In the months before the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally last August, a chat app called Discord was abuzz with alt-right agitators.
Discord, which was started in 2015 as a secure chat app for videogamers, also happened to be conducive for white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other members of the alt-right movement who sought to keep their identities secret.
It allowed the organizers and participants of the deadly Aug. 12 rally to convene in private, invite-only threads shrouded in anonymity, with usernames such as “kristall.night” and “WhiteTrash,” according to a federal lawsuit. On a Discord server called “Charlottesville 2.0,” they planned everything from car pools, dress code and lodging in Charlottesville to how one might improvise weapons in case of a fight. Some suggested using flag poles as a makeshift spear or club.
“If you don’t have a flame thrower you’re wrong. Just oven yourself and get it over with,” a user named Athena Marie wrote Aug. 4, 2017.
“A real man knows how to make a shield a deadly weapon,” another user named O.W. von Diez said.
“FIGHT UNTIL THE LAST DROP,” another user posted.
The Discord messages have been cited in a federal lawsuit filed against the Unite the Right’s alleged organizers by counterprotesters who were injured during the rally, including two people hit by a car that rammed into a crowd, leaving one person dead. Attorneys for the counterprotesters have argued that these Discord messages and hundreds of others are central to proving that Unite the Right organizers “conspired to commit acts of violence, intimidation and harassment” against people in Charlottesville that weekend. The attorneys filed a subpoena for Discord, seeking to obtain the messages and account information of more than 30 anonymous users who appear to have participated in the Unite the Right rally.
But one anonymous woman, the one called “kristall.night,” filed suit seeking to quash the subpoena that could unmask her and dozens of other users. She claimed the counterprotesters were intentionally seeking to “out” her as a member of the alt-right movement, putting her in fear of her own safety. Revealing her identity, her attorney argued, would infringe on her First Amendment rights to engage in “anonymous speech” and to associate with a politically unpopular group.
On Monday, however, a magistrate in California disagreed.
U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero declined to fully quash the Discord subpoena, finding that the plaintiffs’ interest in discovering her identity as a possible witness or co-conspirator behind the Unite the Right rally outweighed her right to speak anonymously on the Internet.
Any identifying information discovered within her Discord account will be classified as “highly confidential,” the judge said, restricting it to a select amount of people.
“While even limited disclosure of this information may create some chilling effect,” Spero wrote, “the protections available through a designation of ‘highly confidential’ mitigate that harm, and Plaintiffs’ interest in this information, which is relevant to testing their claims of an alleged violent conspiracy based on racial and religious animus, outweighs the potential harm to [Jane Doe’s] right to association.”
Spero agreed to quash the portion of the subpoena seeking the contents of the messages, saying it violates the Stored Communications Act.
In his 28-page ruling, Spero appeared to acknowledge why Discord might have been so appealing to members of the so-called alt-right in the first place: “It is clear that many members of the ‘alt-right’ feel free to speak online in part because of their ability to hide behind an anonymous username,” he wrote.
Discord’s popularity among members of the alt-right ahead of the Charlottesville rally surfaced largely after hundreds of their messages were leaked to a media collective known as “Unicorn Riot.”
Then the messages ended up in lawsuits.
Timothy Litzenburg, an attorney for two other women injured at the rally told Wired last August that the leaked messages could be “the crux of the case,” providing “a little flavor of how [organizers] totally intended on violence and mayhem.”
Discord responded to revelations that the app had been used to plan Unite the Right by shutting down various accounts associated with planning the Charlottesville rally, plus another server called “altright.com,” enforcement actions that it announced on Twitter.
“Discord’s mission is to bring people together around gaming,” it said, just days after the violence in Charlottesville. “We’re about positivity and inclusivity. Not hate. Not violence.”
According to the lawsuit filed by the counterprotesters, messages and memes posted in the Charlottesville 2.0 thread included a fake advertisement for “pepper spray” to use against black people, which the advertisement described as “n—– killer.” “Stock up now,” the user wrote, days before the Charlottesville rally. Elsewhere, an alleged member of the white supremacist group Vanguard America posted a drawing of man wearing a shirt with Nazi symbols on it along with the words “n—— killer.”
The leaked messages showed organizers of the event reminding people that weapons wouldn’t be allowed — but participants got creative, apparently anticipating having to defend against violent clashes with antifa counterprotesters.
“Just carry a pocket full of rocks,” one wrote, according to the lawsuit. “They can be in a sock or something.”
The user named “kristall.night” appeared to be directly involved in the planning, attorneys for the counterprotesters argued. Spero agreed.
Kristall.night suggested people “purchase self defense insurance” ahead of the rally and urged that a “shield wall should be ready in case these people get pushed in your direction.” She advised that people should not bring “weapons you’re inexperienced with using in a fight in a crowded area,” or flip flops or sandals, masks or contact lenses or illegal substances. They should bring water and tourniquets “if you have one,” along with shields, banners and flags, a “good flag pole” and a helmet.
“Can you find fedora shaped helmets?” she asked another user at one point, the leaked messages show.
Kristall.night’s attorney, Marc Randazza, argued in legal filings that the subpoena for Discord is a “fishing expedition with the ultimate goal of destroying the lives of people Plaintiffs do not like, even though these people have done nothing to harm Plaintiffs.”
He told The Washington Post that “outing” members of the alt-right movement who believed their messages were private could lead to violence against them. He said he does not trust that his client’s information will remain “highly confidential,” as the judge said.
“I can’t believe people believe this ….” he said, referring to his client’s political beliefs, “but they get to do that. That’s what the [expletive] enlightenment is about. That’s what the [expletive] First Amendment is about. That’s what this [expletive] country is about. But people don’t get to do that anymore. You have to be hounded out of your apartment, out of your job, out of whatever it is you have, if you have the audacity to have an unpopular political belief.”
Randazza said he is still considering whether to appeal the magistrate’s decision.