October 3, 2023

An online community of a few thousand subscribers, following a YouTube celebrity named wow_mao, has occupied a small, male-centric corner of the internet for years. It’s hosted on the social media app Discord, where wow_mao fans exchange humorous digital images and tell edgy, sometimes tasteless jokes.

The niche community of wow_mao came into the international spotlight over the weekend after it was learned that a volunteer moderator in his Discord group had posted images of leaked documents detailing secret Pentagon intelligence.

That was a bit too much for wow_mao, a 20-year-old university student living in the UK, said in an interview a youtube video A day earlier, he had said he was an “Internet micro-star and I hope to stay that way”.

The collision between online youth culture and national security may seem confusing, but in recent years it has happened more and more frequently. The classified documents that have surfaced on Discord are a reminder of how the digital world is increasingly affecting real life in sometimes dangerous ways.

The Biden administration has scrambled to limit the damage from leaks that appear to detail national security secrets involving a range of U.S. adversaries, including Russia and China, as well as allies such as Ukraine and South Korea. The FBI opened an investigation into the leak on Friday, but senior U.S. officials have said little about it this week.

“We don’t know who is behind this. We don’t know what the motive is,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday. “We don’t know what else is out there.”

Perhaps no part of the internet has promoted free-flowing, flirty chat in recent years more than Discord, which started as a safe haven for video gamers before gaining mainstream appeal during the pandemic. Much of what happens on Discord servers — the term the company uses to describe its chat groups — is innocuous, such as music lovers discussing their favorite artists and Minecraft video game players exchanging memes.

But the unfiltered sharp banter in the wow_mao server, known as the end of the Wow Mao Zone, and many others like it, sometimes veers into darker territory. The servers are sometimes described as a harmless cousin of 4chan, the far-right anonymous message board known for sharing conspiracy theories and popularizing QAnon. Many 4chan users divide their time between Discord and 4chan, sharing digital memes and chatting with friends.

Dark humor about race or ideology can end up shaping the beliefs of impressionable young people, while innocuous memes can become symbols of hate, researchers say.

Morgan State University and author “It Came From Something Scary: How an Army of Toxic Trolls Accidentally Put Donald Trump in Office.”

An 18-year-old gunman used Discord to record his thoughts, chat with friends and share racist memes he collected from 4chan before he shot dead 10 people and wounded three at a Buffalo grocery store last year. He was sentenced to life in prison in February.

White supremacists also used Discord to plan a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Since then, Discord has taken steps to improve its content moderation, written in 2020 It has a “responsibility to ensure that Discord is not used for hate, violence or harm”.

But the site still relies heavily on user reports to spot problems, especially on private, invite-only Discord servers. Discord is basically divided into chat rooms, where large public groups can be heavily moderated for content, and smaller private groups have little to no content. Discord said it was cooperating with law enforcement investigations into the leaked documents, but declined to comment further.

In a live audio chat on the wow_mao Discord on Monday, users mostly passed the time by talking about movies and complaining about their parents. But they sometimes turn to overtly racist language.

For young people, these irreverent chat rooms have a special appeal.

“It’s vernacular, and their questions can be answered in a language they understand. They’ve grown up with memes and sarcasm, winks,” Mr Belan said. He added that such a community might seem benign at first, “but at the extreme, it becomes a very difficult crime problem, or it becomes a terrorism problem.”

video game players have Reportedly leaked classified military secrets in the pastto prove their point in the online debate and convince game developers to make more accurate tanks.

The New York Times reached out to wow_mao through his YouTube channel and Discord server, and he spoke at length with a New York Times reporter in an audio call via Discord on Tuesday. He said he spends little time on the Discord server, focusing mostly on his YouTube channel, where he has about 250,000 subscribers, and his social life and university studies. He declined to give his real name due to security and privacy concerns, but said he was British and Filipino.

wow_mao is not a celebrity in the traditional sense, not even a celebrity among internet influencers. But despite his anonymity, his channel has gained a following over the years because his videos resonate with those who share his sense of humor.

He says his material stems from an interest in geopolitics and history — “never been more interested, my God!” — and a desire to make funny hyperbole videos, simply because he’s “paid for something so stupid.” So much effort.”

But he said he was troubled by the performance of the Discord server. He said some “very right-leaning” teens were likely drawn to his irreverent content, but he “absolutely” disagreed with their worldview.

“I just let a bunch of kids run wild,” wow_mao added. “I really regret, maybe, not tweaking my server a little bit more.”

But he said it was “hilarious” that the leaked documents had surfaced there.

“It just spread to the smallest, most nerdy parts of the internet,” he said. “That’s the kind of guy who’s going to find these files — the losers. That’s the guy the U.S. government really has to fear.”

Tech-savvy young people usually don’t have much respect for the government, says wow_mao, “They always find it funny to laugh at them and suppress them in some way.”

In early March, users on the wow_mao server called Lucca uploaded page after page of classified information, according to screenshots shared by users investigating the leak.The source of the document was earlier given by belling cat.

The files drew wider attention two days later when they were posted on a server dedicated to Minecraft, with one user appearing to share them in an argument.

“Here, some leaked files,” the user said, before uploading some.

“Fine,” replied another user.

The posts appear to have lingered online for almost a month before starting to gain traction outside of Discord. Users on 4chan posted images from the files as early as April 5. A pro-Russian channel on the messaging app Telegram shared the images later in the day. Users on Twitter took notice, and so did the world.

Both the Discord server and the user believed to be behind the document have received attention. A Twitter account called MrLucca used the same profile photo found on Lucca’s Discord account, which he said he obtained from another Discord server.

“Found some info from a now-banned server and passed it on,” the user wrote, according to screenshots of the conversation. The Twitter and Discord accounts have since been deleted.

For users on the wow_mao server, attention is just a brief distraction between memes and jokes. On Easter Sunday, users mourned Luca’s departure with a meme depicting Luca as Jesus rising from the grave.

For wow_mao himself, this episode is another opportunity for content. He said the number of members on his Discord server had jumped from about 4,000 to about 7,000 before news of the document broke.

“I thought any publicity was good publicity as long as I didn’t go to jail,” he said.

He ends his YouTube video by urging viewers to support him by subscribing to his Patreon, a popular donation platform among content creators. He then shared the video on Twitter with a message: “The CIA may have put me on their watchlist…but I should be on your watchlist too!”

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