WASHINGTON — Two young men arrested this month for threatening mass shootings posted those threats to a website known more for its memes than its menaces: iFunny.
Created in 2011, iFunny describes itself as a “community for meme lovers and viral memes around the Internet.” And indeed, the iFunny homepage is full of your standard internet schlock, including screenshots of tweets or tumblr posts, GIFs of “The Office,” trending TikToks and Area 51 jokes.
Yet on August 7, the FBI arrested an 18-year-old Ohio man who allegedly threatened to shoot federal law enforcement officers in a post on iFunny. And this past Friday, federal agents arrested a 19-year-old Chicago man for threatening to kill people at a women’s reproductive health clinic in a post on iFunny.
In the past year, the online message boards Gab and 8chan, both rife with racist or anti-Semitic messages, have faced scrutiny for their roles as homes to extremists who carried out mass shootings in Pittsburgh, California, New Zealand and El Paso. iFunny has had its own issues with extremists and white supremacy, and as BuzzFeed News documented last week, the site was full of footage from and praise for the Christchurch mosque attacks in March.
But extremism is not exclusive to those sites. And the fact that extremist threats came on a meme site is not out of the ordinary. Since the shootings in Dayton and El Paso early this month, there have been 27 arrests in 26 instances across the U.S. by law enforcement. These came in the form of alleged online threats, texts and posts on a number of social media platforms.
“It’s not just in spaces that are specifically tailored for only far-right extremist content,” said Keegan Hankes, who studies online extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You have extremists going to other more broad forums and seeding these ideas and trying to find followers.”
Still, despite Hankes’ expertise on online extremism, he said he had not heard of iFunny until these recent arrests. That speaks to a broader problem with online extremism — “it’s really diffuse,” he said.
“These individuals are on all sorts of different platforms, whether it’s Discord, Facebook, Instagram, (or) iFunny,” he said. “They are all over the place, and there are a lot more of them than I think many people think.”
Two arrests for threats this month
Overall, iFunny’s content is not all that different from mainstream internet meme sites like Reddit or 9GAG. Users can click on links in the “memes catalog” along the left side of the homepage featuring general topics that skew toward a young male audience, including Cars, Gaming, Girls, and Sports.
The website has a decently sized audience across its platforms. Its Facebook page has more than 560,000 likes, and its app was the 57th-most popular entertainment app on Apple’s App Store as of Wednesday morning. That put it well below TikTok, Netflix, or YouTube Kids, but it’s near apps like MTV or Sling TV.
Posts on iFunny reached the FBI’s radar in February when the FBI’s field office in Anchorage observed multiple posts from an account that discussed supporting mass shootings, as well as assault and/or targeting of Planned Parenthood, according to a criminal complaint. The FBI subpoenaed iFunny for the account owner’s information and received a Gmail account, and a subsequent subpoena to Google then returned his name and IP address. That led authorities to Justin Olsen, an 18-year-old from Boardman, Ohio, the complaint states.
In iFunny posts from June, Olsen discussed the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas, on iFunny, the complaint says. He blamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for the deaths of scores of people living at the site and threatened to shoot federal agents. He was arrested August 7, and authorities found more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition and 25 guns, including an AR-15, according to charging documents. He allegedly told an FBI agent that his online comments were a joke and referred to it as a “hyperbolic conclusion based on the results of the Waco siege … where the ATF slaughtered families.” Olsen is charged with threatening to assault a federal law enforcement officer. CNN has reached out to his attorney Ross T. Smith for comment.
Just over a week later, the FBI arrested 19-year-old Farhan Sheikh for a series of posts threatening to kill people at a women’s health clinic. He was arrested Friday and charged with transmitting a threat in interstate commerce, federal prosecutors said. Around August 13, the FBI learned that a user on iFunny had posted a threat, according to court papers. In the post, Sheikh allegedly wrote: “I am done with my state and thier (sic) bullsh*t abortion laws and allowing innocrnt (sic) kids to be slaughtered for the so called ‘womans (sic) right,'” according to an FBI affidavit.
Sheikh wrote that he planned to go to the clinic, which was about 4 miles from his home, on August 23 and “proceed to slaughter and murder any doctor, patient or visitor,” an affidavit said. One of the posts referenced the account handle tied to Olsen and said they arrested him “for no reason except supressing us and our freedoms.” He also posted that his iFunny account was “NOT a satirical account. I post what I mean, and i WILL carry out what I post,” court papers said.
On August 13, FBI agents searched his home. Sheikh told FBI agents he thought they had come because of a “joke” he posted on iFunny, court papers said. Sheikh was “detained as a danger to the community,” a Chicago federal judge ruled Tuesday, saying that he is “inherently and deeply unstable.” Sheikh’s public defender declined to comment Monday.
iFunny executive pledges change
Vladimir Zakoulov, the co-founder of iFunny’s parent company FunCorp, told CNN in an email that the site was “shocked” by the arrests. “As a company we have always supported equality and have been against the restriction of any human right,” he said. He said iFunny would be strengthening its moderation system going forward to prevent future issues. “We have a rather strong moderation system. Actually it is quite successful in most cases, but due to what happened in (the) last few days we decided to make it even stronger,” he said.
The site’s posted guidelines ban threats, cyberbullying, violent politics and hateful propaganda, but they do allow what they refer to as “dark humor” on taboo subjects.
Zakoulov claimed that the site uses artificial intelligence and “manual pre-moderation” to filter content that violates its guidelines. He said iFunny also relies on volunteer moderators who review content in their free time, and has a team that examines content that has been flagged by a user or moderator. Going forward, he said iFunny “will be more focused on the semantics of the uploaded content … to prevent any criminal actions and any manifestations of intolerance.” He said the site removed all of the accounts that can be potentially involved in hate speech, and said that iFunny will be hiring a few active users to focus on hate speech and intolerant behavior.