He was an unknown former U.S. Military repairman of assault helicopters when he arrived within the Philippines in 2001, the place he would run web sites that includes Japanese pornography, are likely to a pig farm and pursue his pursuits in yoga and fountain pens.
Jim Watkins additionally would change into the face of one of many Internet’s most infamous websites, 8chan, defending the nameless message board as a beacon of free speech even because it turned a platform for saying and celebrating mass homicide.
Subpoenaed by the Home Homeland Safety Committee, Watkins, now 55, got here to Washington final week for closed-door questioning by congressional employees on the positioning that earlier than its current collapse had styled itself “the darkest reaches of the Web.”
However 8chan was solely essentially the most notorious of Watkins’s unusual and tangled enterprise internet, which expanded for years from a shabby Manila workplace to hundreds of thousands of computer systems around the globe — fueled by the unusual chemistry of the Web, the place nearly anybody can flip a couple of servers into a web-based kingdom with its personal tradition, followers and code.
Watkins’s path from a porn service provider to the keeper of what one former ally referred to as a “cesspool of hate” seems to have grown out of his need to capitalize on the seedier corners of the Web, hopping between dot-com developments and positioning himself as an eccentric luminary within the communities he helped domesticate.
However the rise of 8chan additionally exhibits how on-line subcultures can increase far past their house owners into poisonous actions with devastating real-world affect. The positioning’s longtime rallying cry on the prime of its homepage was a easy one: “Embrace infamy.”
Watkins has portrayed himself as a champion of First Modification freedoms. In his ready assertion for congressional employees, he described 8chan as “the one platform that includes a full dedication to free speech”: a “hodgepodge of chaotic dialogue” and “one-of-a-kind dialogue board” the place “down-home recipes are traded (and) sorrows lifted.”
Watkins’s ready remarks, launched publicly final week, echoed lots of the arguments he provided after 8chan was used to announce the murders of a complete of 74 individuals this yr in shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; a synagogue in Poway, Calif.; and a Walmart in El Paso. Some 8chan customers lionized the killers in all three circumstances afterward. “A small minority of customers submit hateful and ignorant gadgets,” Watkins stated.
“Our firm has constructed and maintained a digital discussion board that’s the place the place opposing viewpoints and people of minorities such because the LGBTQ could specific themselves free from the concern of their life,” Watkins stated in his assertion — one vastly at odds with the hate speech rampant on the positioning. That 8chan is now offline, Watkins added, meant its customers had been “silenced” and “misplaced their final bastion of free speech.”
No transcript was launched of Watkins’s back-and-forth with committee employees, however the committee’s leaders, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), launched an announcement thanking Watkins for offering “huge and useful info” about his firms and stated they regarded ahead to “his continued cooperation.”
Watkins has condemned the mass shootings as being achieved by “the worst kind of monster.” After the Christchurch taking pictures in March, Watkins posted a video saying “going postal is such a tragic factor” and blaming the bloodbath on a noncitizen “alien in New Zealand.” “America too has had terrible gun violence dedicated by aliens,” Watkins added.
He has additionally referred to as 8chan merely a “instrument” and stated the positioning has “responded with each vigor and integrity” to take away violent threats. The businesses that had terminated service to 8chan, forcing it to close down, he stated, have been exhibiting “sinister habits” to disperse “a peacefully assembled group of individuals speaking.”
Recorded in entrance of a silhouette of Benjamin Franklin, Watkins final month referred to as 8chan one of many final on-line secure areas the place “you might write down your ideas, free from having to fret about whether or not they’re offensive to 1 group or one other.”
Whereas Watkins has contended there was little he may do to rein within the nameless person base, 8chan usually has appeared to encourage the hateful chatter on its website. Its official guidelines, for example, included particular formatting codes: three parentheses have been utilized in anti-Semitic messages to level to somebody’s presumed Jewish background — “to name (((them))) out,” as the foundations said — whereas a single less-than image was used to show textual content pink, highlighting what the message board referred to as “faggotposting.”
The positioning’s solely rule limiting content material: nothing that’s unlawful in america. The whole lot else was truthful sport. In his ready testimony, Watkins stated his “firm has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech.”
That leniency helped Watkins’s website change into a fortress for nameless racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and extremism, as posters cheered on mass shootings, canonized the gunmen and shared their screeds and bloody live-streamed movies. “I’ve solely been lurking right here for a yr and half, but what I’ve discovered right here is priceless,” the alleged Poway gunman wrote on 8chan earlier than his assault, which killed one and injured three.
The positioning had tons of of boards or boards dedicated to matters similar to video video games, porn, weapons and anime. However its most energetic and notorious board — often called “/pol/,” for “politically incorrect” — was devoted virtually fully to conspiracy theories, white supremacy, trolling of the mainstream Web and assaults on racial minorities, Jews, Muslims, liberals and girls, amongst many others. Earlier than going offline, the positioning had a median of 1.7 million distinctive guests each month this yr, a 17 p.c leap over 2018, in response to the website-analysis agency SimilarWeb.
Watkins final week was photographed on Capitol Hill with a scruffy mustache, mutton-chop sideburns and a flag pin on his tie of Mississippi, the house state of Thompson, the committee’s prime Democrat, who had subpoenaed him. He wore one other pin on his collar of the letter Q, most likely a reference to the 8chan-rooted fringe conspiracy concept QAnon, which claims that President Trump is secretly working to disrupt a sprawling cabal of world-dominating pedophiles.
Watkins has for months declined to be interviewed, answering lists of questions concerning the website’s violent threats and white-supremacist content material with pat responses similar to, “Have a beautiful day.” However on the Friday afternoon after his congressional testimony, he referred to as a Washington Submit reporter whereas he stated he was “working errands” round Washington, which appeared to incorporate sitting for a studio interview on the conservative media outlet One America Information.
Watkins instructed The Submit that he was questioned for 4 hours by congressional employees, that that they had handled him “very positive,” and that he anticipated to be referred to as again once more. He stated the positioning would help with law-enforcement requests however wouldn’t ban what he referred to as “constitutionally protected hate speech.”
The destiny of 8chan, he stated, is “the largest check for freedom of speech since perhaps 1969.”
Watkins complained that previous information tales had made him “out to be a little bit of a nut cake,” and he stated he was significantly contemplating shifting to Thompson’s district in Mississippi and working 8chan from there as a result of the housing costs have been so low. He insisted he was not joking: “The entire state is sort of a park.”
He stated 8chan staff — led by the positioning’s administrator, his son Ron Watkins — have been constructing a protecting community to protect towards the service-denying cyberattacks that some individuals anticipate vigilante hackers will unleash if the positioning makes an attempt a return. That community, he stated, would function a substitute for Cloudflare, the corporate that had helped defend the positioning till final month, when its chief govt terminated service for what he referred to as 8chan’s “lawless … cesspool of hate.”
Requested concerning the website’s long-running slogan, “Embrace infamy,” Watkins stated, “The newspapers say we’re notorious, so now we have embraced infamy.” He added, “It’s cute, and it’s acceptable.”
However he appeared to develop upset minutes into the decision, responding to 1 query by saying, “F— off,” which he later claimed he had meant for his Uber driver. After being requested whether or not an 8chan promoting program this yr referred to as “King of the Shekel” was anti-Semitic, Watkins hung up. By way of his longtime enterprise companion Tom Riedel, Watkins declined to reply later calls.
Launched in 2013 as an anything-goes spinoff of the message board 4chan, 8chan had rapidly seen its recognition explode, and its founder, Fredrick Brennan, was straining to deal with the positioning’s rising server prices and time calls for. When Watkins and his son provided to offer the monetary wherewithal to maintain the positioning on-line, Brennan agreed virtually instantly, shifting to Manila in 2014 to hitch Watkins’s eccentric tribe.
However Brennan, who break up with Watkins final yr following a protracted interval of dysfunction and anger over the positioning’s path, now pans the positioning as a long-lost trigger, saying Watkins is severely unqualified to supervise the noxious platform he helped create. “8chan ought to by no means come again on-line,” Brennan stated. Of Watkins’s newest feedback, Brennan stated it’s “extra shady habits from a person who thrives within the shade.”
Watkins can also be going through scrutiny from two legislation enforcement our bodies within the Philippines, the place he’s petitioning to change into a naturalized citizen. The Philippine Nationwide Police launched a proper and ongoing investigation into the positioning final month, police spokesman Bernard Banac stated. A spokesman from the Philippine Nationwide Bureau of Investigation stated the group’s cybercrime division can also be investigating the positioning however declined to remark additional.
For his congressional go to, Watkins retained Benjamin Barr, a Chicago lawyer whose web site says he was the “lead architect” for “undercover operations” at Challenge Veritas, a bunch that makes an attempt “stings” on journalists, tech firms and liberal advocacy teams. The group tried and didn’t idiot Washington Submit journalists into reporting false claims that Roy Moore, then a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, had impregnated a lady when she was a young person.
Watkins stated his son and different 8chan staff have been aiming to carry the positioning again on-line as early as this week. Ron Watkins has additionally publicly urged in current days that he had given “severe thought” to launching a communications satellite tv for pc that might assist beam 8chan around the globe. “Not an professional on area legislation, however looks as if such a setup would have completely no jurisdiction and be uncensorable,” he tweeted.
However the website faces heavy resistance from lots of the Web’s hidden gatekeepers, together with web site hosts and demanding safety companies which have pledged by no means to work with the positioning once more. Some customers additionally say they’ve led a web-based exodus to different 8chan-style bunkers, doubtlessly limiting its future attain.
Two of the three firms Jim Watkins named in his ready assertion as having ongoing contracts together with his enterprise — the area title registrar Tucows and web site host Epik — have publicly deserted 8chan, citing “insufficient enforcement and the elevated chance of violent radicalization,” as Epik’s chief stated final month. (The third firm Watkins talked about, the American Registry for Web Numbers, features like an open Web cellphone guide and works with virtually everybody.)
Raised on a household farm in Washington state, Watkins’s first actual training in computer systems got here by his work within the U.S. Military, which despatched him to a tech-focused college in Virginia, he stated in a 2016 interview with the web site Splinter. Watkins served within the U.S. Military from 1982 to 1999: a sergeant top quality, recruiter and repairman of assault helicopters, a Pentagon spokesperson stated.
Two years after he left the service, he took steps to start a brand new life in Manila, arriving in October 2001 and marrying his spouse, Liezel, there three weeks later, in response to a paid court docket discover associated to Watkins’s naturalization petition printed in February within the Manila Instances newspaper. Watkins instructed The Submit he started shifting in earnest to the nation in 2004, and started residing there full-time in 2007. Watkins’s enterprise companion Riedel later disputed the court docket discover as “incorrect” however didn’t present particulars.
Watkins had for years constructed a enterprise within the lurid expanses of the Web. Within the 1990s, whereas nonetheless within the army, he had launched a now-defunct Japanese porn website, Asian Bikini Bar, that he claimed in a 2015 video had as soon as been “one of many largest video streaming grownup web sites on this planet.” The positioning prospered by circumventing strict Japanese guidelines for censoring porn by internet hosting the content material in america, Riedel stated in 2016.
However its title, Watkins stated in 2015, “didn’t go over nicely with the wives” who noticed it in credit-card statements, so he renamed the enterprise N.T. Expertise. (The acronym, he stated, means nothing.) The Reno, Nev.-based firm is now tied to a lot of Watkins’s different Internet properties worldwide, enterprise data present. These embody a smattering of Manila-based firms centered on laptop providers and real-world property over time, together with a now-closed natural meals restaurant and, in 2005, a enterprise referred to as Race Queen, most likely named for the scantily clad fashions who pose alongside the tracks of Japanese automotive races.
Positioned in a dilapidated Manila workplace tower, Race Queen calls itself a “software program growth and outsourcing firm,” in response to a torn signal taped to the door. It has additionally been listed as an employer on work visas for overseas staff of 8chan and Watkins’s different message boards, together with Brennan, Philippines immigration data present.
One other Watkins enterprise run from Manila, Loki Expertise, owns the favored Japanese message board 5channel. Key positions on the firm, like most of his operations, are held by a small group of family members and shut acquaintances. The corporate’s treasurer and largest shareholder is Watkins’s spouse, the corporate’s newest monetary disclosures state.
The naturalization court docket discover stated Watkins and his spouse had purchased a number of properties throughout the nation, together with a apartment in metro Manila and farms outdoors town, the place he stated he raised pigs. Philippine enterprise data reveal glimpses of a peculiar assortment of companies in Watkins’s orbit: The corporate Emerald Pedistal, which lists possession in Manila apartment models and calls Watkins “chairman of the board,” stated it had spent about 734,000 Philippine pesos, or about $14,000, on wages and acquired about $three,600 for the sale of piglets in 2017.
Watkins has stated repeatedly he makes no cash from working 8chan, and Brennan has claimed that the positioning’s content material has made it repellent to advertisers, limiting its mainstream attain. Watkins instructed One America Information final week that 8chan had earned about $12,000 a yr in gross income and that the current choice by some firms to cease working with 8chan was “business terrorism.”
The corporate’s current makes an attempt at turning a revenue from its viewers have proven unclear outcomes: After the Christchurch taking pictures, the positioning began providing viewers the flexibility to pay to have their 8chan threads get prime billing on the positioning by its “King of the Shekel” program. Funds have been solicited by a cryptocurrency developed by Ron Watkins and run by an organization primarily based in Japan.
Jim Watkins, nevertheless, has sought to usher in cash in different methods, together with by a book-narration firm, books.audio. Most of the narrators — who’ve supplied English-language voicing for books on the Mediterranean weight loss program and tips on how to “use your physique fluids in magic ritual” — are individuals who have labored with Watkins on different ventures, and virtually all of them seem to work beneath pseudonyms. (For a number of the titles he narrated, Watkins used the title “A.J.”)
In 2017, Watkins additionally ventured into the information enterprise, searching for a solution to capitalize on 8chan’s person base. He based the Goldwater, a self-styled information group that operated beneath the slogan, “Banned, biased, trustworthy.” The positioning’s content material was notably conspiratorial and amateurish, and Watkins appeared on display within the website’s early movies beneath the title Jim Cherney.
However two of the outlet’s journalists, reporter Philip Fairbanks and editor in chief Kevin Lauf, who used the title Main Burdock on the positioning, have been nonetheless capable of get hold of press credentials and attend the 2018 summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean chief Kim Jong Un. The positioning is now “on hiatus,” in response to a submit from Might. Neither Fairbanks nor Lauf responded to requests for remark.
Watkins’s on-line historical past traces a sporadic path throughout his message boards. However on YouTube, he goes by “Watkins Xerxes,” utilizing the title of the fabled king of the Persian empire (and the primary villain of the motion flick “300″). His movies usually embody himself doing yoga, studying books similar to “The Fantastic Wizard of Oz” and testing out new fountain pens.
“Daily is a good day when you’ve gotten a model new Marlen pen,” he stated in a single March video, throughout which he wears a “Make America Nice Once more” hat and checks out a “stunning” new Marlen Odysseus. “You recognize, I’ve dropped three costly pens on the nib. And it simply makes you cry when it occurs.”
After the El Paso taking pictures, he additionally used his channel to talk on to followers, urging them to climate the detrimental publicity of the mass shootings. In a single video he said, “Sorry for the inconvenience, widespread sense will prevail.”
McLaughlin reported from Manila. Regine Cabato in Manila and Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.