Last week, US officials determined that a threatening letter sent to a voter from a fake Proud Boys email address was the work of the Iranian government, adding more emphasis to US intelligence reports that countries like Iran and Russia seek to disrupt US elections.
It also seemed like a strange, if not ill-fitting, example to focus on. Are blatantly fake emails from an adversarial government actually representative of election meddling in 2020?
Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) is the executive director and founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, the world’s leading nongovernmental counterterrorism organization specializing in tracking and analyzing the online activity of the global extremist community.
Not by a long shot. The more threatening type of election interference is that which is, by design, hard to identify—even when you’re looking right at it. Something like what we now see in hindsight from the 2016 Election: manipulation of existing sentiments and movements, prolific propaganda machines, distorted news reports, online trolls who blend into the fray. In essence, what we’re now seeing with QAnon.
What Is Keeping QAnon Alive?
Pound for pound, there isn’t a more fitting movement than QAnon for a state actor to zero in on: It is ideologically malleable, it’s driven by misinformation, and its adherents embrace violence and voter intimidation. Indeed, social media companies like Facebook and YouTube play major roles in QAnon’s growth, and their newly aggressive stances against the movement mark steps in the right direction.
However, as I’ve said before, apart from these social medial companies, QAnon has a lot to fall back on. The heart of QAnon’s web presence is kept alive by complicated, entangled arrays of tech companies. And while some more reputable companies do so unwittingly, networks of far shadier companies—shadowy cabals, if you will—do so very willingly.
The story of 8kun is a perfect case study.
For about a year and a half, “Q drops”—the cryptic messages from supposed government insider “Q” that launched the QAnon movement—were posted exclusively on a site called 8chan. The platform was owned by a man in his mid-50s named Jim Watkins, whom multiple journalistic investigations suggest to either be or have contact with the person behind the “Q” alias. But after August 3, 2019, when Patrick Crusius, who’s been charged for killing 23 people in El Paso mass shooting, followed suit with other far right attackers by uploading his manifesto to 8chan, public outcry grew against the site. Cloudflare, the service provider that once defended its hosting of 8chan, finally changed its position and dropped the site. With that, all messages from “Q” ceased.
If he wanted to revive 8chan, Watkins needed to link up with a company that wouldn’t cave to public pressure. So, in the two months following the El Paso attack, Watkins established connections with a web hosting company called VanwaTech and, by October, he launched 8chan’s successor message board: 8kun. Sure enough, the same day 8chan reemerged as 8kun, “Q” messages resumed.
Watkins was also setting up other projects around 8kun during this time. In September 2019, he launched a company called Is it Wet Yet. In a press release in early November, Is it Wet Yet was characterized as “an information hub for all the projects we’ve been working on and a launchpad for future endeavors,” including 8kun. Less recognized than its 8kun counterpart, Is it Wet Yet was even able to register with Cloudflare, the company that ditched Watkins’ 8chan just a couple months earlier.
Meanwhile, VanwaTech provided 8kun the server space and protection from DDoS attacks it needed. VanwaTech is based in Washington state and headed by a young man named Nick Lim, who has carved a niche for his small company: hosting the worst parts of the Internet. Several of its domains are unsurprisingly registered under a company called Epik, whose founder, Robert Monster, has registered similarly problematic sites over the years. Among them was Gab, the notorious platform where Robert Bowers, who’s been charged with killing 11 in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, festered in radicalization. Monster defended Gab in a blog post less than a week after the event.
Beyond their intersections as hosts and registrars, Lim and Monster are actually in business together. In 2019, Lim sold a cyber security and DDoS protection provider called Bitmitigate to Monster, which Monster claimed in a blog post can help protect sites like Gab. Lim claims he maintains partial ownership of both VanwaTech and Epik. Lim has cited free speech motivations behind his business, and stated in one interview that he sees his hosting of sites like Daily Stormer, a prominent white nationalist blog, as a way to “get [his] service out there.”