Discord's r/WallStreetBets Ban Wasn't A Conspiracy, Just A Demonstration Of Platforms' Power

Illustration for article titled Discord's r/WallStreetBets Ban Wasn't A Conspiracy, Just A Demonstration Of Platforms' Power
Image: Discord / WallStreetBets / Kotaku

After a wild ride that took it off the tracks and onto the goddamn Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, the GameStop stock train appears to finally be pulling back into the station. People are blaming market manipulation from stock trading apps like Robinhood for this, but they’re also lumping in a name day traders might be less familiar with: Discord. Yesterday, the communication platform banned r/WallstreetBets’ server, only to bring it back from the dead. But this wasn’t an act of Wall Street-coordinated malice. It was just a tech platform being a tech platform.

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At the time, Discord released a statement chalking its actions up to “hateful and discriminatory content” on the part of the server’s users, specifically pointing to “hate speech, glorifying violence, and spreading misinformation” as examples. Given that the WallStreetBets server was also aiding in an unprecedented effort to undermine a system that almost exclusively benefits the wealthy and powerful, observers immediately thought they smelled something fishy. Discord, some figured, must have caved under Wall Street pressure and engineered an excuse for its actions. But sometimes, even the most plausible conspiracy theories are only that: theories. The truth, in this case, is both simpler and messier.

Speaking to Kotaku under the condition of anonymity, two sources with knowledge of Discord’s inner workings said that the messaging platform was being honest in its statement.

“There were issues with hate speech/QAnon/anti-Semitism. It was problematic, and [the server’s] been warned multiple times,” one source said, backing up Discord’s official statement.

So why ban r/WallStreetBets now, of all times? Why not ban it sooner if Discord was aware it violated the rules so severely? It was, as is commonly the case with big tech companies, a matter of procedure.

“Big server, standard procedure is always to warn and give a chance to correct—because it’s not like the admins/mods are generally doing the bad content, just allowing it,” one source said.

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The source added that warnings establish that Discord is aware of the issue and expects the admin or mods to do something about it.

“Sometimes they do cooperate... for a while,” the source said. “And then they forget/don’t care anymore/think that Discord has moved on. It happens actually pretty frequently, but obviously, not, uh, when the world’s attention is on the Discord.”

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Discord’s priority, said sources, is to ensure that it’s not “banning a community simply because of a few bad apples” but is instead taking action only when the group becomes “unsalvageable.”

Yesterday, with the eyes of the nation on it, the r/WallStreetBets Discord server used up all its chances. Both sources agreed that Discord’s timing was bad but said the decision was not specifically tied to the group’s upending of the stock market, nor was it a result of bribery or outside pressure. One source pointed to volatility among the community itself. Much of the server’s recent moderation troubles can be attributed to the fact that it suddenly and unexpectedly experienced explosive growth. But, for Discord, that wasn’t enough of a reason to look the other way.

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“You have thousands of people talking all day and all night,” the source said. “Many are trolls. No small team can stay on top of all of that all of the time. Now, on top of that, the community is experiencing a surge in popularity. Especially with that in mind, r/WallStreetBets was in a really difficult spot when it came to moderation. But while that’s obviously a big challenge, we still expect big servers to keep tabs on what’s going on and not just let bad behavior slip through the cracks.”

There’s now a new version of the r/WallStreetBets server on Discord, and multiple members of Discord’s staff are present on the moderator list, in addition to others from the community.

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In a statement to The Verge, a Discord spokesperson said, “WallStreetBets members have set up a new server, and we are working with them. We will welcome the group back so long as they improve their moderation practices and follow our Community Guidelines. We have reached out to the moderators to provide them with support and advice, like we do for many of our large communities.”

Discord’s conspicuously timed ban fits a common pattern: Large platforms enforce rules when people are paying attention. This makes sense considering that many platforms, including Discord, rely on user reporting functionality. If more people are participating, there’s a greater chance someone will report bad behavior—especially when it’s as egregious as hate speech. Platforms rely on users, journalists, and others to do some of the moderation work for them. This is not necessarily to say that moderation teams are understaffed (though some are) or aren’t doing their jobs, but rather that on a platform as fast-moving as Discord, it’s challenging to keep abreast of everything.

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This moderation philosophy extends more broadly, as well. The battle between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and the like against users attached to movements like QAnon in the immediate aftermath of journalistic exposes or national outcries is a recent example. And just as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others, refused to ban former President Donald Trump—until very recently—despite numerous rule violations because what he said was a matter of “public interest,” so too is the saga of r/WallStreetBets. This series of events stands to reshape our society’s perception of its economy, not to mention the dwindling bank accounts of a handful of hedge funds.

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The ramifications of these systems are what matter. Discord’s decision, sound though it might have been from the platform’s perspective, disrupted an unprecedented national moment. It’s yet another example of the power platforms wield. They do not need to be pressured by massively rich people or the government to take actions that impact an entire country. Even their mundane decisions rapidly ripple outward, as though somebody has chucked a boulder into a kiddie pool.

But in this case, a platform, Discord, prioritized its rules over the public interest. In doing so, it upheld existing power structures by tossing a wrench into the gears of an operation that sought to undermine them. Now consider how difficult it has been to convince platforms to enforce their own rules when it comes to Trump and other powerful individuals, and how quickly Discord gave the boot to r/WallStreetBets. Discord did not say outright, “Let’s side with wealthy, powerful interests,” but the structure of its rules and how it prioritizes enforcement led to a situation where it did just that.

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Discord did this without communicating what it intended to do to the public. Then it retroactively justified its actions. That is transparency only in the barest sense of the word, and Discord’s process did not include mechanisms for accountability or an opportunity for the public to pump the brakes.

Apps like Robinhood have likely done significantly more damage to the GameStonk meme movement, which itself is made up not of altruistic Robin Hood wannabes but of deeply flawed, often selfish individuals—some of whom are likely wealthy themselves. Nonetheless, Discord’s ban of r/WallStreetBets, temporary though it was, remains illustrative of the influence platforms wield, how they apply their power, and who that ends up benefitting more often than not. The house always wins in the end, and platforms always bet on the winner.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

DISCUSSION

I have a really hard time buying this excuse. The subreddit is certainly filled with stupid language, but I’ve never seen any alt-right/Qanon/anti-semitic language there in the last few days. Maybe the discord server was completely different, but that seems unlikely.
In any case, if Discord has moderators at hand that can help take a bit of the workload of the original admins, why would they do that _after_ the server is taken down instead of doing it right away?

I don’t believe Discord was bought or bribed or anything like that, I just think they did this to look good for people of power. Which maybe backfired this time since a lot of lawmakers are not on wall street’s side here.
Also, I don’t really think this takedown had any relevance. No one in the subreddit talks about discord.