Chat Site for Gamers Got Overrun by the Alt-Right. Now It’s Fighting Back.
Discord’s invite-only chat rooms are where the deadly Charlottesville march was planned. Since then leakers and the SPLC have been rooting out neo-Nazis, one at a time.
Discord wanted to create a chat platform for gamers. Instead it’s attracted a community of white supremacists.
Discord is a free voice and text app with invite-only chat rooms, but those private servers quickly found a new fanbase with hate groups, who wanted to discuss plans in secret. After white supremacist groups were revealed to have used Discord to plan the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, Discord started banning those groups en masse. But purging hate from the private chat rooms is no easy task.
In early April, the media collective Unicorn Riot leaked more than a year of Discord logs leaked from the now-defunct neo-Nazi group The Traditionalist Worker Party. The leaked logs showed the TWP’s dramatic implosion after an affair and alleged assault among the party’s leaders in March. The chat logs also show a splinter group of former TWP members starting their own Discord chat room to discuss launching a new white supremacist group.
The chat logs were the latest in a series of leaked messages from neo-Nazi Discord chat rooms, called “servers.” But those servers shouldn’t have been online at all. After the Unite the Right rally, Discord shut down chat rooms associated with the rally and announced “action against white supremacy, Nazi ideology, and all forms of hate.”
The public declaration put Discord ahead of larger social media platforms like Twitter, where white supremacist Richard Spencer was verified as recently as November. (He remains on Twitter, albeit without his verified status.)
Discord told The Daily Beast it has also begun working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to combat hate groups on the platform, although it did not specify the details of the arrangement.
“Although some far-right extremists continue to return to the platform, Discord’s decision to ban the most well-known communities has deprived them of a place to openly organize, plan, and promote their poisonous ideologies,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement. “Discord’s pledge to continue to combat extremist organizing on their platform is critical. This fight is not going to end tomorrow. Other tech companies who struggle with these same issues should know it’s always the right policy decision to reject organized hatred.”
But unlike Facebook and Twitter, Discord’s semi-private nature lets more hate speech go undetected. Discord told The Daily Beast it does not read users’ messages, and relies on users to report behavior that violates the app’s terms of service.
“Discord has a Terms of Service (ToS) and Community Guidelines that we ask all of our communities and users to adhere to,” a spokesperson said. “These specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages, calls to violence or any illegal activity. Though we do not read people’s private messages, we do investigate and take immediate action against any reported ToS violation by a server or user. We will continue to be aggressive to ensure that Discord exists for the community we set out to support—gamers.”
The reliance on users to report abuse appears to have led some neo-Nazis to think of the platform as a safe space.
“I think the alt-right has relied on Discord as a means of communication across distances, with the expectation that what’s happening, or what they can talk about is secure,” Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Daily Beast.
Even after alt-right Discord logs leaked last August, revealing how neo-Nazis planned the Unite the Right rally, some groups still believed their messages were safe on the chat app.
“Don’t let reporters know what platform we communicate on,” Zaine Deal, a former TWP member wrote on Discord on Christmas Day, 2017.
Other extremist groups also lingered on the platform. In February, ProPublica reported on a Discord server for the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group that has been implicated in four murders in recent months. The ProPublica report revealed Atomwaffen members celebrating the most recent murder, that of Jewish teenager Blaze Bernstein.
Shortly after the report, Discord banned Atomwaffen and other white supremacist groups, including the Nordic Resistance Movement, Iron March, and European Domas.
But keeping the groups off Discord is another matter. The Daily Beast observed one 4chan-affiliated Discord group shuffle across at least three Discord servers, always posting a link to a backup chat room in case their primary room was banned.
“I think time and time again, especially in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we’ve seen that Discord is not as secure as the alt-right thought it would be,” Lenz said, “and that many of their unsavory ideas or true intentions have been laid bare by leaks and otherwise communications on the platform.”