Conspiracy theorists are using a new chat app to ‘gamify’ the spread of dangerous misinformation including coronavirus conspiracies, Holocaust denial and far right racism. Thousands of users frequent ‘servers’ on Discord, a voice and text chat platform for gamers, where participants can rack up points for posting conspiracy theories and cash them in for rewards.
Rewarding misinformation with points is a potent and addictive game mechanic taken from role-playing games, using extrinsic rewards for activity to foster intrinsic motivation. This is the same psychological mechanic that underlies the positive feedback loops ("grinding" for experience points, "levelling up" a character) that keep gamers engaged.
Until recently the largest was called “The Ice Wall” with over 7,000 members, hosting dedicated chat channels for discussing everything from the theory that the earth is flat to a supposed global conspiracy to harvest internal organs from children. Discord has now acted to remove the server, but it was almost immediately replaced with a backup called “The Edge” which at the time of writing has over 1,000 members.
Both the original server and its successor posted a list of conspiracies under discussion, revealing that the server hosts discussion of the “Holohoax” and whether “the Holocaust is not exactly what they told us”, as well as the idea that “Zionists” are “a class of people that controls the world”.
The servers were quick to add six new chat channels dedicated to discussing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, including channels for “lockdown preparedness” and “economic collapse”. They provide a safe space in which users share theories that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates, caused by 5G mobile phone signals or even designed by “scheming” Jews.
Uniquely, Discord provides a framework in which the most active conspiracy theorists are rewarded with titles and privileges. Members of The Ice Wall server and its successor can apply for the role of “verified truther”, but must first demonstrate they have promoted three different conspiracy theories and submit to an interview conducted by a more experienced conspiracist. More senior members are rewarded with various titles visible to other users and access to restricted areas of the server.
There are rewards for those operating a server too. Discord allows users to spend real-world money to “boost” a server, unlocking benefits for all of its members such as higher quality voice chat. The model encourages servers to build and maintain a loyal user base.
One server called “COVID-19 British Conservativism” takes these game-like elements even further. On joining the server, users arrive in a channel named “medical evaluation” and must reply to a bot named “Dr. Thatcher, PhD” in order to gain access.
Gaining access reveals a series of other channels, some of which contain grotesque racist jokes about the coronavirus and far-right imagery. Users who regularly visit the server are able to earn virtual currency that can be spent on titles or even gambled in a bot-operated casino.
A number of other Discord conspiracy servers reward active users with ‘experience points’ recorded by bots. CCDH identified one example where a user on another conspiracy server called “The Truth Shall Set You Free” was rewarded with a ‘level up’ for a message that advised a coronavirus victim to consume unproven colloidal silver.
Discord’s largest coronavirus server with over 43,000 members maintains a channel for discussing conspiracy theories despite being run by a team of medical professionals. In total, CCDH identified six Discord servers trafficking in conspiracy theories about coronavirus with a combined membership of nearly 60,000.