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This was the alt-right’s favorite chat app. Then came Charlottesville.

  • On Monday, group chat app Discord finally took action, banning several of the largest alt-right Discord communities and taking away one of the white nationalist movement's key communication tools.
  • In recent days, large tech companies like GoDaddy, Google and Airbnb have taken action to remove white nationalists and neo-Nazis from their services. Others, like Twitter and Facebook, have banned individual users.
A man makes a slashing motion across his throat twoard counter-protesters as he marches with other white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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A man makes a slashing motion across his throat twoard counter-protesters as he marches with other white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

They posted swastikas and praised Hitler in chat rooms with names like "National Socialist Army" and "Führer's Gas Chamber." They organized last weekend's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., connecting several major white supremacy groups for an intimidating display of force. And when that rally turned deadly, with the killing of a 32-year-old counterdemonstrator, they cheered and discussed holding a gathering at the woman's funeral.

For two months before the Charlottesville rally, I embedded with a large group of white nationalists on Discord, a group chat app that was popular among far-right activists. I lurked silently and saw these activists organize themselves into a cohesive coalition, and interviewed a number of moderators and members about how they used the service to craft and propagate their messages.

I also asked Discord executives what, if anything, they planned to do about the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had set up shop on their platform and were using it to spread their ideology. Several said they were aware of the issue, but had no concrete plans to crack down on any extremist groups.

On Monday, Discord finally took action, banning several of the largest alt-right Discord communities and taking away one of the white nationalist movement's key communication tools.

"We unequivocally condemn white supremacy, neo-Nazism, or any other group, term, ideology that is based on these beliefs," said Eros Resmini, Discord's chief marketing officer, in a statement announcing the bans. "They are not welcome on Discord."

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The alt-right, as the loose constellation of far-right political groups that includes white nationalists and neo-Nazis is known, uses many mainstream tech platforms to distribute its message: Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for recruiting and public broadcasting, Reddit and 4Chan for lighthearted memes and trolling, and, until Monday, Discord for private group communication. Many of these companies resisted efforts to cut off the activists, arguing that as long as their activities weren't illegal, they were simply using the tools as any others would.

But that dynamic has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks. The industry has been clashing with the alt-right over free speech, and companies now appear further galvanized by the violence in Charlottesville, perhaps realizing that remaining neutral on hateful movements is no longer a viable option. In recent days, large tech companies like GoDaddy, Google and Airbnb have taken action to remove white nationalists and neo-Nazis from their services. Others, like Twitter and Facebook, have banned individual users who have threatened violence or contributed to hate movements.

Partly, these are self-preservation instincts kicking in — no company wants to end up like Reddit, which has struggled to shake its reputation as a den of toxicity — but it is also indicative of an emerging consensus around the moral responsibilities of tech platforms.

Like most platforms, Discord never meant to become a virtual home of the alt-right. It started in 2015 as a chat app for video gamers, where fans of games like World of Warcraft could form teams and talk about strategy. Over the next several years, as gamers invited their friends to the app, it became one of the hottest start-ups in Silicon Valley, growing to more than 45 million members and raising nearly $100 million from top tech investors.

But Discord also attracted far-right political groups, whose members were drawn to the app's privacy and anonymity features. Discord allows users to form private, invitation-only chat groups invisible to those outside the app, and it allows a high degree of anonymity, making it an ideal choice for people looking to avoid detection or surveillance. Perhaps most importantly, it is largely self-policed — administrators of servers, as Discord's group chat rooms are known, set their own rules and are responsible for keeping their members in line.

Leaders like Richard Spencer, who is credited with coining the term "alt-right," and Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, used Discord to discuss current events and debate movement strategy. These discussions were not always harmonious, and often featured infighting and disagreement over tactics and cooperation with older and less internet-savvy groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Vanguard America. But Discord became a private sounding board for the movement, and over time, Discord groups devoted to far-right politics — including one where newcomers were required to show proof of Caucasian skin before being given posting privileges — swelled to thousands of members.

In the days leading up to the "Unite the Right" rally, Discord proved that it could be an indispensable organizing tool. White nationalists used alt-right Discord servers to form car pools to Charlottesville and arrange local lodging. On the eve of the protest, one Discord user posted a poem written to commemorate the gathering, titled "The Fire Rises." (Sample stanza: "A brotherhood of white man's will / against Jews and their disguises. / And we will march on Charlottesville / as the fire rises.") And on Saturday, after the protest had ended with three people dead and more injured, the moderator of one Discord server declared the rally a success, posting: "Hail victory! Hail our people!"

"It's become a central communication interface for the white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements," said Keegan Hankes, an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that studies right-wing extremist groups. "It's pretty unavoidable to be a leader in this movement without participating in Discord."

For months, Discord's executives and board members debated what to do about the alt-right's presence on its platform. Some favored stricter controls and banning hateful speech entirely. Others took the view that since these rooms were private, Discord's responsibility extended only as far as removing illegal content when it was flagged to them. Discord's community guidelines prohibit "sharing content that is directly threatening someone's physical or financial state," but the company also takes pains to reassure users that their messages will stay private, saying that "we do not actively monitor and aren't responsible for any activity or content that is posted."

Josh Elman, a Discord board member and investor with Greylock Partners, told me before the Charlottesville rally that Discord was analogous to a chat app like Skype or iMessage, and said that it had fewer responsibilities to patrol for hateful content than a public-facing social network.

"It's basically a private email group," he said.

Reached after Discord's decision to ban alt-right groups, Mr. Elman said, "I believe every communication channel — public or private — has a responsibility to investigate and take action on any reports of misuse including harassment, inciting violence or hate, and other abuse."

Discord wouldn't say how many groups it banned in total, but users told me that dozens of alt-right-affiliated servers seemed to have vanished, or closed themselves to new members. The company said on Twitter that it would not "actively search through messages" for evidence of abuse in the future, but would respond to reports of content that violated its terms of service.

Some white nationalists see Discord's actions as part of a greater "no-platform" movement, in which tech companies systematically take away the digital tools that activists use to generate attention and organize their activities. In response to being kicked off services like PayPal and Patreon, a crowdfunding site, several far-right groups have begun creating alternative platforms, where extreme views will be tolerated.

One moderator of an alt-right Discord server that was banned on Monday, Nathan Gate, who goes by the username TheBigKK, told me that Discord users were "leaving in droves" in search of a more hospitable platform.

"Discord started out as a great service but unfortunately it looks as though we will have to move," he said.

Another right-wing Discord moderator, who goes by Based, said that his server, a large pro-Trump group called "Centipede Central" that is still active, would have to be more careful to police its users going forward.

"We're a little on pins and needles," he said, "because Discord has shown they're willing to nuke servers."

Moderation on the internet is an endless cat-and-mouse game, and it's a near-certainty that without Discord as a safe haven, white nationalists will organize themselves somewhere else. Just hours after Discord shut down their servers, several alt-right users were already attempting to form new rooms, and others were suggesting alternative chat apps that might be friendlier to their views.

"The pathetic nerd cucks at Discord have caved and joined the war against free speech," said a post on AltRight.com, using one of the movement's favorite slurs. "But we will simply adapt."