Social-Media Platform Discord Emerges at Center of Classified U.S. Documents Leak
A federal investigation into a major leak of highly classified U.S. documents has cast a spotlight on a social-media outlet popularized by videogame enthusiasts.
On Discord Inc.’s online platform, users chat about games, investing and other topics in mostly private, invitation-only groups called servers. Like others in social media, the company has at times struggled to rein in bad actors.
Discord has been accused of being used to share child pornography and playing a role in the Charlottesville, Va., violence in 2017. The company said its highest priority is to ensure a safe experience for users and that it investigates and responds accordingly to any policy violations.
A government probe, launched Friday at the request of the Defense Department, is searching for answers on how dozens of images that purport to show secret documents surfaced on Discord.
The intelligence leak is shaping up to be one of the most damaging in decades. The disclosure could complicate Ukraine’s spring offensive and could inhibit the readiness of foreign allies to share sensitive information with the U.S. government.
San Francisco-based Discord has approximately 150 million monthly users worldwide, making it much smaller than social-media leaders such as
Meta Platforms Inc.’s
Facebook and ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, which each have more than one billion monthly users.
Discord got its start in 2015 as an easy way for gamers to communicate while playing online games. An early mover, it grew in popularity by providing a variety of ways to interact and gradually expanded its appeal to all sorts of users, who say it offers higher-quality audio than other chat services.
With Discord, which can run on a desktop or mobile phone, users set up servers for chatting via video, audio or text. The majority of servers are private, but they can also be public. Discord, which is free to use, makes money by selling enhanced versions of its chat software, starting at $2.99 a month.
In addition to chatting while playing games, friends use Discord to watch movies and do homework together. Among its largest groups are servers dedicated to games such as Riot Games Inc.’s “Valorant” and those on
as well as artwork created using generative artificial intelligence. The platform also hosts communities supporting Ukraine’s cause.
In April 2021, Discord ended discussions over a possible acquisition offer from
The company was valued at $14.7 billion as of September 2021, and it had raised $1.1 billion as of March 2022, according to PitchBook Data Inc.
Discord is cooperating with law enforcement on the investigation into the classified documents leak, a spokesman for the company said.
“As this remains an active investigation, we cannot provide further comment at this time,” he said.
The leaked documents, which appear to have numbered in the hundreds, stayed among the members of the tiny group on Discord until early March when another user reposted several dozen of them to another group with a larger audience. From there, at least 10 files migrated to a much bigger community focused on the computer game Minecraft.
Document leaks have emerged as a common tactic during the war in Ukraine. In September researchers at
Google concluded that some activist groups that were leaking information were likely doing so in coordination with Russia’s military intelligence agency.
The leak of the apparent U.S. intelligence files first on Discord was different, analysts said. The latest leaked reports include a range of U.S. intelligence assessments, some not related to the war in Ukraine, for example.
“Someone was just taking a bunch of pictures and putting them up there” on Discord, said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Discord uses a combination of machine learning, employees and volunteer moderators to weed out behaviors that violate its policies. The company has about 900 employees and about 15% work in trust and safety.
Discord has attracted unwanted attention before, such as when it played a role in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which erupted in violence and left one person dead. The FBI obtained a warrant for the account of the leader of a white supremacist group after finding Discord chats suggesting this person encouraged violence at the event. Discord said afterward that it banned servers promoting neo-Nazi ideology.
“We have zero tolerance for hate and online extremism,” Discord’s chief executive, Jason Citron said, told The Wall Street Journal in 2021.
Discord has also been accused of being used by sex predators to share child pornography and communicate with minors. Discord has a minimum age of 13.
In its latest transparency report covering the final quarter of 2022, Discord said it issued fewer warnings to groups and individuals compared with the preceding quarter. The company also said it disabled fewer individual users’ accounts for policy violations excluding spam, but that it removed more groups over the same period.
Monitoring conversations on social media is challenging. Though the major platforms police users through human and automated moderation, they get accused of both not doing enough and going too far.
Some critics say Discord and other chat platforms rely too heavily on users to report problems. That strategy isn’t effective because not enough users do it, said Rachel Kowert, research director at Take This, a nonprofit focused on mental health in videogaming.
—Robert McMillan contributed to this article.
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at [email protected]
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