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What is Discord? Buffalo shooting prompts N.Y. AG investigation of multiple apps

An investigation aims to reveal what part the online message platforms played in the deadly attack


The popular messaging app Discord is coming under scrutiny after an 18-year-old man allegedly discussed plans for a deadly shooting in Buffalo ahead of time.

Discord, Twitter

By Geoff Herbert

BUFFALO, N.Y. — What is Discord? The popular messaging app is coming under scrutiny after an 18-year-old man from Broome County allegedly discussed plans for a deadly shooting in Buffalo ahead of time.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Wednesday she’s launching investigations into Discord, Twitch, 4chan and 8chan to see what part the online message platforms and social media networks played in the attack that left 10 people dead Saturday. Payton Gendron allegedly wrote about his plan in a 180-page manifesto and also detailed how he planned to target Black people, months before opening fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo on Saturday.

“The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate,” James said. “The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable. As we continue to mourn and honor the lives that were stolen, we are taking serious action to investigate these companies for their roles in this attack.”

What is Discord?

Discord describes itself as “a voice, video and text communication service used by over a hundred million people to hang out and talk with their friends and communities.” It features online communities on “servers” similar to chat rooms, with real-time audio and video conversations, and largely makes its money through Nitro, a subscription-based service that offers additional features like animated emoji high-resolution video.

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According to CNBC, the app launched in 2015 and quickly became one of the most popular messaging apps for users looking to find groups of people with similar interests. It was initially popular for video game players to gather, but has grown to more than 150 million monthly active users; in 2020, the site changed its name from “Chat for Gamers” to “Chat for Communities and Friends.”

How did the Buffalo shooter use Discord?

Authorities say Gendron kept a diary on Discord where he detailed plans to shoot as many Black people as he could at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo while referencing the “Great Replacement Theory” and his goal of terrorizing non-white, non-Christian people to leave the U.S. The manifesto also said he researched major Upstate New York cities to find the highest Black population; the zip code where the shooting occurred is 78% Black and 11 of the 13 people who were shot were Black.

Gendron also allegedly posted hundreds of messages on Discord, suggesting he considered targeting Destiny USA in Syracuse. The mall’s zip code is 29% Black, according to the U.S. Census.

“I’ll have to see if I can find a higher black population density, if not southern Syracuse is the place,” he reportedly wrote. “Gotta check out Syracuse mall.”

The Associated Press reports Gendron’s diary and its racist, anti-Semitic entries dated to last November included step-by-step descriptions of his assault plans, a detailed account of a reconnaissance trip he made to Buffalo in March, and maps of the store that he drew by hand. He also invited other Discord users to see his diary 30 minutes before carrying out the attack Saturday.

“What we know at this time is that a private, invite-only server was created by the suspect to serve as a personal diary chat log,” a Discord spokesperson said in a statement. “Approximately 30 minutes prior to the attack, however, a small group of people were invited to and joined the server. Before that, our records indicate no other people saw the diary chat log in this private server.”

Discord said it removed Gendron’s diary as soon as the platform became aware of it and is cooperating with the NY AG’s investigation.

What other online platforms did the Buffalo shooter use?

In addition to Discord, Gendron allegedly used 4chan and 8chan, both online message boards, to “discuss and amplify” his plans for the shooting in advance, James said. Endadget reports 4chan and 8chan have long been known for “an anything-goes approach to content” and accusations of harboring hate speech.

The gunman also live-streamed the entire attack on Twitch, a video-streaming platform, while wearing body armor and a helmet camera, officials said. Twitch said it took down the video within minutes, but videos were shared on Twitter, Facebook and other sites that sought to quickly remove the violent footage.

What will happen to Discord, Twitch and other apps?

Engadget reports the investigation may add to pressure on internet services to more proactively remove hate speech and threats, but won’t necessarily lead to action. Broome County District Attorney Michael A. Korchak told CBS that investigations into online speech can be difficult because of the First Amendment, but agreed that social media platforms populated by racist ideals are “something that should be monitored.”

Gendron returned to court Thursday as authorities, including the FBI, continue to investigate the possibility of hate crime and terrorism charges. He pleaded not guilty to murder in the first degree in his first court appearance.

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