Discord: the instant messaging social platform

App that favours anonymity and attracts young users has sparked safety concerns

Discord app is seen on a phone
Discord has more than 140 million active users a month
(Image credit: Peter Galleghan/Alamy Stock Photo)

An elite boys’ school in Sydney has expelled several students after “deeply disturbing” messages posted on a secretive social media platform were exposed by a newspaper.

An investigation found that teenagers had been using Discord to post “a mixture of sexist, racist and anti-Semitic sentiments coupled with several extreme anti-abortion statements” – content they “were assured would never be discovered by their teachers”, reported the Daily Mail.

The social media platform in question, which has a monthly user base in the hundreds of millions, is favoured by Gen Z as a method of online socialising, but its emphasis on anonymity and the ease with which it allows strangers to communicate has sparked safeguarding concerns.

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Founded for gamers

Founded in 2015 by Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy, California-based Discord was initially intended to “solve a big problem: how to communicate with friends around the world while playing games online”, the platform’s website explains.

The encrypted desktop, web and mobile app had 140 million monthly active users at the end of 2020, almost 80% of whom are based outside of North America. They log on to the platform to “discuss their mutual interests in anime, fitness, religion, books, parrots, and… crypto”, said Morning Brew, a popular daily newsletter.

Discord experienced a surge in users during the pandemic, with teens favouring its messaging channels as a means of keeping in contact with friends during lockdowns. Back in March 2020, Vox reported that the platform was enabling people “to create semi-private, invite-only servers” to mimic “something closer to offline interaction”.

As a result of this success, the company rebranded in 2020, distancing itself “from its gaming-oriented roots to become a more general platform similar to Skype”, said the men’s fashion and culture platform Hypebeast. Now around 80% of Discord users report using it for non-gaming purposes or for a combination of gaming and other activities.

Invite-only chat

Discord has many similarities to the workplace app Slack. Free to sign up for with just a log-in and password, any user is able to set up a chat group known as a “server”. Servers enable text messaging in chat “channels”, as well as the possibility for video calls both directly or in small groups.

Most servers are invite-only, the majority containing fewer than ten people, according to the platform. Larger, more open servers typically focus around a specific topic such as games like Minecraft or Fortnite. According to Followchain in February, there were around seven million servers on Discord, with the largest (“Official Fortnite”) featuring 815,000 members.

Unlike Slack, Discord has a “prominent voice chat feature that can be active all the time”, allowing users “to talk to each other in real time while they multitask”, explained Vox. There is also a screen-sharing feature, so groups of people can simultaneously watch a film.

Anonymity comes at a price

Discord is “known for a culture of anonymous and pseudonymous discussion”, said The Atlantic, in a way which has drawn comparisons between the platform and the basic chat rooms that were so ubiquitous in the early days of the internet.

The platform’s huge popularity among Gen Z users in particular suggests that “we’ve arrived at a new era of anonymity”, added the magazine, “in which it feels natural to be inscrutable and confusing… There just isn’t any good reason to use your real name anymore.”

But this anonymity – a key factor behind Discord’s success – comes at a price. Over the years, the platform has been repeatedly forced to shut down neo-Nazi and alt-right servers. “Since Discord is a private chat platform, its approach toward monitoring hate speech has been different and arguably more lax than more public-facing platforms like Facebook or Twitter,” reported The Verge in 2018.

And as “a trade-off for letting users remain anonymous and largely unchecked”, Discord is “teeming” with cryptocurrency scammers, added Morning Brew.

Safeguarding concerns

Discord recently updated its minimum age requirement for users to 17, from 13, but the social network has made headlines for failing to protect young people from potentially abusive users.

Speaking to CNN earlier this year, a woman said she had shut down her 16-year-old daughter’s Discord account after discovering that a user was “manipulating, tracking and planning to exploit her daughter”.

Another woman said her 13-year-old’s mental health was impacted after a conversation in a Discord chat room turned sour. “I later found out she was actively engaging in self-harm and had planned to run away to Alabama to visit a friend she made on Discord,” the mother told CNN.

Despite various safety initiatives that have been put in place, it is still possible “for minors to connect with people they don’t know on public servers or in private chats if the stranger was invited by someone else in the room”, explained the US news outlet.

According to Discord’s Transparency Report for 2021, there were 143,185 reports by users of harassment on the platform, as well as 47,972 of cyber-crime, 35,219 of graphic content and 36,150 of exploitative content.

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