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