A campaign made it harder to access an anti-trans website linked to multiple suicides
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
This month a forum considered to be one of the most toxic places on the internet became harder to access. For nearly a decade, the site called Kiwi Farms has been a place where users target autistic and transgender people to harass them. At least three suicides have been linked to this harassment. But a recent campaign may provide an example of how to counter these kinds of sites successfully. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has been following this. Hey, Odette.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.
SUMMERS: So tell us about where this campaign started to take the site down.
YOUSEF: Well, it started with one of the people who's been targeted on the site this year. She's a Canadian transgender activist named Clara Sorrenti, and she hosts a popular news livestream on the platform Twitch. Within the last month or so, she has been swatted twice. What that means is police responded to false calls that she was about to commit an act of violence. Here's how she described it to me.
CLARA SORRENTI: I woke up to the SWAT team at my door, pointing an assault rifle at me. I was arrested. I had all of my computers seized. I was in custody for 11 hours.
YOUSEF: So when I spoke with her, she was kind of in this real-time scenario of fleeing locations repeatedly as her stalkers continued to identify where she was.
SORRENTI: The common denominator between these two instances is both of those addresses were posted on the Kiwi Farms forum.
YOUSEF: So Sorrenti is really the one that launched the campaign against Kiwi Farms.
SUMMERS: OK. And, Odette, help us understand. How does this website - how does Kiwi Farms work?
YOUSEF: Well, Kiwi Farms is an offshoot of another site you may have heard of Juana - 8chan, where users traffic in conspiracy theories and hate. But what distinguishes Kiwi Farms is its users have been known to obsessively stalk people, often trans or neurodivergent people. They would hunt down anything they could find out about the person and then post it to the site - so information like the person's address, pictures of their home, phone numbers. And they would do the same for that person's family members and friends. And as you can imagine, this was quite scary for their targets.
SUMMERS: Yeah, it sounds like it. So, Odette, how did Clara Sorrenti go about trying to take Kiwi Farms down?
YOUSEF: So this is where the story gets really interesting. Sorrenti did not go after Kiwi Farms directly. Instead, she focused on the tech companies that support the Kiwi Farms website. These are sometimes called internet infrastructure companies. And she started with a big one called Cloudflare. Cloudflare protects websites from cyberattacks, and about 20% of websites across the world sit behind its network. Cloudflare is known for tolerating customers that other, similar tech companies have dropped. These have included neo-Nazi sites and also 8chan. Early into Sorrenti's campaign, Cloudflare posted on its blog that even if they deem one of their customer's websites to be, quote, "reprehensible," it wasn't grounds to cut off service. That's why it was so remarkable when the company did a 180 just days later and did block Kiwi Farms.
ALISSA STARZAK: What we saw was the volume of threats targeting people who were pressuring the site just got increasingly specific. So we really thought that those were a threat that presented an imminent risk to human life.
YOUSEF: That's Cloudflare's head of public policy, Alissa Starzak. She wouldn't detail the exact illegal activity that triggered Cloudflare's block. But the large tech company has been clear. This was an extraordinary decision and not one that it intends to repeat even if the company comes under pressure again for protecting other sites linked to real-world violence. Starzak says safety is law enforcement's job.
STARZAK: If someone is coming under a coordinated threat of physical violence from online behavior, don't you think there should be mechanisms to protect them other than asking a company to remove security services?
YOUSEF: Liz Fong-Jones would say, yes, there should be every mechanism to protect victims of online stalking. But when Fong-Jones became a target of the Kiwi Farms mob first in 2017, she found nobody would take her seriously - not the tech companies she contacted and not local law enforcement.
LIZ FONG-JONES: People thought that, you know, oh, you know, if people are saying bad things about you on the internet, you know, again - right? - like, just log off, or, you know, harden up. Or, like, why is this a problem?
YOUSEF: Fong-Jones is a transgender activist and software developer who worked in tandem with Sorrenti on this campaign. She says big tech companies like Cloudflare ignore the role they play in the spread of violence and hate. First, they make operating the sites relatively cheap. And they make visiting those sites quick and broadly accessible. Fong-Jones rejects the claim that if big tech cuts off these sites, it amounts to censorship on the internet because that ignores the real power imbalance. These sites allow countless users from across the globe to come together in violent incitement against people who are often already marginalized and vulnerable.
FONG-JONES: The way that they get people to the point that they feel that suicide is their only way out is by getting people to the point where they have no support network, where they're so cut off from anyone else because they know that anyone that they get close to is going to get targeted to that point that they then get messages from Kiwi Farms members encouraging them to kill themselves and being told that suicide is the only way out.
SUMMERS: Odette, this is clearly incredibly disturbing. But tell us; how does this tie in to what you cover - domestic extremism?
YOUSEF: Well, Rita Katz has been monitoring extremist movements online for more than 20 years, and she puts Kiwi Farms in the same constellation as other platforms like 4chan and 8chan, Gab and Incel.
RITA KATZ: These are not just hate sites as Cloudflare is trying to pretend them to be, but there are terrorist factories.
YOUSEF: Terrorist factories. Katz says these inspire and enable violence. And she points to mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, at a Walmart in El Paso and the recent attempted attack at an FBI field office in Cincinnati. You know, these are places people have talked about violence that they would commit and where that violence has been celebrated. So she thinks disrupting access to these sites can immediately disrupt environments that are known to cause real-world violence. But I will note that it also can lead to a game of whack-a-mole.
SUMMERS: How do you mean?
YOUSEF: So when Cloudflare blocked Kiwi Farms, the site briefly turned to a tech company in Russia that then dropped them. So now it's relegated to what some people call the dark web. Rita Katz says all this makes the site less reliable and its reach narrower. And, you know, ultimately, Katz and Liz Fong-Jones are glad that Cloudflare arrived at the decision that it did. But they say it came at too high of a cost, especially for transgender people.
FONG-JONES: Trans people should not be the canary in the coal mine, right? Like, we shouldn't be out here taking bomb threats for someone to decide to act.
YOUSEF: You know, this will happen again, maybe with Cloudflare, maybe another company. The question, Juana, is how much this story will make a difference.
SUMMERS: Odette, thank you so much.
YOUSEF: My pleasure.
SUMMERS: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline.
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