Over 25 million users have flocked to Discord, a text and voice platform for gamers, since its launch in May of 2015. Despite the company raising at least 30 million in venture capital funding, the company has only five "customer experience" personnel and no moderators on its staff. From what I've seen, users who wish to engage in harassment, raid servers or bombard chats and users with child pornography suffer no lasting repercussions for doing so. That seemingly any server can become the victim of organised attacks represents the strained and failing infrastructure of moderation — of Discord, and of virtually any community on the internet.
Illustration: Elena Scotti
Though it positioned itself as a scrappy alternative to gamer-friendly VoIP software like TeamSpeak and Skype, Discord's robust text chat features have made it a hub for a variety online communities. The largest still remain pegged to specific games like Overwatch and Pokemon, but many have nothing at all to do with gaming. Many forums, subreddits and imageboards are using Discord as a way to connect in real time. "Many of the largest Reddits use it," Discord CEO Jason Citron told Gizmodo in an email. "These bigger communities may appear to be a large part of Discord, [but] only a very small number of people actually participate in them relative to the entire Discord population." We'll have to trust Citron that the lion's share of users are on Discord for its intended purpose — chatting while gaming — but the number who aren't is certainly growing: Of the estimated 12,000 servers, three of the biggest are directly associated with a subreddit, according to unofficial index discordservers.
Some of these servers, especially the Discord chat spun out of 4chan's far-right stomping ground /pol/, use their room to coordinate "raids" on other servers with ease and impunity. Trolls acquire invite links to other servers and post them in a room called "Raids" (formerly "Raids Defence"), encouraging the chat's 1000+ members to descend en masse on vulnerable or unsuspecting communities, bringing with them a tidal wave of abuse. Other servers have rooms for doxxing — the posting of personally identifying information like addresses and phone numbers of victims. Such behaviour is a clear violation of Discord's Terms of Service, though it seems those rules cannot be presently enforced.
Screenshot: /pol/ server. Rule 7 codifies raiding for members.
We spoke with 12 current admins and moderators of a variety of servers over Discord or email. Their servers ranged from a few dozen users to over 1000, organised around topics ranging from religion and language learning to sexuality and politics. All of them had experienced multiple raids — some on a daily basis — and most saw the behaviour as increasing in frequency and severity. With only one "customer experience" staffer for every five million users, these admins have developed their own countermeasures.
"Everyday there are raids of alt-right people," Seven, an admin of a popular server for the discussion of Islam, told Gizmodo. The server focuses mainly on the discussion of scripture as well as news in the Muslim world, and has rooms in six different languages. An invite to muslim.chat popped up last weekend in the /pol/ raids room, prompting a flood of harassment which has sadly become commonplace for marginalised groups online. The raids typically consist of abusive messages characterising all Muslims as terrorists and insulting their beliefs. Though Seven and his co-admin Iskandar have managed to attract a stable base of over 1000 users, 1288 others have been banned for abuse. "The discord server feels like a besieged city," Seven said in a private Discord message. In the course of reporting this story, I also received an unsolicited message from an unknown user containing child pornography.
While anti-Muslim sentiment has certainly grown worldwide, religious chats appear to be a popular target for raiders and trolls regardless of their preferred scripture. Stupiddroid, the owner of Christian discussion server Christcord, said he experiences two to three raids a week. Like Muslim.chat, Christcord is a place to discuss religion, but also blow off steam with fellow believers. "When [trolls] join, most immediately begin spamming offensive images and slurs," he said. Politically, the far right are most commonly associated with this sort of behaviour, which makes the largely Trump-supporting server a strange target. "I believe in free speech and am against censorship," Stupiddroid wrote while making an obvious distinction: "[C]alling someone a 'nig*er' should be ban-worthy." Though banning still acts as a first line of defence, it can be easily evaded by using a VPN or simply creating a new account. Two hundred users have been banned from Christcord, a server with only 300 regular users.
Screenshot: Christcord's "about" room.
LGBT groups are also frequently raided. Even Gaymers, which has less than 100 members, is hit around once a week according to Seneth, the server's admin. "Our server is designated LGBTQ+ so as you might imagine we are subject to regular attempts at raids and other trolls," Pengu wrote. "I know most raids come from 4chan or r/the_donald if a link gets there. It happens when someone ignorant feels the need to make themselves feel better by harassing others." He pasted an example of raid spam which had recently been posted to his server by a user: "Kill all f*gs" in all-caps, 71 consecutive times.
Even servers organised around totally innocuous subject matter get raided. The moderator team of a Discord offshoot of a language-learning subreddit told Gizmodo they'd experienced a raid over the weekend and that "we were raided once before by some nazis who all spammed the same message with swastikas". One of them quickly polled a hidden server for admins of similar language-learning chats. Of the 25 servers represented, most had experienced raids recently.
How a Server Defends Itself
The prospect of centralised moderation for 12,000 realtime chat rooms is beyond daunting. Discord isn't even remotely staffed to attempt such a feat. "We don't moderate each server," Tali Fischer, Discord's Director of PR and Events admitted in a chat with Gizmodo. As such, server admins have developed their own means to limit the damage from disruptive users.
"When I joined the server was being constantly raided and there was no order," Pengu, the admin of The Furry Room told Gizmodo. Since then, he got the former admin to turn the server over to him and he "employed a manual verification process, where new users can only talk in two rooms which the majority of the server have muted… The verification I employ is to link as many social media accounts as possible, and to prove ownership. If the account was created very recently, I ask them kindly to come back in two weeks." While this is considerably stricter and more time-consuming than how most targeted servers handle raids, "containment rooms" have become commonplace. "There are 23 text channels. When someone joins they can only see #welcome and #about. Everything else is restricted," Seneth told Gizmodo.
Screenshot: r/GameGrumps on Reddit. The Discord invite is linked in the sidebar below the subreddit rules.
Welcome rooms that act as processing centres keep lazier bands of trolls from easily harassing communities on Discord. Even Centipede Central, Discord's pro-Trump chat, forces new arrivals to type a set phrase for full permissions. But as Chozo, the admin of a server spun out of r/GameGrumps (the official fan community of YouTube Let's Play channel Game Grumps) notes, trolls don't always need numbers to be effective. "Usually it's just a few guys running scripts to spam the channels with walls of text or shock porn," he told Gizmodo over email. Scripts allow a small number of raiders to post at robotic speeds that even the most diligent admin can't keep up with.
Many servers employ bots — built by the Discord community at large, or specially made by savvy moderators themselves — to beat back massive raids and script spam. "We also have a bot in our server that will enable a 'slow mode' in case things get too rowdy, which will make it so that messages in a channel can only be displayed at a very slow rate," Chozo wrote. Similar bots engage a "raid mode" or "lockdown" which can prevent newly-joined users from posting for a set period — a sort of chat-room time out — while the moderation team performs the tedious work of kicking or banning troublemakers.
Automated and infrastructural countermeasures go a long way to lessening the burdens on a targeted server's moderation team, but ultimately the best tool to keep bored or hateful losers from screwing up a chat room is vigilance. Running a server can very quickly become a full-time job. Even the /pol/ Discord — the source of a great many raids — has experienced tremendous mod turnover in recent weeks, partly because of internal drama, but also because many of the admins simply wish to get back to their daily lives post-election.
Though some servers that meet the platform's Partnership Program standard are eligible to "get paid hard skrilla $$$", only one of the chats Gizmodo spoke to was enrolled and, likely on account of its low membership, had not been approached to receive compensation.
There Has to Be a Way In
Limiting access takes other forms too, and many servers have turned off chat functions such as the ability to notify all users with "@everyone". But barriers to entry have just as much of an effect on well-intentioned new users as they do on abusive ones. Ultimately, the only safe server is one completely closed off to everyone, and in the interest of growing their communities, it's a step none of the admins we spoke to were willing to take.
"Some time ago, the owner of the server put out a few invite links on Reddit, and as such, the search term 'furry discord' brings up the Reddit post containing said link as one of the top results," Pengu told Gizmodo, describing the push and pull of security versus opportunity. "The simplest way to stop these raids is to revoke said link, however doing so cuts off the main source of legitimate people wishing to join."
Image: /pol/ Discord raids room. Server invites can be made to "expire". Some raids are against specific people, in this case a former admin.
The admins of muslim.chat see openness as an opportunity, and raids as an inevitable side effect. "We posted the discord server on a lot of pages on purpose, we knew this would happen," Seven wrote. "If we put better protection we will annoy people who want to join."
"We also feel this connection from the people who troll us, [who]... waste their time [with] such activity against us," was how Iskandar, a native French speaker, framed it, as only the patient or the pious can. "It is because we feel the same feeling of marginalization, that we won't close ours arms towards them if they want to finally drops the weapons and take a tea with us."
No One to Turn to
Belying this bargain for visibility is also the feeling that, aside from those in the Partner Program with direct access to Discord's developers, there are no reinforcements to call on. Discord's Fischer told Gizmodo that "the standard average is 22 hour response time and Discord averages under 1 hour". If true, the platform's speed is laudable, though it may instead be a result of user not knowing how to make problems known to the company.
Snow, the admin of leftist political server and 8chan offshoot /leftypol/, told Gizmodo, "I was unaware that there was a medium to report to Discord HQ. If there is, they should make it more easily accessible." Although CEO Jason Citron referred us to [email protected], there is no "report" function baked into Discord's UI, and a help search for "report user" doesn't bring up a single link which lists that email. Seven wrote, regarding the frequent raids, "I don't think they can really help us more." Uncertain recourses in the face of flagrant hate speech leads to a sense of inevitability that raids and abuse will always continue, or, as Seneth wrote, the feeling that "Ignorant people will always find a way."
"If content on a server is found to be illegal or in violation of our Terms of Service, we shut the server down and we will ban users who are found to be complicit in illegal activities," Discord CEO Jason Citron told Gizmodo in an email, though the increasing prevalence of abusive raids tell another story, as do admin's experiences. Few had heard of users receiving global bans or servers being shut down completely. Chozo of the Game Grumps chat was the only admin we spoke to who had heard of Discord shutting down servers. He said that "as far as I know it's only done in a few very fringe cases. The Discord dev team are pretty clear on their policies, and you have to act VERY specifically to violate them." Discord would not disclose specific examples of users of servers being banned.
Worryingly, Citron noted that "the rate of complaints has actually not changed relative to the size of the platform". As moderation staffers of absolutely any other platform are likely thinking, such a statement is an almost comically obvious red flag.
Those Terms of Service Citron mentioned are almost unenforceably broad, though they certainly cover the sort of hate speech and abuse not only employed by raiders, but commonplace on the servers they embark from. They include users agreeing not to "defame, libel, ridicule, mock, stalk, threaten, harass, intimidate or abuse anyone".
So far Discord's growth has been nothing short of meteoric, and the platform is on track to conceivably eclipse its larger, uglier and less user-friendly competitor Skype in the near future. But early problems have a way of compounding themselves. Take Reddit — the site which has arguably led to the greatest amount of non-gaming community growth on Discord — for example. Issues of what constituted good or bad user actions were left unaddressed for a decade, through multiple staff turnovers, such that CEO Steve Huffman told Recode as recently as December that "There's not a crystal-clear line of what behaviour is acceptable and not".
Though still relatively young, Discord has a chance to set an example now. The sort of strict top-down moderation present on Facebook is not only impossible to implement for real-time chat, but is undesirable for many of the users we spoke to. The solution isn't to adopt a Facebook-type moderation system; it's to better equip their users to have their grievances addressed. Discord needs to make it easier and more obvious for users to be able to report and protect themselves, and it needs to invest some of its considerable resources into a moderation team that can enforce its Terms of Service. Without consequences, toxic servers — like the /pol/ or the unabashedly fascist Blood and Soil — will continue to proliferate, making the platform more volatile and less appealing to potential users.
"I have seen raids become more prevalent not only on Discord but on imageboards, on social media, everywhere in general. As the world destabilizes and what tomorrow will be like looks less and less appetizing to some people, the angrier and angrier people get," Snow, the admin of /leftypol/ wrote. It's hard to disagree: Twitter is a constant source of threats and insults, Facebook is overrun by hyperpartisan falsehoods, infighting has turned sites and moderators against one another and Discord — a new but rising challenger — is already succumbing to the actions of its worst users. "What we are seeing now in the 21st century is the basest of human politics."