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Concerns over threats made on Discord as app hits half a billion users

Posted at 6:23 PM, Mar 20, 2023

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — A popular online communication platform is marking a major milestone. Discord now has more than half a billion users around the world, but as the website grows, so do concerns that some are using its features to spread hateful messages.

This is a problem authorities here in Buffalo are familiar with. The gunman, behind the racist attack at Tops, sent messages on the platform shortly before the mass shooting.

Nearly a year after the May 14th shooting, a man from the Syracuse area was recently charged with a felony after posting his alleged plans for a mass shooting on Discord.

Arun Vishwanath, a cyber security expert, said there should be a heightened awareness now with this kind of rhetoric on these social media platforms. He said Discord is no different than the social media apps out there and added it's an app that originally attracted gamers.

"Especially during the pandemic when a lot of things went online, this platform just exploded in popularity," Vishwanath said.

He said we're likely seeing an uptick in threats because Discord lacks moderation and allows users to post anonymously.

"They think they're gonna get away with it, and they have unfortunately until it's too late, and that's the sad reality of kind of social media world we live in," he added.

Kristen Elmore-Garcia is a partner at The Law Office of John V. Elmore P.C, which is also representing the families of the Tops shooting victims.

"How many times can it happen until we can actually see the platforms take some responsibility," Elmore-Garcia said.

She said the office is looking at if Discord is liable for what happened on May 14th.

"We see the different ways in which social media influenced the defendant in this case or similarly with what happened recently in Syracuse, but young people all over the country," she added.

Right now, Elmore-Garcia said section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was written in 1996, protects social media platforms from being liable for content posted by users.

"But what's different now is that social media platforms are not just passive websites," she said, "They are algorithm-fueled, content pushers feeding you contents that the platform believes will keep you engaged."

Elmore-Garcia said she thinks the technology is there to allow for stricter moderation, but the U.S. Supreme Court has the ultimate say. The Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments about a month ago on this issue and will make a decision this upcoming summer.

7 News did reach out to Discord to see if the company would operate any differently in light of these recent threats.

“Discord has a zero-tolerance policy for violent extremism. When we are made aware of this type of behavior or content, our Safety team investigates and takes the appropriate action, including banning users, shutting down servers, and engaging with law enforcement. As this is an active investigation, we cannot comment further on this matter.”

Meantime, Vishwanath said if your child is on the app, make sure they know what to look out for and what could be considered harmful.

"Teaching them to look out for examples or any indicators of content that's harmful, content that's problematic and reporting it," he said.