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Discord's rise punctuated by leak of classified documents

Discord is used by roughly 150 million people each month and was the eighth most-downloaded global social networking app in 2022, according to Apptopia.
Discord booth seen at the Tokyo Game Show, in Chiba, Japan
A Discord booth at the Tokyo Game Show in Chiba, Japan, in 2022. Stanislav Kogiku / Sipa via AP file

Not long ago, it was a humble chat platform for video game enthusiasts.

Now, thanks to its role in one of the biggest intelligence leaks in U.S. history, Discord is suddenly the focus of national attention and growing questions about how classified Pentagon documents circulated on it for weeks, maybe months.

It's a sudden public turn for a platform that has quietly amassed a gigantic user base and taken on an increasingly central place in internet culture. Boosted by an increase in popularity during the pandemic, Discord has quietly become a fundamental piece of the internet’s social infrastructure.

Discord's website says the platform has more than 150 million active monthly users. It was the eighth-most-downloaded global social networking app in 2022, according to Apptopia, an app analysis company.

Released in 2015 by the gamers Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy, Discord was created to help gamers chat more easily while playing together. While similar chat services exist, Discord was a more accessible, succinct service for gamers.

The app is organized in what are called "servers," which function as broader communities in which many chat rooms can exist. Its functionality is similar to many workplace chat programs such as Slack. A user can either create a server for their friends or followers to join, or they can join someone else’s server. Some servers are invite-only while others are public. Discord reports that it has 19 million active servers per week.

Once on a server, users can access text chatrooms or voice chatrooms. Roughly 100 people can join a voice chat. Video chat services on Discord are more limited.

Chat rooms were an early mainstay of the internet, though they fell out of fashion as social media became dominant. Discord succeeded in part because of its embrace of already-fervent gaming communities, giving them a space to easily congregate online.

The leak of documents intersected with Discord’s robust gaming community, having been found on servers that focus on the video game Minecraft as well as a minor YouTube celebrity.

Now, Discord hosts a wide variety of communities. YouTubers, LGBTQ advocacy groups, fans of television shows and movies, cryptocurrency groups, anime fans and more have all carved out spaces on Discord.

Discord has found itself at the heart of some controversies as it has become more popular. In 2017, some organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, used Discord to plan the event. The app was used by the suspect in the shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, that left seven dead in 2022, and by the gunman who killed 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket last May. Authorities said the Buffalo shooter used Discord to document his plans for the shooting.

"The massacre was a hate crime and a stark display of the grave dangers of white supremacy," Discord said in a statement. "We denounce white supremacy and actions that stem from it in the strongest possible terms." It also said that it would cooperate with law enforcement.

While Discord's community guidelines ban content such as hate speech, threats of violence and making sexually explicit content accessible to minors, it was not immediately clear if the government documents shared on the platform violated these guidelines or its terms of service.

Discord did not immediately return a request for comment.

Following the leak of documents, the Biden administration said it would consider expanding how it monitors social media and chatrooms. The president and administration officials were briefed on the leak last week.

Currently, law enforcement agencies are allowed to monitor public chatrooms, but they cannot legally monitor a private online group without probable cause, Glenn Gerstell, who was general counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020, told NBC News in a recent interview.

“We do not have nor do we want a system where the United States government monitors private internet chats,” Gerstell said.