Information is power, so the saying goes. Online, and specifically in niche communities, proffering information earns you clout. Look no further than last week’s Pentagon document leak: Clout-chasing and a culture of one-upmanship appear to have motivated Massachusetts National Guard Jack Teixeira to share top secret information about the US government’s approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with his buddies in a private Discord group. Named Thug Shaker Central after a meme, the group focused on gaming and fanboying over YouTube creator Oxide. Dropping top secret government intel in this kind of community is a real flex.
Emily Dreyfuss is the co-author of the book Meme Wars: the Untold Stories of the OInline Battles Upending Democracy in America. Kaylee Williams is co-author of the report “PRESIDENT TRUMP IS CALLING US TO FIGHT,” about the networked incitement of January 6. Both authors work on the Technology and Social Change team at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.
According to the forensic internet sleuths at Bellingcat, someone on this private server shared the documents in another open Discord group devoted to a different YouTuber, WowMao, then in a popular Minecraft server, and from there to the open internet. At that point, Texeira’s flex had become a national embarrassment and grounds for charges of violating the US Espionage Act. The FBI took Texeira into custody on April 13. These days, the path from clout-chasing to treason can be very short.
Groups that incentivize users to reveal exciting intel tend to share several traits. Many users are motivated by the allure of illicit information and a culture of competition. Lines are also blurred between gaming culture and news and between real leaks and fake ones.
Take, for example, another piece of Ukraine war-related information that originated on a gaming Discord server and made global headlines but turned out to be a total fabrication: the Ghost of Kyiv. (To our knowledge, the fact that this myth began on Discord has never before been reported, though there were plenty of accounts debunking the character’s existence.) Much like Thug Shaker Central, the Discord server where the Ghost of Kyiv myth originated was a fan community for a niche YouTuber called TheScottishKoala, best known for his War Thunder gaming videos and Twitch livestreams. And just as members of Texeira’s server used the platform to discuss a range of subjects, such as firearms and Christianity, members of TheScottishKoala’s server created channels dedicated to cars, music, and topics that included war.
Logs of the conversation in which the Ghost of Kyiv was first conjured out of thin air bear a striking resemblance to the conversations reported to have taken place on the Thug Shaker Central Discord server.
In anonymous topic-based chat spaces like the Thug Shaker Central Discord or the Ghost of Kyiv group, the top dog is whoever has access to the most illicit information pertaining to the topic of the day. This group dynamic is reflected in the beginnings of the powerful QAnon conspiracy movement, which started on a chatboard when a pseudonymous poster claimed to have top secret government information. The fact that none of that information ever proved to be true didn’t stop the movement from ensnaring thousands and stoking an insurrection. The character known as Q amassed power by divulging supposed government secrets to a dedicated niche community whose members then disseminated that content to the rest of us. The dynamics governing that group had an unmistakable impact on the rest of the world.
In Texiera’s case, the top secret information he shared in a private chat group is, by all reports, real. After he first uploaded the documents to the Thug Shaker Central server, people quickly began sharing them more widely. But it’s unclear whether these users knew, or cared, if the leaked documents were real. This illustrates troubling realities around knowledge creation and the internet’s blurry relationship to fact and fiction.
The Ghost of Kyiv is evidence of these same patterns. The mythic fighter jet figure was reported by mainstream press and the Ukrainian Army itself as having shot down a record number of Russian fighter jets at the start of the Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine last year. As part of our research for the Media Manipulation Casebook, in which we detail the life cycle of viral media manipulation campaigns, we unearthed logs of the original conversation in which this character was invented.
The members of TheScottishKoala’s server were obsessed with highly realistic military combat simulation video games and their depictions of military vehicles, planes, and weaponry. On February 24, 2021, this interest inspired the creation of a channel dedicated to discussing minute-by-minute updates on the movement of Russian troops and Ukrainian defenses in the region.
Within hours after the first bombs were dropped in cities across Ukraine, the users shared links to flight tracker apps, live video feeds, and social media posts from within Ukraine, often commenting on the types of planes and other military equipment seen in these feeds and posts. It was in this channel that the Ghost of Kyiv meme and myth were born.
“[A] Friend told me that one mig29, ghost of kiev, grounded some flanker and kamov before he went silent,” Discord user MrFisherman#1238 wrote on February 24, at 11:26 am Eastern, becoming the first to coin the phrase. Later in the chat, as well as in an interview we conducted via private message, the user clarified that they had, in fact, been the first to use the nickname that would eventually go viral on Twitter and TikTok and would be adopted by the Ukrainian military as a sort of mascot. After the first mention of the pilot, channel members both challenged and contributed to the legend by suggesting that he had been killed in action or had shot down additional Russian planes, all without providing any sources or evidence for this claimed knowledge.
Users on both the Thug Shaker Central Discord and the server where the Ghost of Kyiv was fabricated were interested in the overlap between gaming and actual war. The groups also shared a culture of competitiveness and one-upmanship. The New York Times, as well as other outlets, have reported that Texeira and other Discord users used the leaked documents as evidence to win various online debates or disagreements about US military intelligence, US involvement in Ukraine, and other highly sensitive topics.
Clearly the norms that develop in niche online communities have direct and powerful impacts on the real world. The cultures of clout-sharing and competition and the allure of illicit information that motivated the dissemination of these leaked documents and the myth of the Ghost of Kyiv exist across social media and messaging spaces. And they are incentivized and enabled by the platforms and chat groups that encourage the sharing of information without any concern for fact and elevate individuals to powerful positions of influence based solely on their ability to outrage and excite. In these communities, where kids interested in video games mingle with adults with top secret security clearances, the lines between truth and reality and heroes and traitors are increasingly muddled.
The question of what to do about the cultural norms these groups perpetuate and the impact they can have on the real world is not easy for tech companies or policymakers to answer. You can’t outlaw adolescent behavior. You could ban individual apps, as the US government is increasingly considering doing with TikTok, but no one can put social media back into the genie’s bottle. A new group or site will pop up to replace the last. And much would be lost if these apps were banned. For example, the chat app Telegram, along with Discord, has become a crucial organizing site for Russian dissidents and other pro-social movements.
What we, as individuals, can do is be aware of the dynamics at play in these communities. We can advise our adolescent children about the risks of one-upmanship in niche communities. We can warn them about the potential impacts of sharing unverified information. We can educate them about how these systems operate and try to inoculate them against the desire to engage with sensitive or fabricated material. After all, as another saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
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