Now Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, is accused of using Discord chatrooms to share hundreds of classified government documents. It was one of the worst leaks of government secrets in modern American history.
Teixeira pleaded not guilty to six counts of mishandling and disclosing classified information. He remains in jail awaiting trial.
The roots of crime are complicated. But Discord combines anonymity, hands-off monitoring and insular communities in ways that made it an ideal conduit for Teixeira’s alleged leaks, said Samuel Oakford, a reporter with The Washington Post’s visual forensics team.
Oakford was part of a team at The Post and “Frontline” that spent months investigating Teixeira’s life, his group of friends on Discord and the damage to America’s interests from the leaks.
The result of their investigation is a series of articles and a documentary that you can read and watch here.
Oakford also spoke to me about the ways that Teixeira’s case showed the potentially combustible mix of technology, human frailty and failures of authority.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you about this leak of government secrets and Discord’s role?
Oakford: It was surprising how many systems failed in succession, first to catch red flags in Teixeira’s history, both online and off, and then to allow his leaks to dribble out on Discord for more than a year.
There were failures on the part of the government that gave him a security clearance and from his superiors at the base where he worked. Once he began leaking, Discord played a compounding role.
[ Jack Teixeira got security clearance despite history of violent threats]
Since Discord is not end-to-end encrypted, it can theoretically monitor anything users are doing — but outside of specific material like images of child sexual abuse, the company generally elects not to.
Discord has rules against racism, threats of violence and illegal behavior but it relies on users to police activity. Would Teixeira’s friends turn him in? They didn’t.
Even in a much larger chatroom where Teixeira was also leaking government intelligence and people didn’t know him as well, no one appears to have reported him.
(John Redgrave, Discord’s vice president of trust and safety, told The Post that it’s not possible for the company to identify what is or isn’t classified information. He said when Discord became aware of Teixeira’s alleged leaking, staff moved “as fast as humanly possible” to assess the scope of what had happened and identify the leaker.)
Q: It’s tricky. We don’t want companies to spy on what we say in private conversations online.
Oakford: Absolutely. And a sense of privacy is part of Discord’s appeal.
But Discord does have community guidelines and its creators made decisions about how they’d approach moderation. You can see how its model, heavily reliant on self-policing, might fail.
Discord also marketed itself as a place to build community away from the open internet. Those communities can be powerful places where people meet friends, but they can also become environments where worrying material is shared.
Q: Would Teixeira have leaked these government secrets without Discord?
Oakford: It’s impossible to know, but my feeling is it would have been difficult to replicate all of this on another platform.
Teixeira seemed to want to impress his friends and in the case of one chatroom, Thug Shaker Central, to fulfill this leadership role he’d taken on. Thug Shaker Central wasn’t different from other groups on Discord — until the leaking.
[ ‘Problematic pockets’: How Discord became a home for extremists]
There were other factors we examined, like the impact of the pandemic on young people. Some of Teixeira’s friends told us that spending so much time online and on Discord during the pandemic had a desensitizing effect on them.
The Air Force also said this week that failures at Otis Air National Guard Base, where Teixeira worked, helped enable the leaks of government intelligence.
Before that, Teixeira received a security clearance after a background check process that mostly overlooks an applicant’s online activity. That’s a blind spot that may come under more scrutiny given how much time young people spend online.
Teixeira’s case showcases weaknesses in how the government safeguards secrets, and it was a glimpse into what people are doing on parts of the internet that you don’t see.
Q: Other apps have been conduits for criminal activity that the companies can’t or don’t catch. Reporters have documented drug dealers selling on Snapchat. Some people who participated in the 2021 Capitol riot organized in Facebook groups. Mob violence has been planned over WhatsApp and harassment campaigns over Twitch. Is Discord any different?
Oakford: Discord is not alone in dealing with criminal and extremist activity. But many of its users are teenagers and, as we’ve reported, it encourages users to feel a sense of privacy.
Just this week, Discord said it reported a 13-year-old boy whom authorities charged with making detailed threats on Discord to carry out a mass shooting at a synagogue. In 2022, an 18-year-old who killed 10 Black people in a racist shooting rampage at a Buffalo supermarket had written about his plans on Discord.
This time, Discord said it “proactively detected” the alleged threats on the synagogue.