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March 13, 2023, 11 a.m.
Audience & Social

How Bellingcat gets 15,000 people on Discord to talk about investigative journalism

“I picture a Discord server like a room full of chairs and people sitting and talking to each other, while posting on Twitter is like putting up a banner at a corner of a street.”

Giancarlo Fiorella is senior investigator and trainer at Bellingcat, an investigative journalism site based in Amsterdam that publishes fact-checking and open-source research.

Fiorella also runs Bellingcat’s server on Discord, where a community of 15,000 people meets daily to discuss news stories, contributes to investigations, and — why not? — chat about their lunch.

Francesco Zaffarano: How did Bellingcat decide to launch a server on Discord?

Giancarlo Fiorella: One of the great things about Bellingcat is that we’re a small, horizontal, and flexible organization. There’s no bureaucracy when it comes to experimenting with platforms to reach out to the public, as long as it aligns with the principles of the organization. And one of the main principles of Bellingcat is collaboration. That’s how Bellingcat started, and we want to continue that tradition and think about setting up spaces for other people to join, where the community can help us and discover important things about what’s happening in the world.

We set up the Discord server a couple of years ago and opened it to see what [would] happen. Over time it drew more and more people until a year ago when it really started to fill up and became very active. At the end of 2022, we reached 15,000 members.

Zaffarano: What triggered the sudden growth?

Fiorella: A critical driver has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Growth started to speed up when it began to look like Russia was about to invade Ukraine, and Twitter was full of people discussing that scenario.

So there seemed to be growing anxiety, unrest, and helplessness. And since one of Bellingcat’s main research threads involves Russia and its government, I think people just wanted to be informed and help look at what was about to happen.

Zaffarano: How does Discord fit into Bellingcat’s strategy and goals?

Fiorella: One of the cool things about Bellingcat is that we don’t work for clicks. As I mentioned earlier, we’re free to undertake new initiatives as long as they adhere to the core principles and values of the organization.

By creating a space that allows for collaboration of the open-source research community, I’m fulfilling part of Bellingcat’s goals and values, like collaboration and openness, and teaching people how to do this kind of research. We’re fulfilling the aim of teaching more and more people how to do open-source. I think this Discord server fits quite nicely into our organization’s plan for the world we want to live in — one where people can come together, collaborate, research, and learn how to do all that good stuff.

Zaffarano: How would you describe the average user of the Bellingcat on Discord?

Fiorella: Analytics from Discord could be more thorough, but according to the data from Discord [that we do have], most people are based in the U.S. and Western Europe, and most are relatively new to Discord. That’s exciting because it means Bellingcat is the reason why many of them are joining the platform.

We have about 150 active users per month. Then we have some power users, folks who are there daily and are the core of our community.

But beyond their nicknames, I don’t know anything about most of them, and that’s part of the Discord culture — you can be friends with someone by knowing their avatar and nickname and nothing else about them. That’s what’s fun about it.

Zaffarano: Has anyone from Discord helped you with building the server?

Fiorella: No, we haven’t interacted with anybody from Discord. The most contact was when we applied for the Discord Partner Program. I had to fill out a form, which took a few minutes. Then Discord checked our server and granted us partner status.

When a server gets the partner status, it means that somebody from Discord has checked out the quality of your server and has determined [that] the server adheres to the community values that Discord wants to promote. They want to make Discord a place where people can come together and discuss in a way that isn’t harmful.

When you’re a partner, you get additional features like access to the premium version of Discord, called Nitro, and ways to better personalize your server, like a custom URL and a higher number of custom emojis. You also get better audio quality for your voice calls, for example. So they’re small technical differences and benefits.

Zaffarano: How would you describe a typical day on the Bellingcat Discord server?

Fiorella: On a typical day there’s a lot of activity in the channel where we discuss Russia and Ukraine. That’s where folks share and discuss the news coming out of Ukraine. People will be discussing, for example, whether the videos we’re watching are real, whether the battle took place, etc. Users on the server have similar discussions to those we have at Bellingcat.

There are also people who are posting on our more social channels. We have a channel called #chit-chat, which is just for non-research stuff. We have a channel called #bellingcook for sharing recipes or photos of your meal. That’s one of our more active channels, which is great because Discord is supposed to be a community platform where you can make friends.

Zaffarano: What about moderation — how much do you have to do that?

Fiorella: There’s rarely any drama on most days. The community is good at taking care of itself. On a typical day, I usually work at my computer and have an eye on the server.

We have an excellent and dedicated team of volunteer moderators. They ensure that everyone’s following the rules if there is a conflict, which is very rare. If a bot joins a server and they start spamming links, the moderators will delete that. On a typical day, I might communicate with them to answer their questions, discuss a new rule we’re considering implementing, find ways to make a channel more active, or organize meetings with special guests on the server.

About two or three times a month, we have a special guest who comes to the server and gives a talk. A couple of times a month, I think about who could be our next guest, and I’ll reach out to them, schedule their talk, and advertise it.

These meetings are what Discord calls Stage Channels — voice channels you can create in your community server. Recently we had Dr. Manisha Ganguly, an open-source journalist with The Guardian. She talked about how she sees the combination of journalism and open-source research moving forward.

And, of course, we’ve had colleagues from Bellingcat come and give talks. We invite anyone who does open-source research and can come to the server and share their experience and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Zaffarano: And Bellingcat’s journalism? Do you use the server to distribute it?

Fiorella: Discord has a feature called Announcement Channels. They’re cool because any server on Discord can subscribe to another server’s announcement channel. Let’s say you have a server with a thousand people in it, and you subscribe in that server to the Bellingcat announcement channel — when I post in my announcement channel, you see it in your server, and your thousand members see it as well.

We set up a couple of announcement channels for sharing Bellingcat research, and whenever we publish a new article, I post it there. There are 98 servers subscribed to our announcement channels, but I don’t know exactly which servers. So, unfortunately, I don’t know how many people see our articles from other servers.

Zaffarano: Have other Bellingcat members joined Discord?

Fiorella: There are currently 21 Bellingcat members on the server, which is most of the team who works here, including Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat. But there’s no requirement that they participate. It’s entirely up to them.

Some are particularly active in specific channels. My colleague Michael Colborne, who researches the far-right in Europe and North America, is always on the #far-right-monitoring channel. And I think the trend will be that Bellingcat staff will be more and more active on the server. But this is something that we didn’t have a year ago. It was tiny, and now suddenly, it’s pretty big, and I expect it to grow even more in the future.

Zaffarano: What’s your your growth goal for 2023?

Fiorella: In 2022, we gained over 10,000 members. I would love it if we could beat that record this year. We’ll keep doing the stage talks — I think those are really going to be a defining feature of our Discord server. I want people to know that this is a place where they can learn from some of the best practitioners of open-source investigative research.

Zaffarano: What other plans do you have for the server?

Fiorella: We’re launching a book club. Every month we’ll pick a book for people to read, and at the month’s end, they’ll come together and discuss it. We could also have the authors of the books come in and give talks.

Zaffarano: What’s one thing you learned while working on Discord?

Fiorella: When we started the server, we were afraid about having to shut it down after two days — we thought it was gonna get flooded by trolls.

But that never happened. The community moderates itself, and people know and follow the rules. If somebody deviates from the rules a little bit, the community usually doesn’t wait for the moderators to do something — normal users intervene to explain how users should behave. I’ve learned that the community of people who follow Bellingcat on Discord is cool, sort of self-regulated, and a pleasure to be a part of.

Zaffarano: Why do you think that’s the case?

Fiorella: I don’t know for sure. But if you go on Twitter, for example, below a Bellingcat tweet, there are always like 10 really good replies and then, like, five or six insulting comments. We don’t see any of that on Discord. I don’t know why, but maybe being in a Discord server, given how you interact with people, feels more personal than Twitter.

I picture a Discord server like a room full of chairs and people sitting and talking to each other, while posting on Twitter is like putting up a banner at a corner of a street — some people see it, but eventually, someone comes with a pen and scribbles something.

Zaffarano: What’s a problem you’ve faced with Discord?

Fiorella: Our server is public, meaning anybody with the link can join. I don’t have any evidence, but there are chances that there are bad people in there, like on any other social platform. We sometimes have to remind people that no matter how cozy that space is, there are probably bad people, like Russian intelligence agents, watching, and it’s important not to overshare. Bellingcat is an undesirable organization in Russia. Christo Grozev, our lead Russian investigator, is wanted in Russia. So, better to be careful, especially if you live in Russia.

Zaffarano: Which other Discord servers would you recommend?

Zaffarano: If you worked for a different company, would you recommend starting a Discord server?

Fiorella: Yes, and I’ve had conversations with people from other organizations that are considering opening a Discord server — sorry, but I cannot say which organizations.

One of the things that I love about Discord is that it reminds me of the earlier internet before social media. I grew up on MSN Messenger groups and IRC and ICQ message boards before Facebook and Twitter were a thing. There’s something lost from that kind of internet, and I think it’s the community aspect.

Media organizations have grown used to working with Twitter and Facebook — but on Discord, you can create a space for your community to join and interact, make memories, and learn stuff. They can create connections in a way that isn’t conducive to the doom-scrolling experience of other social media.

Francesco Zaffarano is a digital journalist and senior audience editor at Devex. A version of this interview first appeared in his Substack, Mapping Journalism on Social Platforms — subscribe here.

A member of the Bellingcat Discord server posting in a channel for completed geolocations of strikes in Ukraine.

POSTED     March 13, 2023, 11 a.m.
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