How the Buffalo shooting exposes shortcomings in Discord’s policing of users

The teenager accused of killing 10 people Saturday at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store in a racially motivated attack apparently made no secret of his plans.

According to screenshots widely shared on social media, a username linked to the shooter posted a “to-do list” on the social network Discord in the weeks leading up to the massacre. Among the items: “continue writing manifesto,” “clean and oil AR,” and “make goodbye list.” (Fortune could not independently verify the authenticity of the screenshots.)

While the posts do not specify a target or timeline, any reasonable person viewing the list could infer that it represented an immediate red flag. Yet to this point, there’s no evidence that anyone contacted Discord or law enforcement to warn about the alleged shooter’s statements, and Discord has provided no evidence to show it knew about the comments. (In a statement to The New York Times, Discord officials said they are investigating the posts and “will do everything we can to assist law enforcement in the investigation.”)

Despite years of intense scrutiny and some well-intentioned content moderation efforts, many platforms remain a largely reactive space. Somebody breaks a rule, somebody else reports the violation, and platform officials remove content.

But as this weekend’s tragedy shows, there aren’t enough good guys with a keyboard. Either nobody saw the ominous writings, or nobody cared enough to warn the appropriate authorities.

For the world’s largest social media outfits, the moral and business costs of reactive policing have forced huge investments in human moderators and artificial intelligence that helps flag troublesome content. Smaller upstarts, however, aren’t nearly as sophisticated with their moderation protocols—either by choice or because of financial constraints. For those like Discord looking to cash in on their audience, the cost could quickly mount. 

At the most-scrutinized social media companies, aggressive moderation efforts have produced remarkably high rates of proactive content removal. For the second half of 2021, Facebook reported that 96.6% of actions taken in response to “violence or incitement content” stemmed from an internal flag, with the rest reported by users. Twitter said 93% of accounts suspended for promotion of terrorism and violent organizations were proactively identified and removed during that same time frame. (Microsoft-owned Twitch, to its credit, said it took down the alleged shooter’s live stream of his attack within two minutes.)

In contrast to its larger peers, Discord reported a proactive removal rate of 32% on servers—the platform’s version of a forum or thread—deemed to contain hateful conduct, violent extremism, or violent and graphic content in the second half of 2021. Reddit said about 20% of content removals due to violent content and 43% of removals due to hateful content were through automation in 2021.

Discord has acknowledged its shortcomings in the past on the content moderation front, particularly as it evolved from a chat hub for gamers into a multipurpose platform preferred by some far-right extremists. The San Francisco-based startup has banned white nationalist users and taken down servers encouraging violence, including a popular forum among organizers of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But as Discord executives consider whether to take the company public following a $15 billion valuationBloomberg reported in March that they’re interviewing investment bankers for a potential direct listing or IPO—its content moderation practices will come under deeper scrutiny. As Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other huge social media outfits have discovered, advertisers and politicians don’t look kindly on Wild West platforms. That, in turn, could scare off investors.

The possibility of onerous new regulations appears unlikely, even after last weekend’s attack. Outside of a few calls for reforming Section 230, a federal law that declares companies aren’t liable for content posted on their websites, political leaders largely stuck to pleas for help rather than promises of legislation.

“This spreads like a virus, and that’s why I’m calling on the CEOs of all the social media platforms to examine their policies and to be able to look me in the eye and tell me that everything is being done that they can do to make sure this information is not spread,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, told CNN on Sunday.

While those appeals don’t carry any legal or financial weight, Discord and its upstart social media peers will eventually face consequences from Madison Avenue and Wall Street if they aren’t heeded.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Correction, May 16, 2022: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the arrested suspect in the Buffalo, N.Y., shooting was influenced by information on the social media site Reddit.

Jacob Carpenter


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