Meme Group on Discord faces outcry over leaked Pentagon documents
An online community of a few thousand subscribers who followed a YouTube celebrity named wow_mao had occupied a small, very masculine corner of the internet for years. It was hosted on Discord, a social media app, where young wow_mao fans exchanged humorous digital images and told angry, sometimes tasteless jokes.
Over the weekend, the wow_mao niche community gained international attention after learning that a volunteer moderator from its Discord group had posted images of leaked documents detailing secret Pentagon intelligence.
It was a bit too much for wow_mao, who said in an interview on Tuesday that he was a 20-year-old student living in Britain. In a YouTube video a day earlier, he said he was a “micro internet celebrity, and I wish that would continue.”
The collision between internet youth culture and national security may seem disconcerting, but it has occurred with increasing frequency in recent years. And the appearance of classified documents on Discord was a reminder of how the digital world has increasingly affected real life in sometimes dangerous ways.
The Biden administration has moved to do damage control over the leaked information, which appears to detail national security secrets about a range of U.S. adversaries, including Russia and China, as well as allies like Ukraine and South Korea. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into the leak on Friday, but senior US officials said little about it this week.
“We don’t know who is behind all this. We don’t know what the motive is,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said Monday. “We don’t know what else could be out there.”
Perhaps no part of the internet has facilitated more fluid and frivolous chatter in recent years than Discord, which began as a haven for video game players before gaining popularity during the pandemic. Much of what happens on Discord servers — the term the company uses to describe its chat groups — is harmless, like music fans chatting about their favorite artists and Minecraft video game players swapping memes.
But the edgy, unfiltered banter of server wow_mao, which calls itself the End of Wow Mao zone, and many other similar servers, can sometimes veer into darker territory. These servers are sometimes described as the less venomous cousins of 4chan, the far-right anonymous message board known for sharing conspiracy theories and popularizing QAnon. Many 4chan users split their time between Discord and 4chan, sharing digital memes and chatting with friends.
Dark humor about race or ideology can eventually shape the beliefs of impressionable youth, and innocuous memes can be co-opted into symbols of hate, researchers say.
“If you’re a young guy with no prospects on 4chan, you’re definitely on Discords and probably some pretty dark Discords,” said Dale Beran, lecturer at Morgan State University and author of “It Came from Something.” Awful: How an army of toxic trolls accidentally memorized Donald Trump in office.
An 18-year-old gunman used Discord to record his thoughts, chat with friends and share racist memes he collected on 4chan before killing 10 people and injuring three others at a grocery store in Buffalo last year . He was sentenced to life in prison in February.
White supremacists also used Discord to plan the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Discord has taken steps to improve its content moderation since then, writing in 2020 that it has a “responsibility for ensure that Discord is not used for hate, violence or evil.
But the site still relies heavily on user reports to detect problems, especially in private, invite-only Discord servers. Discord is divided into what are essentially chat rooms, with large public groups that may have strict content moderation and smaller private groups that may have little or none at all. Discord said it was cooperating with a law enforcement investigation into the leaked documents, but declined to comment further.
In a live audio chat on the wow_mao Discord on Monday, users passed the time largely talking about movies and complaining about their parents. But they sometimes veered into overtly racist language.
For young people, these irreverent chat rooms can have a special appeal.
“It’s the vernacular in which we can answer their questions in the language they understand. They grew up steeped in memes and wry, winking behavior,” Beran said. He added that such communities might seem benign at first, “but taken to the extreme, it becomes a very difficult criminal problem, or a terrorist problem.”
Video game players reportedly leaked classified military secrets in the past, to prove their point in online arguments and convince game developers to create more accurate combat vehicles.
The New York Times reached out to wow_mao through his YouTube channel and Discord server, and in an audio call via Discord on Tuesday, he spoke at length with a New York Times reporter. He said he spends little time on the Discord server and mostly focuses on his YouTube channel, where he has around 250,000 subscribers, as well as his social life and college studies. He declined to share his real name for security and privacy reasons, but said he was British and Filipino.
Wow_mao is not a celebrity in the traditional sense, or even among internet influencers. But despite his anonymity, his channel has grown in popularity over the years as his videos have struck a chord with people who share his sense of humor.
He said his material stemmed from an interest in geopolitics and history – “never that interested, my God!” — and a desire to make over-the-top videos that were funny only because he “put so much effort into something so dumb.”
But he said he was troubled by the content of the Discord server. Some “very right” teenagers were most likely attracted to its irreverent content, he said, but he “absolutely” did not share their worldview.
“I just let a bunch of kids go wild,” wow_mao added. “Maybe I regret not moderating my server a bit more.”
But that the leaked documents surfaced there, he said, was “hilarious”.
“It just spilled over to the most niche, cheesy parts of the internet,” he said. “These are the kind of people who would find these documents – losers. This is what the US government must really be afraid of.
Tech-savvy youngsters often have less respect for the government, wow_mao said, “and they will always find it amusing to make fun of them and cut them off in some way.”
In early March, a wow_mao server user named Lucca uploaded page after page of classified information, according to screenshots shared by users who had investigated the leak. The origins of the documents were reported earlier by Bellingcat.
The documents gained attention after being posted two days later on a dedicated Minecraft server, where a user appeared to share them during an argument.
“Here have leaked documents,” the user said, before uploading some of them.
“Good,” replied another user.
The posts seemed to have lingered online for almost a month before they started to get attention beyond Discord. 4chan users posted images of the documents as early as April 5. A pro-Russian channel on the Telegram messaging app shared the footage later in the day. Twitter users took notice, as did the world.
Discord servers and users believed to be behind the documents have drawn attention. A Twitter account using the name MrLucca, which used the same profile picture found on the Lucca Discord account, said it got the documents from another Discord server.
“I found information on a now banned server and forwarded it,” the user wrote, according to screenshots of the conversation. The Twitter and Discord accounts have since been deleted.
For wow_mao server users, attention was just a brief distraction between memes and jokes. On Easter Sunday, users mourned Lucca’s departure with a meme depicting him as Jesus, rising from the grave.
For wow_mao himself, the episode was another content opportunity. He said the number of members on his Discord server had increased from around 4,000 to around 7,000 before the documents were announced.
“Any publicity is good publicity, I guess, as long as I don’t land in jail,” he said.
He ended his YouTube video by urging viewers to support him by subscribing to his Patreon, a popular donation platform among content creators. Then he shared this video on Twitter with a message: “the cia may have put me on their watch list…but I should be on yours too!”
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