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Discord chat app faces moderation questions after mass shooting suspects are linked to platform

“When we talk about people who commit these acts of violence ... it's going to be a part of this nexus,” one expert said of Discord.
Two police officers stand their post on July 5, 2022, the day after a mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill.
Police officers in Highland Park, Ill., on Tuesday, the day after the shooting.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

The suspect in the Highland Park shooting had dedicated chat rooms on the popular social messaging platform Discord and frequented some others that trafficked in violent content despite rules meant to limit such material.

It's the second time this year Discord has come up as an application used by a suspect in a mass shooting. The man accused of killing 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in May used the same app to document his plans for the shooting.

The app's use by such suspects raises questions about the company's moderation practices and the activity that's occurring on the millions of active servers it maintains. One expert said the platform can be a vehicle for radicalization.

“Discord reserves the right to review and remove any material on the platform," said Emerson Brooking, a senior resident at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington.

"But there must be a flag that draws Discord’s attention in the first place.”

Discord did not respond to requests for comment.

The 'practical limit of moderation'

Discord, originally favored by gamers but now extremely popular across nearly every online community, allows users to create private chat spaces called "servers" that can house numerous chatrooms.

Robert “Bobby” E. Crimo III, the Highland Park suspect who was arrested hours after the shooting on Monday, left a sprawling online footprint, including on Discord, YouTube, Twitter and other social platforms. Under his rap name "Awake," Crimo posted music videos on his YouTube channel that included depictions of mass murder, while on his own Discord server, Crimo shared nihilistic political memes and comments.

Crimo appears to have been active in the Discord server since late January 2021, according to chat logs archived by Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit media organization that tracks the far right. Images that were said to be screenshots of his messages appeared to show the user complaining about “commies” — short for “communists” and typically used by far-right extremists to refer to Democrats.

In a March post on a politics board in his server, Crimo posted a photo of R. Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania politician who fatally shot himself during a televised news conference in 1987, captioned: “I wish politicians still gave speeches like this.”

Crimo also contributed to a message board discussing graphic depictions of murder, suicide and death. His most recent post on the board last week showed a video of a beheading. Both his YouTube and Discord accounts were taken down on Monday evening.

Brooking said the Highland Park shooting highlights "the practical limit of moderation" on chat platforms like Discord.

"Crimo's posts appear to have been too context-dependent to be flagged automatically and it's unlikely that members of Crimo's Discord server found them so distasteful as to report them," he continued.

Brooking said he suspects some of Crimo's messages could have violated Discord's community guidelines, which prohibit the glorification of "violent events, the perpetrators of violent acts, or similar behaviors," but "moderators would have had to see them first."

Discord's role in the Buffalo shooting

Payton Gendron, the suspect in the Buffalo shooting, appeared to use Discord as well in the run-up to the attack on the Tops supermarket. In a 180-page diatribe that senior law enforcement officials said they believe he wrote and posted online, Gendron referred to the Discord chat platform and a community centered on guns and armor called “plate land.”

In a different Discord server, a user with the same username as the Twitch account that streamed the Buffalo attack made what appeared to be a to-do list related to the shooting.

A Discord representative said in a statement to NBC News at the time of the Buffalo shooting: “We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families, and are doing everything we can to assist law enforcement in the investigation.”

In the aftermath of the Buffalo shooting, Discord said it would commit to stronger content moderation measures to prevent the spread of content related to the attack. The company also banned the suspect’s account, partnered with counterterrorism groups and removed accounts that were “creating fake Discord chat logs to trick law enforcement and media outlets,” the company said.

Discord acts as 'a means to organize'

Brooking explained that Discord can be a “pathway of radicalization” for users, particularly those tapped into far-right online communities.

"When we talk about people who commit these acts of violence ... it's going to be a part of this nexus," Brooking said of Discord. "Many far-right communities turn to Discord as a means to organize."

In 2017, the company banned some of the largest far-right Discord communities following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed one person and injured dozens — eliminating one of the movement's most important means of communications.

But while social media platforms like YouTube, Twitch and Discord do implement measures to remove and moderate content related to mass shootings, Brooking said that doesn't necessarily erase extremists' plans to coordinate public killings.

"The future of terrorism is not Discord," Brooking said, citing Discord's move to ban some prominent far-right communities after the deadly Charlottesville rally and other existing platforms with more secure communications.

Discord provides the "tools for anyone to create and run their own server," he continued, but it "will not be an attractive platform for people and collaborators to plan to commit acts of violence because the communications on Discord are not secure. They’re liable for review."

"One can certainly operate far-right communities on Discord — you know, toxic, racist, sometimes tinged with white supremacy," he added. "But to really build sustainable far-right, terrorist infrastructure, Telegram and traditional forum boards are a better alternative."