Discord & Extremism

By: Jakob Guhl

Overview 

Discord is a free messaging platform designed to assist gamers in communicating with each other while playing. Since its debut in 2015, Discord’s userbase has grown dramatically; it is currently estimated to have 350 million registered users and 140 million monthly active users worldwide, as well as a total of 6.7 million active servers. While Discord has primarily been a space marketed to gamers, over the years there have been multiple instances of extremist activity on the platform.  

Discord Glossary  

Server: Servers are spaces on Discord that are created by private communities or individuals. Servers can be public or private with participants gaining access only through invitations.  

Channel: Servers are organised into text and voice channels. Each channel is typically dedicated to a specific subject. Depending on if it is a text or a voice channel, users will have different functionalities. Text channels allow users to post messages, and share files or images for others to see. Voice channels give users the ability to connect via a voice or video call in real time, as well as share screens (Go Live).  

Go Live: In voice channels, users can “Go Live” which means share screen and DM with those in the same server.  

API: An API (Application Programming Interface) is a software intermediary that allows two applications to communicate with each other. APIs have a huge range of uses, but in the context of this report, they allow researchers to access certain data from some online platforms via requests. As an intermediary, APIs also provide an additional layer of security by not allowing direct access to data, alongside logging, managing and controlling the volume and frequency of requests. 

Key Functionalities 

Discord allows users to talk to each other in real time either through messages or in voice or video calls. Chat rooms – known as servers – can be created by any user and may be used for purposes that extend beyond gaming, including networking, organising events, organising competitions, thematic discussions or even ‘raids’ (organised campaigns to spam or troll other servers or users on other platforms), and collating and sharing content that is of interest to servers’ members. 

While many servers are private, users can also join public servers as well (though still require a username to join). The largest public servers can have hundreds of thousands of members. While many public servers are dedicated to gaming or anime, some are dedicated to social or political discussion (some of which explicitly discuss similar themes and draw on similar aesthetics as communities found on other platforms, such as 4chan). 

 

Image 1: Screenshot of the Discord interface 

Image 1: Screenshot of the Discord interface

High-Profile Instances of Extremist Activity on Discord 

While Discord is primarily aimed at gamers and is designed for non-political purposes, researchers have documented that the platform has been repeatedly used by various extremist groups. For example, organisers behind the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, used Discord to plan and coordinate the protest, as well as share ideological propaganda materials. During the rally, an extreme right-wing activist murdered a counter-protestor when he deliberately drove a car into a crowd. 

Following reports about the extreme right’s use of Discord, and the events in Charlottesville in particular, Discord began to take a stricter approach regarding the presence of these movements on its platform. In 2021, Discord claimed to have removed more than 2,000 extremist servers. Nonetheless, ISD research later that year found that Discord was still functioning as a hub for extreme right-wing socialising and community building. This was despite little evidence that gaming itself played a role in radicalising and recruiting individuals on the platform. Additionally, ISD research identified expressions of support for Atomwaffen Division and Sonnenkrieg Division (both designated terrorist organisations in the UK, Canada and Australia) in extreme-right Discord servers. Newer ISD research (2023) also identified a small but significant presence of hateful, anti-democratic and violent content within Catholic extremist and Islamist extremist servers on Discord. 

While Discord appears particularly popular among adherents of the extreme right, the platform is also used by members of a younger community of Gen-Z Islamist extremists who merge Salafi ideas with alt-right memes and gaming subcultures. Discord’s role for a diverse range of online-subcultures adjacent to extremism and violence was further highlighted in the 2022 Buffalo shooting and the Highland Park Parade shooting. In both cases, the attackers’ digital footprint included messages left on Discord, including content that documented their attack planning and preparation. In April 2023, we also saw the case of the US National Guardsman Jack Teixeira who was arrested after allegedly leaking classified US intelligence files (the so-called ‘Pentagon Files’) to a Discord chat, where he had previously posted racist and violent comments. 

Challenges for Researchers 

Discord presents a series of challenges to researchers.  

  1. Discord’s public API does not allow researchers to search for keywords across servers, limiting them to analysing servers they have already identified as relevant. The issue here is not that the information is hidden; it would be easy to find if the researcher already knew where to look.
  2. Researchers must join servers to access content, which may require answering a questionnaire. As these questionnaires often contain politically controversial questions, there is an ethical barrier that will prevent many researchers from agreeing to harmful statements. These ethical issues become even more pressing in the case of smaller servers as it is not clear where the threshold for reasonable expectations around privacy begins.   
  3. As Discord’s Terms of Service ban the collection of user data via its API, gathering data from servers would appear to break contract law and risk possible legal action by the platform, even in cases where there are no ethical concerns around gathering such data. 
  4. The search functions of Discord as well as third-party tools such as Disboard produce very different results to each other, with Disboard’s generally being much more extensive. However, even within Disboard’s results, there are often unexplained discrepancies between the number of supposedly identified and displayed servers. It is therefore unclear how the outputs of these tools are determined; how comprehensive they are and what results are missing. 

For more of ISD’s research on Discord, see: 

Gaming and Extremism: the Extreme Right on Discord 

Researching the Evolving Online Ecosystem: Telegram, Discord and Odysee 

Case Study: Alt-platform Discord a Haven for Islamist and Catholic Extremist Activity 

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This Explainer was uploaded on 1 June 2023.

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