National-security leaks. Insurrections. Bank runs. Group chats are now the most powerful force on the internet.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.
In the summer of 2017, an anonymous tipster informed me of a small network of online propagandists orchestrating troll campaigns and creating memes to support Donald Trump. They gathered on Discord, a text-, voice-, and video-chat platform popular with gamers. I signed up and lurked on their server, observing various green-frog and American-flag avatars hurling insults, posting rudimentary Photoshops of Trump, and daydreaming about undertaking outrageous missions such as trying to infiltrate CNN’s New York headquarters.
Initially, the posts unnerved me, but there was also something unserious about them—an oblivious, naive enthusiasm coupled with a grand delusion that their pixelated memes had fully shifted the political landscape. The reason for the bluster was quickly made clear when one of the server’s most prolific posters apologetically told his comrades that he’d be stepping away from his duties for the foreseeable future: His parents were sending him off to sleepaway camp. This shadowy den of trolls was little more than a collection of bored, shitposting kids.
I was reminded of my sojourn this week after reports from The Washington Post and The New York Times traced a series of high-profile national-security leaks to a Discord server for gun enthusiasts and gamers that was apparently populated by about two dozen people, most of whom were young men and teenage boys. The classified documents were leaked by the server’s unofficial leader, identified by the Times as 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, an airman first class in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. They purportedly reveal information about Ukrainian battlefield positions and infighting among Russian officials, as well as previously unreleased photos of the recently downed Chinese spy balloons.
High-profile intelligence leaks are a feature of the 21st century, but this geopolitical incident has little in common with WikiLeaks or the Snowden NSA revelations. In keeping with the dark absurdity of the internet era, the leaks do not seem motivated by righteous or even misguided whistleblowing but by an extremely online man, barely old enough to drink, who was trying to impress his teenage friends in a racistly named group chat. Less John le Carré, more 4chan.
Although the Discord leaks are, of course, a national-security story, they’re also a story about how information travels in 2023 as the relevance of traditional social media wanes. They are a story about the power, primacy, and unpredictable dynamics of the group chat.
People have been talking over one another online in every conceivable form since the beginnings of the internet. Digital bulletin-board systems—proto–group chats, you could say—date back to the 1970s, and SMS-style group chats popped up in WhatsApp and iMessage in 2011. Most social networks now allow users to create multi-person direct messages. But at some point in the late 2010s, as many of us grew exhausted with the process of broadcasting every stray thought to huge, algorithmically sorted audiences, group chats began to take on a new relevance.
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As New York magazine put it in 2019, group chats became “an outright replacement for the defining mode of social organization of the past decade: the platform-centric, feed-based social network.” If virality and ad-based platforms felt extractive, the group chat was its opposite: restorative, even sacred. It’s a form of communication that often feels like a lifeline to people, and unlike the Facebook feed or Twitter, where posts can be linked to wherever, group chats are a closed system—a safe and (ideally) private space. What happens in the group chat ought to stay there.
But these small social networks have their own unpredictable social dynamics. In every group chat, no matter the size, participants fall into informal roles. There is usually a leader—a person whose posting frequency drives the group or sets the agenda. Often, there are lurkers who rarely chime in. Different chats, depending on the size, develop their own sets of social rules and hierarchies. “The key to every group chat is mutually assured destruction,” the New York Times reporter Astead Herndon tweeted in 2021. “If you’re the only one dropping tea, you’re at risk. [If] one person is a little too silent, they gotta go.” Larger group chats are not immune to the more toxic dynamics of social media, where competition for attention and herd behavior cause infighting, splintering, and back-channeling.
According to the Post’s reporting, Teixeira was fixated on capturing the attention of—and winning approval from—his Discord community. “He got upset” when people in the chat ignored his long, detailed summaries of classified documents, and he threatened to stop posting altogether, one server member told the newspaper. Eventually, Teixiera started sharing photos of the classified documents with the chat because they were more engaging. As the national-security reporter Spencer Ackerman wrote this week, Teixeira “didn’t leak for patriotism, principle, or even money.” His motivation was far less aspirational but, as Ackerman notes, it was “uncomfortably familiar”: He was showing off for the group chat.
Group chats aren’t just good for triggering geopolitical crises—they’re also an effective means to start a bank run, as the world learned last month. The investor panic that led to the swift collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March was effectively caused by runaway group-chat dynamics. “It wasn’t phone calls; it wasn’t social media,” a start-up founder told Bloomberg in March. “It was private chat rooms and message groups.” The rumors about SVB’s precarious financial position then spilled out into different whisper networks. Investors, armed with what they believed was sensitive inside information, alerted their portfolio companies, and in a matter of hours, the cascade moved from small WhatsApp groups to the private text threads of chief financial officers, and then into massive 1,500-person servers. But thanks to the private nature of the group chats, this information largely stayed out of the public eye. As Bloomberg reported, “By the time most people figured out that a bank run was a possibility … it was already well underway.”
It’s enough to make one think, as the writer Max Read argued, that “venture-capitalist group chats are a threat to the global economy.” Now you might also say they are a threat to national security. As Ackerman suggested this week, Teixiera is unlikely to be the last extremely online person to have a security clearance or be motivated to break the law in order to impress his friends.
This presents a major issue: Unlike traditional social media or even forums and message boards, group chats are nearly impossible to monitor. As law enforcement, journalists, and researchers have learned, trying to track extremist groups such as QAnon or right-wing militias is much harder when they retreat to smaller, private chat apps. Voice-chat apps such as Zello have been a haven for online extremists, who used the closed networks to plan harassment campaigns and violent gatherings such as the January 6 insurrection.
The problems of abuse, context collapse, and networked harassment across traditional social networks at scale are well documented—as are the challenges in trying to moderate those spaces. But as our digital social lives start to splinter off from feeds and large audiences and into siloed areas, a different kind of unpredictability and chaos awaits. Where social networks create a context collapse—a process by which information meant for one group moves into unfamiliar networks and is interpreted by outsiders—group chats seem to be context amplifiers. If the weak ties of social networks lead to volatile interactions among strangers, group chats provide strong relationship dynamics, and create in-jokes and lore. For decades, researchers have warned of the polarizing effects of echo chambers across social networks; group chats realize this dynamic fully.
Weird things happen in echo chambers. Constant reinforcement of beliefs or ideas might lead to group polarization or radicalization. It may trigger irrational herd behavior such as, say, attempting to purchase a copy of the Constitution through a decentralized autonomous organization—one of the more popular innovations to come from the flawed premise of Web3 that one enthusiast described as “a group chat with a bank account.” Obsession with in-group dynamics might cause people to lose touch with the reality outside the walls of a particular community; the private-seeming nature of a closed group might also lull participants into a false sense of security, as it did with Teixiera.
The social-media era might be ending. If so, may it be remembered as a complex, sometimes delightful, occasionally dangerous, almost always fraught experiment in mass connectivity. But the age of the group chat appears to be at least as unpredictable, swapping a very public form of volatility for a more siloed, incalculable version. The arc of the internet is long, but it always bends toward chaos.