On the 13th of April 2023, a 21-year-old member of the U.S. Air Force National Guard, Jack Teixeira (tay-SHER-ah), was arrested on live TV for leaking classified documents. Teixeira had shared classified information about the war in Ukraine with his Discord group, Thug Shaker Central, where he was the leader and administrator.
This group represented everything that's wrong with Discord today. What started out as a private place for 20-30 young men to discuss common interests soon turned into a haven for racists and religious bigots.
What's even worse is, due to the private nature of the platform, you can never know who is who. Teixeira may not have meant any harm by sharing this information. It's possible he just wanted to look cool in front of his friends. But what he didn't know was that the people in that group were not his friends. Shortly after sharing the documents, they found their way to a Russian language channel on Telegram before making the rounds to the darker corners of the internet.
Eventually, the NY Times reported on the story. The Pentagon launched an investigation, and the rest, as they say, is history. And it all started on Discord, the app that has become a corner of the internet that’s particularly appealing to people who wish to remain in the shadows. People who want the freedom to say and do whatever they like without having to face the consequences. And while this most recent event has made Discord a popular topic on mainstream news channels, the dangers of the app run far beyond national security.
Founders Jason Caitron (KAY-tron) and Stanislav Vishnevskiy (vish-NEV-skee) started the company in 2015 with aspirations to turn it into a game developer studio. However, when a multiplayer game they created failed to catch on, but the communication tool around gaming became a hit, they shifted focus to the communication and messaging part of the platform.
Although Discord is still mostly known for its video game communities, it's not just about gaming anymore. In fact, only 20% of Discord users report using the service for strictly gaming-related communication.
So what do most people use the service for? Well, what makes Discord unique is that it brings together a lot of elements of the internet’s early days. With its simple format, anonymous usernames, and real-time messaging, Discord is reminiscent of early AOL chat rooms. But it’s also a place for friends to congregate, chat, and send random stuff to each other, reminiscent of the original social media platform - Myspace.
Unlike most other social media platforms that make money through advertising, Discord doesn't have ads. Instead, it gets revenue from its popular in-app service, Nitro, which allows users to get upgraded features like customized profiles, access to animated emojis, and larger upload capacity.
On other social media platforms, the advertisers are often the ones who draw the line because they don't want their ads running next to, or associated with, disturbing content. Content moderation is a necessity for platforms that earn money from advertisers. But Discord isn’t one of them. This is why the app can run with pretty loose content guidelines.
The lack of content moderation can be a good thing. It allows you freedom of expression without the fear you’ll get canceled or have your account permanently banned. But when a lack of content moderation is paired with Discord's anonymity, it can quickly lead to disaster. Like its precursors from a previous generation, Discord's bread and butter is its anonymous chat rooms. But it struggles with the same question that so many social media apps face. What's more important? Anonymity or transparency? Well, right now, on Discord, it's anonymity.
A vast majority of Discord servers are private, invite-only groups with fewer than 10 people. Even on public channels, only servers with more than 200 members are discoverable with the search tool.
The app also doesn't keep a record of its audio chats - one of its most popular features. So inappropriate or criminal conversations are almost impossible to monitor. This level of anonymity is why people like the app, but also what makes it so much riskier, even for the users themselves.
Scammers have found a home on Discord, relying on the allure of Nitro to swindle users of their hard-earned money. A common scam starts with a DM from an unknown contact and an offer to join Nitro for free. The scammer claims they have an extra Nitro account to give away. All you need to do is follow a link or scan a QR code. If you click or scan, get ready to say goodbye to your money or your personal data.
A lot of the scams on Discord involve crypto or NFT theft.
In May 2022, hackers impersonating the NFT marketplace OpenSea hijacked that company's Discord server. They advertised a free NFT from an exclusive project and convinced users to connect their crypto wallets. Once the users connected their wallets, all their NFTs and crypto coins were stolen. The hackers got away with about $20,000 in digital assets.
Then in July 2022, popular Twitch streamer Mizkif's Discord server got hacked. The scammers sent out offers for free Nitro upgrades to his community of 55,000 people. Over 1,000 users clicked the link that took them straight to ransomware.
The list goes on. Some hackers basically kidnap Discord accounts. Holding them hostage until a ransom is paid to release them. There are even accusations of hackers sending out malware via Discord to government agencies to try and exploit them.
Discord has tried to curb these problems. In the space of just three months between April and June 2022, the company removed nearly 28 million spam accounts. But it’s like they can’t see the forest for the trees. Because all those scammers need to do is create another account, and we're right back where we started.
Another area of concern for Discord and its community is the proliferation of extremist and violent groups. The nonprofit counter-extremism think tank, The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, found that Discord and Steam are the worst game-streaming platforms for politically radical content.
And the hate doesn't just stay in the chat rooms. The young men behind the Unite the Right rally that happened in Virginia in 2017 hung out in private chats on Discord with disturbing names like 'Fuhrer's Gas Chamber'. A New York Times investigation showed that they used the app to post antisemitic Nazi symbols and praise the German dictator. Then, they used these same Discord servers to plan logistics for the rally that left one counterprotester dead.
These are not just "keyboard warriors," as we like to assume. The app's ability to spread hateful messaging and allow those spreading it to remain totally anonymous has real-life consequences.
18-year-old Payton Gendron (jen-DRON), who went into a store in a predominantly black neighborhood and started shooting in 2022, discussed his plans for the shooting on Discord. He explained his motivations and described himself as a white supremacist, a fascist, and an antisemite. He wrote that he targeted the store because of its high concentration of black people.
The New York attorney general said that Discord and other platforms like Reddit, Twitch, and 4Chan played a role in radicalizing the shooter. Discord breeds an environment where anyone, especially young people, can put their trust in unfamiliar people and dangerous ideas.
Teenagers are increasingly using the app to communicate instead of texting or Snapchat. Like on other social media platforms, age verification on Discord simply doesn't work. Age restrictions are almost impossible to enforce without some major and possibly invasive action from the company. So there's no stopping kids from wandering onto servers where they’ll encounter some of the scams or violent rhetoric already mentioned - or worse.
As crazy as it sounds, we haven't talked about the worst of Discord.
There are channels on Discord dedicated to some of the most horrific things you can imagine. Whether it's sharing sexually explicit content without consent, older disgusting perverts looking for teenagers to communicate with, or channels dedicated to encouraging self-harm or even more… permanent… damage.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation added Discord to its 2022 'dirty dozen list' of entities that profit from and facilitate sexual exploitation. And it's not just speculation.
In March of 2023, police rescued a 13-year-old missing girl in North Carolina after she disappeared from her Dallas home. A 34-year-old man spent months communicating with her on Discord, traveled to Texas to meet her, kidnapped and raped her. In fact, many predators on Discord use the app to convince young teenagers to leave their homes and meet in real life without telling their parents.
Discord's low levels of content moderation also make sharing explicit and illegal content much easier than most other social media platforms. A 19-year-old University of Florida football quarterback was arrested in 2022 for allegedly distributing CP on Discord and admitted to being a part of servers that discussed, solicited, and distributed the material.
These stories are terrifying. And leave many parents feeling helpless. Parents don't understand Discord as much as they do Instagram or TikTok, which many parents use themselves. The app is less intuitive for older people, and learning how their child might be communicating on it isn't always clear.
Even schools are at a loss when it comes to Discord. Many schools block other common social media apps, but Discord is mostly off their radar, so teenagers can use it freely, even while in school.
In fairness to Discord, it is trying to reduce the amount of horrific events happening, especially to its younger users. The app does have parental controls that can prohibit a minor from receiving a friend request or a DM from someone they don't know. And it increasingly removes more and more accounts for inappropriate and dangerous behavior.
The company is also investing in education for parents, so that they can learn how the app works and how to set these controls for their kids. It has partnered with an organization called ConnectSafely, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about online safety, privacy, security, and digital wellness. Together, they host listening sessions with the National Parent-Teacher Association to try to inform parents about the app and how they can help keep their kids safe.
But many parents feel that all of this is just performative by the company because when there is a complaint about a clear issue, even when a child is endangered, the company isn't very helpful.
Discord does have channel moderators who enforce the company's guidelines. They investigate situations, and can warn, quarantine, or ban users from channels. Like at other social media companies, this in-house trust and safety team is there to respond to user reports.
But that's the problem, isn't it? They just respond. Discord only acts if someone complains. It doesn't proactively seek out or mark explicit content. For many people, including a lot of parents, Discord's safety issues won't be resolved until the company takes more proactive steps.
Now, for every horror story on the app, there are also stories of community. Kids who find friends in their Discord servers when they're being bullied in real life at school. People who meet others that share their same peculiar interests.
This is the beauty of the internet. It breaks down barriers, it connects us when we feel alone, and it shows us worlds, people, and ideas we never would have seen or even considered before. In fact, as much as Jack Teixeira, who leaked the classified intelligence information on Discord, created a dangerous and chaotic situation for the U.S. military, the organization isn't completely disregarding the app. It has actually found ways to use it to its own benefit.
The U.S. military is facing a dire recruiting shortage and uses Discord to meet prospective Gen Z recruits. It has a 17,000-member chat room for service members to talk about first-person shooter games, meet with career counselors and take advantage of other community services.
For 18-21-year-olds - who are the target age for military recruitment, video games are one of the most popular forms of media Discord is where many gamers go to seek community, and the U.S. Department of Defense is hoping they find community and purpose in serving their country.
The balance these large entities like the military face is how they’ll supervise their young workforce. A workforce that lives their lives online, and also has access to classified secrets. With all of the dangers of Discord, from individual safety to national security, what can be done?
The Teixeira leak helped open the U.S. military's eyes to the role Discord plays in its members' lives. Special Operations Command, which oversees the most elite forces, told its members not to post anything on Discord that they wouldn't want to be seen by the general public. The Pentagon even has a guide for military officials to counsel Discord users working in the government about their personal security measures.
In terms of protecting kids, most of the current proposed solutions center around how to protect children on social media in general. Currently, the legal protections for children are a patchwork of disparate laws with a lot of gray areas, loopholes, and technologically outdated mandates.
For example, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 came into effect in April of 2000 and is the ONLY federal legislation that addresses the dangerous effects of targeted advertising on children. And we can all agree that the internet looks very different than it did in 2000.
There is a bipartisan bill that proposes responsibilities for tech platforms to protect children from digital harm, but it failed to make it into Congress's 2023 spending plan. Even so, Discord wasn't really a part of that conversation and it’s still not looped in with the other 'Big Tech' companies that people usually refer to. Every social media company struggles with the same issue as Discord, the conflict between freedom and safety. You might say our entire society is struggling with it right now. Users flock to Discord because it offers what seems like the ultimate freedom of expression - anonymity. But has that anonymity gone too far? Has it exposed an online landscape that's doing more harm than good? Unfortunately, Discord is still largely ignored by anyone who has the power to try and fix it. Or, they just don't get it at all.
Either way, we’d better start paying attention and understanding Discord because it’s currently shaping an entire generation across the globe. And the solution isn't just to ban the app like the U.S. Congress hopes to do with TikTok. Watch this video next to find out why that is a bad idea.