Subpoenaed by the House Homeland Security Committee, Watkins, now 55, came to Washington last week for closed-door questioning by congressional staff on the site that before its recent collapse had styled itself “the darkest reaches of the Internet.”
But 8chan was only the most infamous of Watkins’s strange and tangled business web, which expanded for years from a shabby Manila office to millions of computers around the world — fueled by the strange chemistry of the Internet, where virtually anyone can turn a few servers into an online kingdom with its own culture, followers and code.
Watkins’s path from a porn merchant to the keeper of what one former ally called a “cesspool of hate” appears to have grown out of his desire to capitalize on the seedier corners of the Internet, hopping between dot-com trends and positioning himself as an eccentric luminary in the communities he helped cultivate.
But the rise of 8chan also shows how online subcultures can expand far beyond their owners into toxic movements with devastating real-world impact. The site’s longtime rallying cry at the top of its homepage was a simple one: “Embrace infamy.”
Watkins has portrayed himself as a champion of First Amendment freedoms. In his prepared statement for congressional staff, he described 8chan as “the only platform featuring a full commitment to free speech”: a “hodgepodge of chaotic discussion” and “one-of-a-kind discussion board” where “down-home recipes are traded (and) sorrows lifted.”
Watkins’s prepared remarks, released publicly last week, echoed many of the arguments he offered after 8chan was used to announce the murders of a total of 74 people this year in shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; a synagogue in Poway, Calif.; and a Walmart in El Paso. Some 8chan users lionized the killers in all three cases afterward. “A small minority of users post hateful and ignorant items,” Watkins said.
“Our company has built and maintained a digital forum that is the place where opposing viewpoints and those of minorities such as the LGBTQ may express themselves free from the fear of their life,” Watkins said in his statement — one vastly at odds with the hate speech rampant on the site. That 8chan is now offline, Watkins added, meant its users had been “silenced” and “lost their last bastion of free speech.”
No transcript was released of Watkins’s back-and-forth with committee staff, but the committee’s leaders, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), released a statement thanking Watkins for providing “vast and helpful information” about his companies and said they looked forward to “his continued cooperation.”
Watkins has condemned the mass shootings as being done by “the worst sort of monster.” After the Christchurch shooting in March, Watkins posted a video saying “going postal is such a sad thing” and blaming the massacre on a noncitizen “alien in New Zealand.” “America too has had awful gun violence committed by aliens,” Watkins added.
He has also called 8chan merely a “tool” and said the site has “responded with both vigor and integrity” to remove violent threats. The companies that had terminated service to 8chan, forcing it to shut down, he said, were exhibiting “sinister behavior” to disperse “a peacefully assembled group of people talking.”
Recorded in front of a silhouette of Benjamin Franklin, Watkins last month called 8chan one of the last online safe spaces where “you may write down your thoughts, free from having to worry about whether they are offensive to one group or another.”
While Watkins has contended there was little he could do to rein in the anonymous user base, 8chan often has appeared to encourage the hateful chatter on its site. Its official rules, for instance, included special formatting codes: three parentheses were used in anti-Semitic messages to point to someone’s presumed Jewish background — “to call (((them))) out,” as the rules stated — while a single less-than symbol was used to turn text pink, highlighting what the message board called “faggotposting.”
The site’s only rule limiting content: nothing that is illegal in the United States. Everything else was fair game. In his prepared testimony, Watkins said his “company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech.”
That leniency helped Watkins’s site become a fortress for anonymous racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and extremism, as posters cheered on mass shootings, canonized the gunmen and shared their screeds and bloody live-streamed videos. “I’ve only been lurking here for a year and half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless,” the alleged Poway gunman wrote on 8chan before his attack, which killed one and injured three.
The site had hundreds of forums or boards devoted to topics such as video games, porn, guns and anime. But its most active and infamous board — known as “/pol/,” for “politically incorrect” — was devoted almost entirely to conspiracy theories, white supremacy, trolling of the mainstream Internet and attacks on racial minorities, Jews, Muslims, liberals and women, among many others. Before going offline, the site had an average of 1.7 million unique visitors every month this year, a 17 percent jump over 2018, according to the website-analysis firm SimilarWeb.
Watkins last week was photographed on Capitol Hill with a scruffy mustache, mutton-chop sideburns and a flag pin on his tie of Mississippi, the home state of Thompson, the committee’s top Democrat, who had subpoenaed him. He wore another pin on his collar of the letter Q, probably a reference to the 8chan-rooted fringe conspiracy theory 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 about the site’s violent threats and white-supremacist content with pat responses such as, “Have a wonderful day.” But on the Friday afternoon after his congressional testimony, he called a Washington Post reporter while he said he was “running errands” around Washington, which appeared to include sitting for a studio interview on the conservative media outlet One America News.
Watkins told The Post that he was questioned for four hours by congressional staff, that they had treated him “very fine,” and that he expected to be called back again. He said the site would assist with law-enforcement requests but would not ban what he called “constitutionally protected hate speech.”
The fate of 8chan, he said, is “the biggest test for freedom of speech since maybe 1969.”
Watkins complained that past news stories had made him “out to be a bit of a nut cake,” and he said he was seriously considering moving to Thompson’s district in Mississippi and running 8chan from there because the housing prices were so low. He insisted he was not joking: “The whole state is like a park.”
He said 8chan workers — led by the site’s administrator, his son Ron Watkins — were building a protective network to guard against the service-denying cyberattacks that some people expect vigilante hackers will unleash if the site attempts a return. That network, he said, would serve as a replacement for Cloudflare, the company that had helped shield the site until last month, when its chief executive terminated service for what he called 8chan’s “lawless … cesspool of hate.”
Asked about the site’s long-running slogan, “Embrace infamy,” Watkins said, “The newspapers say we’re infamous, so we have embraced infamy.” He added, “It’s cute, and it’s appropriate.”
But he appeared to grow upset minutes into the call, responding to one question by saying, “F--- off,” which he later claimed he had intended for his Uber driver. After being asked whether an 8chan advertising program this year called “King of the Shekel” was anti-Semitic, Watkins hung up. Through his longtime business partner Tom Riedel, Watkins declined to answer later calls.
Launched in 2013 as an anything-goes spinoff of the message board 4chan, 8chan had quickly seen its popularity explode, and its founder, Fredrick Brennan, was straining to handle the site’s growing server costs and time demands. When Watkins and his son offered to provide the financial wherewithal to keep the site online, Brennan agreed almost immediately, moving to Manila in 2014 to join Watkins’s eccentric tribe.
But Brennan, who split with Watkins last year following a long period of dysfunction and anger over the site’s direction, now pans the site as a long-lost cause, saying Watkins is severely unqualified to oversee the noxious platform he helped create. “8chan should never come back online,” Brennan said. Of Watkins’s latest comments, Brennan said it’s “more shady behavior from a man who thrives in the shade.”
Watkins is also facing scrutiny from two law enforcement bodies in the Philippines, where he is petitioning to become a naturalized citizen. The Philippine National Police launched a formal and ongoing investigation into the site last month, police spokesman Bernard Banac said. A spokesman from the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation said the group’s cybercrime division is also investigating the site but declined to comment further.
For his congressional visit, Watkins retained Benjamin Barr, a Chicago lawyer whose website says he was the “lead architect” for “undercover operations” at Project Veritas, a group that attempts “stings” on journalists, tech companies and liberal advocacy groups. The group tried and failed to fool Washington Post journalists into reporting false claims that Roy Moore, then a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, had impregnated a woman when she was a teenager.
Watkins said his son and other 8chan workers were aiming to bring the site back online as early as this week. Ron Watkins has also publicly suggested in recent days that he had given “serious thought” to launching a communications satellite that could help beam 8chan around the world. “Not an expert on space law, but seems like such a setup would have absolutely no jurisdiction and be uncensorable,” he tweeted.
But the site faces heavy resistance from many of the Internet’s hidden gatekeepers, including website hosts and critical security firms that have pledged never to work with the site again. Some users also say they’ve led an online exodus to other 8chan-style bunkers, potentially limiting its future reach.
Two of the three companies Jim Watkins named in his prepared statement as having ongoing contracts with his business — the domain name registrar Tucows and website host Epik — have publicly abandoned 8chan, citing “inadequate enforcement and the elevated possibility of violent radicalization,” as Epik’s chief said last month. (The third company Watkins mentioned, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, functions like an open Internet phone book and works with practically everyone.)
Raised on a family farm in Washington state, Watkins’s first real education in computers came through his work in the U.S. Army, which sent him to a tech-focused school in Virginia, he said in a 2016 interview with the website Splinter. Watkins served in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 1999: a sergeant first class, recruiter and repairman of attack helicopters, a Pentagon spokesperson said.
Two years after he left the service, he took steps to begin a new life in Manila, arriving in October 2001 and marrying his wife, Liezel, there three weeks later, according to a paid court notice related to Watkins’s naturalization petition published in February in the Manila Times newspaper. Watkins told The Post he began moving in earnest to the country in 2004, and began living there full-time in 2007. Watkins’s business partner Riedel later disputed the court notice as “incorrect” but did not provide details.
Watkins had for years built a business in the lurid expanses of the Internet. In the 1990s, while still in the military, he had launched a now-defunct Japanese porn site, Asian Bikini Bar, that he claimed in a 2015 video had once been “one of the largest video streaming adult websites in the world.” The site prospered by circumventing strict Japanese rules for censoring porn by hosting the content in the United States, Riedel said in 2016.
But its name, Watkins said in 2015, “didn’t go over well with the wives” who saw it in credit-card statements, so he renamed the enterprise N.T. Technology. (The acronym, he said, means nothing.) The Reno, Nev.-based company is now tied to many of Watkins’s other Web properties worldwide, business records show. Those include a smattering of Manila-based companies focused on computer services and real-world property over the years, including a now-closed organic food restaurant and, in 2005, a business called Race Queen, probably named for the scantily clad models who pose along the tracks of Japanese car races.
Located in a dilapidated Manila office tower, Race Queen calls itself a “software development and outsourcing company,” according to a torn sign taped to the door. It has also been listed as an employer on work visas for foreign employees of 8chan and Watkins’s other message boards, including Brennan, Philippines immigration records show.
Another Watkins business run from Manila, Loki Technology, owns the popular Japanese message board 5channel. Key positions at the company, like most of his operations, are held by a small group of relatives and close acquaintances. The company’s treasurer and largest shareholder is Watkins’s wife, the company’s latest financial disclosures state.
The naturalization court notice said Watkins and his wife had bought several properties across the country, including a condo in metro Manila and farms outside the city, where he said he raised pigs. Philippine business records reveal glimpses of a peculiar assortment of businesses in Watkins’s orbit: The company Emerald Pedistal, which lists ownership in Manila condo units and calls Watkins “chairman of the board,” said it had spent about 734,000 Philippine pesos, or about $14,000, on wages and received about $3,600 for the sale of piglets in 2017.
Watkins has said repeatedly he makes no money from running 8chan, and Brennan has claimed that the site’s content has made it repellent to advertisers, limiting its mainstream reach. Watkins told One America News last week that 8chan had earned about $12,000 a year in gross revenue and that the recent decision by some companies to stop working with 8chan was “commercial terrorism.”
The company’s recent attempts at turning a profit from its audience have shown unclear results: After the Christchurch shooting, the site started offering viewers the ability to pay to have their 8chan threads get top billing on the site through its “King of the Shekel” program. Payments were solicited through a cryptocurrency developed by Ron Watkins and run through a company based in Japan.
Jim Watkins, however, has sought to bring in money in other ways, including through a book-narration company, books.audio. Many of the narrators — who have provided English-language voicing for books on the Mediterranean diet and how to “use your body fluids in magic ritual” — are people who have worked with Watkins on other ventures, and almost all of them appear to work under pseudonyms. (For some of the titles he narrated, Watkins used the name “A.J.”)
In 2017, Watkins also ventured into the news business, looking for a way to capitalize on 8chan’s user base. He founded the Goldwater, a self-styled news organization that operated under the slogan, “Banned, biased, honest.” The site’s content was notably conspiratorial and amateurish, and Watkins appeared on screen in the site’s early videos under the name Jim Cherney.
But two of the outlet’s journalists, reporter Philip Fairbanks and editor in chief Kevin Lauf, who used the name Major Burdock on the site, were nevertheless able to obtain press credentials and attend the 2018 summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The site is now “on hiatus,” according to a post from May. Neither Fairbanks nor Lauf responded to requests for comment.
Watkins’s online history traces a sporadic path across his message boards. But on YouTube, he goes by “Watkins Xerxes,” using the name of the fabled king of the Persian empire (and the main villain of the action flick “300″). His videos often include himself doing yoga, reading books such as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and testing out new fountain pens.
“Every day is a great day when you have a brand new Marlen pen,” he said in one March video, during which he wears a “Make America Great Again” hat and tests out a “beautiful” new Marlen Odysseus. “You know, I have dropped three expensive pens on the nib. And it just makes you cry when it happens.”
After the El Paso shooting, he also used his channel to speak directly to followers, urging them to weather the negative publicity of the mass shootings. In one video he stated, “Sorry for the inconvenience, common sense will prevail.”
McLaughlin reported from Manila. Regine Cabato in Manila and Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.