When more than 500 white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, they weren’t just showcasing their startling numbers and their hateful creeds but also their organizational capacity. There were guest speakers, rideshares, demonstration permits, and houses and hotels rented out—everything you’d expect from a group staging a large protest. But since the Unite the Right rally promoted a message of racism and anti-Semitism, the leaders didn’t do the bulk of their logistical planning in any kind of public forum or open Facebook group. They used a popular, and rather private, chat platform for gamers called Discord.
After Charlottesville, Discord purged a number of accounts associated with the alt-right and the organizers of Unite the Right. “Discord’s mission is to bring people together around gaming,” the company stated after the march turned deadly. “We’re about positivity and inclusivity. Not hate. Not violence.” A year later, in the runup to an ultimately barely attended sequel to Unite the Right in D.C., organizers appeared to stay off the platform, opting instead to discuss logistics over Facebook Messenger and the encrypted texting app Signal.
White-supremacist groups aren’t turning up publicly, in force, like they did in Charlottesville last year, but they’re still out there. And Discord in particular remains a very popular destination for communities of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to socialize, share hateful memes, boost the ideas that undergird their movements, inculcate strangers, and plan activities that take place elsewhere online. In the course of an afternoon, I found and joined more than 20 communities on the platform that were either directly about Nazism or white supremacy or reveled in sharing anti-Semitic and racist memes and imagery. “Discord is always on and always present among these groups on the far-right,” says Joan Donovan, the lead researcher on media manipulation at the Data & Society Research Institute. “It’s the place where they do most of the organizing of doxing and harassment campaigns.”
One reason that this might be worrying is that Discord is a far more important internet platform—especially for people who want to be part of hateful online communities—than its frequency in the headlines would suggest. Discord’s user base of more than 150 million may mostly consist of gamers chatting about gaming, but in certain corners of the platform, swastikas are exchanged like high-fives. The groups have names like “Nazism ’n’ Chill,” “Reich Lords,” “Rotten Reich,” “KKK of America,” “Oven Baked Jews,” and “Whitetopia.” They appear to have thousands of participants who trade memes and jokes, share links, condemn “social justice warriors,” and transmit the revisionist histories that bolster their rationalizations of Nazism and white supremacy. I found these communities mostly through Discord search sites (like Discordservers.com, Discord.me, and Disboard.org) as well as through invites posted in some of the Discord groups.
Discord communities run on distinct, free servers, similar to the free workplaces offered by the work-communication app Slack. Within each server, which can be private or public, a group can set up discussion channels. A server can be home to two people or thousands of people, and in general, as with Slack, a Discord group isn’t discoverable without an invite. That relative privacy and ease of use—along with the fact that video games are as popular among young Americans on the far right as they are with just about everyone else—has made Discord an ideal place not only to gather like-minded people but also to recruit gamers with a shared interest in offensive memes.
Linger in almost any one of these chat spaces and you’ll see apparently seasoned members spewing bigoted speech freely throughout the day as well as newer members who appear to join the channel for the off-color jokes or were invited there by a community for fans of a (usually violent) game. In one server, named “KKK,” where participants implore each other to have “a nice white day,” one user dropped an invite to another server, writing, “Its like supporting hitler and i wanted to know if anyone of you wanted to join. but i doubt youre serious about kkk and stuff. most people are trolls. or just memeing.” In response, a couple of people in the “KKK” server asked if they could join and started a conversation about how much they hate black people.
Other servers are weirder but just as troubling. One, with about 112 members, brands itself as a place to play My Little Pony, but its name is a swastika with a heart on either side. The admin of the server’s name is Aryanne. There, someone who goes by the name “fuck ni****s” asked, “Is this a nazi server because I’m a nazi,” to which another member replied, with a photo of two Tyrannosaurus rexes having sex, “I hate jewish ni****s. and dumb zi**** heads. the jews are bad. hitler was good.” Another meme-centric server with about 160 members called “Crab Rave” has only one rule: “No rules on this server but if you do something jewish and I warn you and you do it again youll get spanked.” The server has a channel called “the-face-nazi-house,” which is filled with pictures of half-naked women partially dressed as Nazi soldiers. Still, it appears the server is generally a place to talk about video games. “Jew Discord” is a server that brands itself as a “Discord for Memes.” And on the Oven Baked Jews server with about 120 members, the admin describes it as a rather anodyne place: “Used for my Youtube but just a place to chill, play games, and art or what ever really. Even fucked up memes cuz why not.” Another server named “Some heavy african shit” offers a place for people who are “racist as fuk and you wanna make some problems.”
Other servers more explicitly exist to teach about Nazism and white supremacy. One, named “Path of GODS,” brands itself as a “Fascist Education Server,” imploring new members to “learn about Fascism and National Socialism here.” There are rules before joining, though. “No Jews, Muslims, Atheists, or Faggots,” reads rule No. 1. “If you are one of these you might as well leave because you’ll be kicked out otherwise.” I don’t fit the description but was able to subscribe anyway and search unlocked channels. I found posts with definitions of national socialism and fascism that purport to be copied from recent National Socialist Party literature, under which curious new members asked for more information. Another server called “Rotten Reich,” which boasts nearly 100 members, brands itself as the “Best neo-Nazi server, recruiting,” with the caveat “(satire, don’t get triggered).” One server, named “Identity,” contained a screenshot posted with people’s names and locations posted by a person who implored fellow members to “a doxx of a bunch of antifa people.” Another poster in the Identity server remarked to another user, “I’d be the first to sign up and help you slaughter Muslims.”
What’s common among most of these groups is that they blur juvenile-seeming, semi-ironic meme making with outright racism—that is, they’re what experts on white supremacy recognize as on-ramps to indoctrination. This isn’t a new tactic for the far right. According to Donovan, the tactic was pioneered on Stormfront, the largest and oldest white-supremacist community on the internet, which was started in 1995 by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “On Stormfront, they would sometimes have paid moderators that are waiting there for when someone shows up and asks things like, ‘What is white nationalism? What do you guys really believe in?’ And then there were moderators there waiting to engage them when they showed interest in having a more serious discussion,” said Donovan.
Discord differs from Stormfront, as well as from the Facebook groups or YouTube chats where white nationalists and other hate groups like to gather, in a number of important ways. For one, unlike on Facebook, it’s incredibly easy to be anonymous on Discord. I didn’t see anybody using their real names. Moreover, unlike Stormfront—where people who are obviously interested in hate groups go—on Discord a lot of the participation comes from people who are mostly hoping to find an abasing joke or chat about violent video games safely without fear of offending someone. And that makes Discord an ideal place for far-right recruitment. Its spaces provide room for people to socialize in hate—to forge connections from which social beliefs can grow. If you hang out with Nazis and racists long enough, what begins as cruel humor can give way to a set of convictions, one that doesn’t need to be approached with a layer of irony. And unlike 4chan or Gab, other online social spaces where people who adhere to hateful beliefs can chat and coordinate freely, Discord doesn’t brand itself as a place for that. It’s mostly a place for privately chatting about games—and because of its structure, when people on Gab or 4chan want to take their conversations to more private places, the usual next step is to create a room on Discord.
These meme rooms are “absolutely a path toward indoctrination,” says Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You have people on like Andrew Anglin who state openly that all of their humor and all of their extremely base kind of vitriolic and in-your-face, no-attempt-to-hide-it racism is attempting to desensitize. Once they can get somebody to laugh at the Holocaust, it’s much easier to work backward and get them to think that white people are being oppressed systemically by Jews and people of color, is their argument.”
When I sent Discord the list of servers I found, the company would only say on the record that it investigated the list and took action against those that violated its terms of service. “Discord has a Terms of Service and Community Guidelines that we ask all of our communities and users to adhere to,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “These specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages, or calls to violence. Though we do not read people’s private messages, we do investigate and take immediate appropriate action against any reported ToS violation by a server or user.” In Discord’s terms of service, the company does say that it doesn’t actively monitor servers and instead relies on user reports. But it’s not clear how hard the company looked into the list of servers I asked it to comment on. The server with the long list of anti-fascist activists posted by a user to encourage doxing, for example, is still active, and the list is still on Discord. And almost all of the Discord servers I found with blatantly anti-Semitic and racist names were still active late last week. It’s hard to tell if any that I found were taken down, since I was kicked out of a few and some may have changed their names.
How a company like Discord should deal with this activity isn’t necessarily obvious. Discord doesn’t have the resources of Facebook or Twitter, which have drawn a clearer line of what kinds of speech and activity they tolerate on their platforms, and Discord most likely can’t dedicate large teams to building machine learning tools aimed at ferreting out hate; it’s also designed for private, not public, conversations. Still, Discord has no obligation to allow its users to use slurs in the names of their groups, to “joke” about killing Jews, or certainly to encourage each other to harass and dox. Right now, all of these things are incredibly easy to find on Discord. And the company doesn’t appear to have thought very hard about why that is.
Correction, Oct. 9, 2018: Due to a production error, the image at the top of this post originally incorrectly depicted swastikas. The image has been replaced.