They were the irreverent misfits of a military YouTube creator's fan forum who regrouped in a chatroom known as Thug Shaker Central - named for a meme taken from a gay porn video they often used for shock and laughs.

Now, they are linked to a devastating leak of U.S. intelligence: a set of highly classified documents exposing American espionage and secret assessments of the Ukraine war, some posted months ago in an unmoderated corner of the internet where anyone with an invite could see them.

The episode draws a stark contrast from previous leaks that in recent years have sent Washington scrambling. The leaker here did not enlist teams of reporters to get the message out, as Edward Snowden did when he shared highly classified documents he'd pirated from the National Security Agency, or WikiLeaks did when it sought to publicize the thousands of classified documents it received from a disaffected U.S. Army intelligence specialist in Iraq.

Nor does it appear to have been the work of a foreign adversary, like the 2016 hack of Democratic National Committee emails that were scooped up by Russian operatives and posted to the web in an effort, U.S. officials concluded, intended to help the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.


Instead, the leak appears to have hinged on a single person with privileged access to top secret documents, a small inner circle of supporters willing to dissect and share the records, and a group chat service, Discord, that operates at a frenetic pace and is largely invisible to the rest of the internet.

The leak highlights the challenge for the U.S. government in guarding the documents it shares with the roughly 3 million people with security clearances nationwide. Any of them can use a service like Discord anonymously, sharing records for their own personal purposes with little fear of company punishment or even review.

While members of the military have been warned not to download TikTok to their phones, and Congress openly discusses banning it, little has been said about Discord, even as it's grown to encompass roughly 19 million chatrooms, called servers, with 150 million monthly active users worldwide.

Rarely monitored

The episode also throws a spotlight on the evolution of social media, where a growing number of users gather not on public forums that anyone, including law enforcement and military intelligence, can see, but in walled-off, invitation-only private spaces that the online platforms themselves rarely monitor.

Discord, which is based in San Francisco, said in a statement that it is cooperating with law enforcement and declined to comment further. The company has said members of its safety team can ban users, shut down chatrooms and alert the authorities when they see content that violates its rules.

But companies like Discord tend to look for violent or sexual images, and they depend on server moderators and user reports to flag threatening content. Photos of basic documents, like those first shared on Discord in January, can easily slip through - especially if no one involved in the chat is interested in blowing the whistle.

Yet to be contacted by authorities

The federal government is investigating, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed Tuesday to "turn over every rock until we find the source of this." But two key internet players whose Discord servers hosted the secret documents told The Washington Post that they had yet to be contacted by authorities.

Raucous, real-time chatrooms once defined the internet. Then, services like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter shifted people's posts to more open, public forums, often linked to their real names. Discord in recent years has helped shift some of that energy back, supplanting not just those services, but also more traditional message boards for people wanting to find like-minded friends or dig deeper into a single topic or trend.

Few use real names

Discord's chatrooms are faster moving and more private than social media, and many use an "invite" system to control who can get in. Few people use their real names, and the servers are largely expected to police themselves.

Discord has become a prominent gathering place for the crowds of people interested in video games and artificial intelligence; its biggest server, for the AI-image tool Midjourney, has more than 15 million followers.

But many servers cater to much more limited audiences and host only hundreds or dozens of followers. Online influencers with big-enough audiences on other platforms, such as TikTok or YouTube, will often attract their own Discord servers for side discussion among devoted fans.

Many of its channels reverberate with the absurd, irreverent and ironic meta-humor now popular among 20-somethings and teens online. Some chats revolve around thoughtful discussion, while others devolve into weird memes or racist trolling.


Thug Shaker Central, the community of roughly two dozen members where the secret documents were first shared, grew out of a different Discord server devoted to Oxide, a YouTube account with 173,000 subscribers.

Oxide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, said he banned a number of members more than a year ago because of their constant and "annoying" trolling, including racist vitriol and the relentless posting of a meme video known as the "thug shaker," showing a Black man in a gay porn film.

Oxide, who said he is in his 20s and serves in the Army in the Pacific Northwest, said he started making videos a decade ago of video game clips when he was a teenager, then progressed into reviews and showcases of real-world military guns, tactics and equipment; ballistics tests of ammo and body armor; and reenactments featuring modern NATO and Russian special-forces gear.

The young guys, and they were mostly guys, who gravitated to his 5,000-member Discord server were often interested in warfighting and geopolitics, he said. The server had smaller subforums, called channels, that discussed Ukraine, sports and combat reenactments. One smaller channel, as with many larger communities, was also devoted to a rawer form of posting that is described by a scatological term, in which members troll each other, share memes and clown around.

After purging some of the worst trolls from his server, he said, some of them moved to the smaller offshoot server, Thug Shaker Central, where the leaked documents were first posted.

Doesn’t know names and doesn’t want to

Oxide said that no documents were shared on his Discord and that he doesn't know who leaked them. He wiped the entire server in recent days after a report from the investigative group Bellingcat linked his server to the leakers. He claimed to not know any names and doesn't want to.

He said he has received no calls from any government investigators and worries the episode could affect his career.

"I can't risk any of this," he said. "I've got my own clearance to watch out for."

When Bellingcat's report posted, saying Thug Shaker Central commenters had sometimes discussed his videos, Oxide said he started getting texts from people saying things like "ah, damn, you really did it now." He's since gotten a couple hundred extra followers on his YouTube account, which he called "the one shining light."


After the records were posted to Thug Shaker Central, a member of that server posted them in another server devoted to a YouTube creator who goes by the handle wow_mao and is known primarily for jokey videos riffing on governments and geopolitics.

Wow_mao, who spoke to The Post through a Discord call, said he started making videos when he was 16 and "was already living my life online, basically." Young people, he said, found his edgy and ironic style of comedy appealing.

He now has 245,000 YouTube followers and makes about $600 a month in YouTube ads, plus another $200 a month from fan donations on Patreon, a subscription service for internet creators. He said the income "lets me sit on my ass all day and wake up whenever I want."

Wow_mao said he had paid little attention to the server, named the End of Wow Mao Zone, in the weeks when a moderator there posted dozens of the leaked documents. That moderator has since disappeared, wow_mao said; in a post on the server, the user, Lucca, wrote to everyone, "ily [I love you] bros, see you on the flip side."

In a YouTube video this week, wow_mao denounced the leak in his typically irreverent style, saying: "I can sort of understand how sharing big private military secrets could be a funny thing to do among your internet friends, but come on. Take care of yourself and stay away from doing stuff like this."

He has not shared his name and said he has not yet heard from any government investigators about the issue. In the video, he laughed that federal investigators were likely watching some of his absurd videos, such as a recent joke about a Swedish rapper called, "bladee in five years."

He acknowledged the significance of his server's involvement, saying the records related to "very groundbreaking and serious information concerning a tragedy happening right now." But he also hoped that he could stay out of the public eye.

"I'm a s---posting internet microcelebrity and I'd like to keep it that way," he said in the video.

Wow_mao said his Discord server had grown from 4,000 to 7,000 members within the last week, and that, while Americans make up the largest part of his audience, many others come from Turkey and the Philippines.

"I don't want to go anywhere near racist territory. Sadly, the audience has no restriction when it comes to the jokes they make," he said. Using a slang term for people who share edgy or extreme views for attention or shock value, he said, "A large part of my Discord are 'edgelords,' teenagers, right-wing teenagers - but, my god, they're not terrorists. This isn't an extremist group."

After the secret documents were posted to his Discord last month, some members laughed about them, unclear about their significance or how genuine they were.

"It's just a bunch of guys from the internet. How would they know about understanding military war documents?" he said. "Many people were like: 'That's hilarious. Why are they here?' And then they moved on with their lives."