The world learned this week that a 21-year-old National Guardsman is accused of leaking hundreds of classified documents on an online platform called Discord.
While Discord is used by an estimated almost 200 million people online, the service remains a point of confusion in big news stories including the military leak, recent mass shootings and extremist rallies.
More:Jack Teixeira, 21, appears in court over Pentagon leak. What charges is he facing?
Let’s unpack what Discord is, and why it keeps coming up:
What is Discord?
Discord is essentially a messaging platform, on which users can communicate directly with each other, either by text or in voice calls.
Inside Discord, communication happens on “servers,” which are similar to “groups” on Facebook or Instagram. Each server can have separate “channels,” smaller spaces for select members.
Just like on Facebook, these servers and channels can be both public and private — though Discord tends to be far more geared toward private communication. Private servers require an invitation to join.
What we know:Who leaked the Pentagon documents? What we know about Jack Teixeira, the suspected DOD leaker
How did the military records leak on Discord?
According to multiple news reports, the top-secret Pentagon documents were originally posted inside a private Discord server accessible by just a couple dozen users.
The leaks reportedly became public after one of the members of the private Discord server began re-posting them on a different, larger Discord server. From there, the documents were shared to an even bigger Discord server focused on the video game Minecraft. And from there, the documents spread around the internet.
Members of the original server identified the poster as the administrator of a private server, someone they called “O.G.”
Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira was arrested Thursday. He appeared in federal court Friday and was charged with two counts related to the leaks.
More:Why online gaming chats have long been spy risk for US military
How Discord started and who uses it
Discord is immensely popular with gamers, and originally developed as a way for gamers who are playing multiplayer games to communicate with one another. Players could, for example, use Discord to join a group voice call with other players and communicate while they were playing.
Over time, however, Discord has also developed into more of a social media space, where users create servers and channels to talk about everything from homework problems to sports to neo-Nazism.
And that’s where the extremists come in.
What is extremism?:What is extremism? Does it include far-left? Far-right? Choosing a definition is fraught.
Do extremists use Discord?
Megan Squire, deputy director for data analytics at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been monitoring extremists on Discord for years.
Notably, the deadly Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in 2017 was largely organized inside Discord servers, Squire said. Messages from those servers were later used against extremists in a high-profile civil lawsuit against the organizers of Charlottesville which is largely credited with bankrupting several far-right extremist groups.
“I just a sort of forget about Discord for a while, and then another story like this pops back up and there they are again,” Squire said. “It just keeps coming up.”
Bridget Todd, a writer and host of the podcast “There are No Girls on the Internet,” agreed.
“Discord is definitely where you see a lot of the extremist chatter online,” Todd said.
But Todd was quick to add that millions of people who are not extremists also use Discord, which she said is becoming increasingly popular among online content creators. She noted that she recently set up her own Discord channel for her podcast.
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Which extremists have used Discord?
High-profile incidents of extremism that have involved Discord include:
- Unite the Right at Charlottesville: Far-right extremists including neo-Nazis used the platform to communicate and organize before the rally;
- Buffalo shooting: The 18-year-old who shot and killed 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket in a racist attack last May invited Discord users into his private server to read his online diary and racist screeds he had posted on Discord for months.
- In 2021, researchers with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue concluded that Discord “primarily acts as a hub for extreme right-wing socialising and community building,” and “provides a safe space for users to share ideological material and explore extremist movements.”
- While experts on extremism aren’t yet sure, there are signals the National Guardsman who allegedly leaked hundreds of top-secret classified documents was steeped in far-right extremism, as we outlined in this story yesterday.
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What is Discord doing about extremism?
Discord provided USA TODAY with a statement about its work to tackle extremism on the platform:
“We created Discord to be a place where everyone can find a place to belong, and any behavior that goes counter to that is against our mission. We have a zero-tolerance policy against hate or violent extremism and we take action when we become aware of it, including banning users, shutting down servers, and engaging with authorities when appropriate.”
Squire said she has coordinated with Discord before to remove certain servers. “They have reached out — they’ve been proactive,” she said. “Whereas all the other platforms have just never acknowledged me whatsoever.”