Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old in the Air National Guard from Massachusetts, often “swapped memes, offensive jokes and idle chitchat” with a couple dozen peers in an invitation-only chat room on the social media app Discord, according to The Washington Post.
But Teixeira allegedly wanted to impress his online peers. Toward that end, he reportedly leaked military secrets on the server, including an impressive stash of intelligence about the war in Ukraine and about U.S. allies and adversaries. Others apparently reposted the documents, including on a massive Discord server focused on the video game Minecraft. Sometime after, Teixeira was charged under the federal Espionage Act.
Authorities have not yet identified Teixeira’s motive. But the case serves as a reminder that some adolescents and young adults, including college students, post online content without fully considering or understanding the consequences. Here, Inside Higher Ed offers an introduction to Discord, insight into how college students use this platform that has a problematic history and advice for guiding students toward safe behavior.
What Is Discord?
Discord was originally designed as an online hangout where gamers talked with each other while playing multiplayer online games. Users access the app on a computer, smartphone or gaming console. In closed, themed online communities, users communicate by text, voice, video and screen sharing.
The app has servers that function much like channels in the workplace tool Slack. Servers can be either private or public. For example, a small, close-knit group of friends who know each other in real life may form a server. Alternately, some servers are massive, such as a popular Minecraft server with more than one million people from around the world. (More than a quarter million of those members were active on the server when the author checked while writing this story.)
Though Discord continues to be associated with gamers, the product has evolved since its 2015 debut. That evolution was aided, in part, by those seeking new communication tools during early pandemic lockdowns. In response, the company changed its tag line in 2020 from “chat for gamers” to “chat for communities and friends.”
Discord users skew young. Approximately 38 percent of its web users and nearly half of its Android app users are between 18 and 24 years old, according to Similarweb. Most (79 percent) are male.
Until recently, many neuroscientists viewed adolescents and young adults as impulsive risk-takers with “half-baked” adult brains. But that deficit framing likely misinterpreted their exploratory behavior, according to researchers. The prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses, does not mature until the mid-20s. During this extended developmental period, adolescents’ heightened interest in novel experiences helps them learn about and adapt to the world. Most survive unscathed. But a small subset who exhibit impulsive behavior, driven by weak cognitive control, have unhealthy outcomes, according to researchers.
Social media, of course, offers adolescents and others a platform to amplify their behavior—whether good or bad. In 2023, for example, Discord has approximately 154 million monthly active users. That following is sizable, even if it is notably smaller than those of Twitter and Facebook, which have nearly 556 million and three billion monthly active users, respectively.
Discord’s Past Problems
In addition to the recent military documents leak, Discord has also been at the center of other investigations. In 2017, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right hid behind a private, unmoderated Discord server to plan speakers, rideshares, accommodations and more for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. At the rally, a man drove his car into a group of people and killed a woman at an antiracism protest, and injured many more.
“Discord’s mission is to bring people together around gaming. We’re about positivity and inclusivity. Not hate. Not violence,” the company responded at the time, adding that it shut down the altright.com server.
Also, last year, a white gunman who killed 10 Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, N.Y., shared details of his plans with members of a Discord community before the attack.
In higher ed, during the early COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, online trolls made plans on Discord to execute Zoombombing attacks on classes that had been forced online. Some of the intruders shared explicit images, streamed pornography, drew crude images over instructors’ slides, exposed themselves or repeatedly voiced racial slurs—some aimed at specific instructors or students.
The company has since expressed its intention to be more serious about moderating content on its platform. Beginning in 2020, for example, it accelerated the number of servers it banned for extremist content. The company also sought to reinvent itself by diversifying its user base to include teachers, Boy Scouts, book clubs and those aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today, Discord offers public, quarterly transparency reports. In the last quarter of 2022, for example, it received more than 100,000 misbehavior reports. Harassment and bullying, hateful content, and deceptive practices were the top categories for these reports. The company acted on approximately 16 percent of the reports after identifying violations of its community standards. During this time, law enforcement also made 225 emergency disclosure requests, and the company complied in 103 cases after determining that the request met its threshold for disclosure, which includes imminent risk of serious physical injury or death.
How Do Students Use Discord?
Many college students use Discord for the same reasons that they use other social media platforms—for expressing themselves, connecting with others and building social networks. That may confer benefits, including valuable support for those who are marginalized. But it may also confer risks, including some that are unique to academic settings.
“Discord can be used for sharing exam questions and responses,” Megan McNamara, a lecturer in sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said of the potential for academic dishonesty. “There are also instances where students use Discord to bash instructors … It’s not a supervised place, so it becomes a little bit Wild West.”
But McNamara believes Discord offers students more benefits than harms. On the platform, students can collaborate, seek assistance and get to know each other in an instructor-free space. That can be especially valuable for building community in online courses. For those reasons, McNamara publicizes links to Discord servers that students set up for her classes. She has a personal policy, however, of not joining students’ servers.
“Some instructors join,” Aaron Zachmeier, associate director for instructional design at UC Santa Cruz, said. “Some don’t. Some join at the invitation of their students.” (McNamara and Zachmeier wrote about Discord for Inside Higher Ed earlier.)
Meanwhile, students also have preferences about professors’ presence on the platform.
“Professors should not create a Discord sever for their classes without first consulting students,” Tony Phan Vo, a student at California State University, Fullerton, wrote this academic year in the institution’s student newspaper, The Daily Titan. Student sources who were quoted in the article dubbed the presence of a professor in a course Discord server “strange” and “weird.” The gist of their sentiment was that Discord servers offer students space to talk away from faculty members. That said, the author acknowledged the potential for students to use the platform to facilitate cheating.
Brianna Dym, a lecturer in computer science at the University of Maine at Orono, does not join students’ Discord servers. However, because her research focuses on online communities, she is uniquely positioned to understand their use. In addition to forming curricular and extracurricular server groups, students often use Discord to send and spread messages about spontaneous gatherings or events on campus. But as with other social media, the app can have a dark side.
“Those exact features that do these great things can also lead to catastrophe when used for evil,” Dym said. For example, during a recent Pride Month—June—some Discord servers that added rainbows to their icons noted a sharp increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
But Dym, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, is encouraged by steps the company took to address concerns, which was the topic of a recent paper she co-wrote in the Journal of Online Trust and Safety. Most social media platforms either address concerns in a top-down fashion or leave users to fend for themselves, Dym said. Discord, however, has experimented with training volunteer moderators to address concerns within their communities. The nuanced approach is important to users who do not want the company to monitor them, Dym said. Communities that received the support reported better outcomes in addressing concerning behavior.
“The servers operate like little fiefdoms,” Dym said. “You have the person who founded the server, and they have supreme administrator controls unless they relinquish them. Then you can appoint other administrators who have other powers.”
But preserving the good and preventing the bad is an ongoing challenge, especially given Discord’s massive user base. Also, determining when speech on the platform crosses a line can be challenging.
“A Roman Empire history Discord server might be about the history of the Roman Empire, or it might eventually slip into weird alternative history facts,” Dym said.
Though Discord servers may be unofficial components of a college course, students may report violations of college policies they witness on the site to college employees. For that reason, McNamara reminds new students that their behavior on Discord should align with the university’s expectations.
“My overall approach has been fatalistic realism,” McNamara said, adding that she talks openly with students about behavioral expectations for engaging on Discord. “If we try to control this too much, students will simply start a new server and go further underground.”