fredrick Brennan.

He rapidly built the platform as an alternative to the more established right wing website, 4chan, which began losing its subscribers following tighter moderation of inflammatory and extremist commentaries in 2014 by its manager Christopher Poole.

8Chan founder Mark Brennan with his pet dog. Photo: Twitter

Brennan successfully promoted his website as a “Free Speech Friendly 4chan Alternative”, but soon had to find a new partner to finance his project. In late 2018, he teamed up with Jim Watkins, a US Army veteran and technology entrepreneur based in the Philippines.

Shortly after, the two began to work together in Manila, where they oversaw the emergence of the website into a premier far-right platform.

But the two eventually parted ways due to disagreements over the direction of the website; following the El Paso attack, Brennan called for the site to be shut down, according to reports.

“The El Paso shooter’s manifesto is without a doubt a genuine article and was without a doubt first posted to 8chan,” he posted on August 4 on his Twitter account, potentially implicating the site for facilitating and promoting hate crimes.

Amid mounting pressure, including from his former partner, Watkins lashed out at his critics, arguing that his website is an indispensable space for free speech.

“My company takes a firm stand on helping law enforcement, and within minutes of these two tragedies, we were working with FBI agents to find out what information we could to help in their investigations,” the 8chan owner said in a lengthy statement.

“We have never protected illegal speech, as it seems that we have been accused of by some less than credible journalists,” he added.

Soon after the mass shooting, the website was denied services by Internet intermediaries. Philippine authorities, meanwhile, are making a show of probing the site and its administrators.

8Chan co-investor and ex-US soldier Jim Watkins. Photo: Facebook

On August 7, Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that his department is “gathering more info before we decide if this is something for the [National Bureau of Investigation] to look into.”

According to immigration authorities, a certain “Fredrick Robert Brennan” resides in the Philippines with a 9G [working] visa, with his last arrival in the country recorded on July 1, 2017, the justice chief said.

Immigration officials also identified a certain “Jimmy Ray Watkins”, who left the country on May 9, but couldn’t confirm if it’s the same individual as 8chan’s owner. Investigations are ongoing, though both Americans are widely believed to still be in the Philippines.

They are not the only controversial far-right American figures to recently visit the Philippines. Some have even been given red carpet treatment.

Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, was also known to be based in Davao City for a period. He even met with Duterte, who hails from the southern city, and openly supported his controversial lethal drug war in far-right circles.

Analysts say the Philippines’ attractiveness to far-right figures should be seen within the broader context of the Southeast Asian country’s transformation into a global Dark Web hub.

Collage image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a mobile Facebook page and a raised fist of fury. Image: Facebook/Rappler

Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, said in a speech last year that the Philippines has turned into “patient zero”, where social media and digital platforms have been weaponized for political ends.

“[Duterte’s win] was the beginning because a month later it was Brexit and then Trump got the nomination and then you had the US election,” she said.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, maintained that the company, which has an office in Manila, is trying to address the crisis.

She told BuzzFeed News that the company now employs “automation tools that have become extremely effective in catching fake accounts, spam and other types of abuse, and our team of expert investigators who are focused on uncovering the most sophisticated information operations.”

So far, they have “disrupted two of these operations in the Philippines this year,” she said. But there are signs that the Philippines’ booming troll farm industry is attracting clients not only in the country but also from around the world.

“The Philippines shows us trends that are headed this way [the US],” warned Camille François, a technology expert who oversaw a report commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigating Russian disinformation campaigns during the US 2016 presidential election.

“This is what disinformation will look like in the US in 2020,” she added, warning that Philippine-based trolls and tactics of disinformation may soon be replicated globally.