For the last three days, the word “mastodon”, which literally refers to an extinct, elephant-like mammal, has been trending on Twitter India. Indians hadn’t developed an inexplicable interest in palaeontology; just that many Indian Twitter users are migrating to Mastodon, a free, open-source, ad-free decentralised platform that many have called as an alternative to Twitter.
What triggered the migration (pun intended)? Discontent against Twitter had been simmering among Indian users for quite some time, but reached a crescendo when senior advocate Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account was suspended twice for violating Twitter’s policies — first on October 26 for sharing a picture of German worker Augus Landmesser, who refused to do a Nazi salute at a rally, and then on October 27 for tweeting a poem titled “Hang him” by Gorakh Pandey. Twitter said in an email to Hegde that the account, @sanjayyuvacha will not be restored, Quint reported. Hegde has since then sent a legal notice to Twitter demanding a public apology and restoration of his account, Firstpost reported.
Following this and other numerous instances of Twitter’s arbitrary rule enforcement, a number of prominent Indian journalists, activists and writers, including MediaNama’s editor Nikhil Pahwa, accused Twitter of bias and announced that they are joining Mastodon. It is to be noted that most people haven’t completely left Twitter, just created accounts on Mastodon. D. Ravikumar, a DMK MP from Tamil Nadu, is also now on mastodon.social.
Twitter, however, has maintained that it is “impartial” and remains committed to “inclusion and diversity”.
There’s been a lot of discussion this week about Twitter's perceived bias in India. To be clear, whether it's the development of policies, product features, or enforcement of our Rules, we are impartial and do not take action based upon any ideology or political viewpoint.
— Twitter India (@TwitterIndia) November 7, 2019
To this, Mastodon tweeted:
All moderation is political. To claim impartiality and non-bias, especially in 2019, is to take the side of the status quo. https://t.co/q1LqwWefZP
— Mastodon (@MastodonProject) November 7, 2019
Twitter has failed to shield Indian activists from abuse: Accusations of a right-wing, pro-government bias aren’t a new subject for Twitter. Last year, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey visited India and met with women journalists and activists who had faced significant abuse on the platform, he was handed a poster that read “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. There was uproar amongst upper-caste Hindus in India, and eventually Twitter’s legal head, Vijaya Gadda, had backtracked and tweeted, “I’m very sorry for this. It’s not reflective of our views. We took a private photo with a gift just given to us – we should have been more thoughtful.”
Problems with Twitter:
- As per a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Twitter had removed nearly one million tweets and blocked about 100 accounts in India as part of their “country withheld” policy, the BBC reported. Most of the blocked content was critical of the government’s move to abrogate Article 370 and was blocked after requests were made by the government itself.
- For-profit network that relies on targeted advertising, and algorithmic Twitter feeds to keep users engaged.
- Moderation policies are arbitrarily imposed and lack transparency.
- Succumbs before authoritarian regimes and employees have spied at their behest.
- Presence and deployment of troll armies, troll bots
- Inability to deal with hate speech — death/rape threats, Islamophobia, misogyny, casteism
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a free, open-source software in which multiple servers, which they call instances, talk to each other. It is decentralised and not owned by a single entity. It was first released in October 2016 by a German software developer, Eugen Rochko.
- The fediverse (number of servers talking to each other) uses ActivityPub protocol to enable this inter-server conversation. Rochko’s instance mastodon.social is just one such instance. All these instances are compatible with each other, and Mastodon at large, can speak to other platforms, such as Pleroma and Misskey, using ActivityPub protocol even through the latter two use different programming languages.
- Any one can create an instance and set mutually agreed upon content guidelines for it (you can find the Code of Conduct for one of the instances, mastodon.social, here.). There are no content guidelines for Mastodon at large.
- When you join Mastodon, you actually join an instance.
To use email, you use an email client such as Gmail where you create an email address; you can still send emails to a Yahoo email address.
To use Mastodon, you use an instance/server such as mastodon.social where you create an account; you can still communicate with accounts on mstdn.social instance.
- Each instance can open and close registrations to it at will, to maintain the decentralised system of the platform. (Read what Rochko has to say about it here.)
- Most popular instances on Mastodon, as per instances.social, an instance that tracks Mastodon instances, are pawoo.net (Japanese with 583,886 users), mastodon.social (the one where most Indians have gone, 390,302 users) and mstdn.jp (Japanese instance currently not accepting new subscribers with 194,819 users).
- But, “To say that Mastodon is a substitutible [sic] service for Twitter, might be slightly misleading for first time users, as it’s not a centralized service like Twitter and is FOSS — which means even you and I can host our own instances of Mastodon. It’s important to make uninitiated users aware about these differences,” an SFLC.in spokesperson told MediaNama.
Let’s talk numbers. A bot user @bitcoinhackers.org on a Mastodon instance that tracks the number of users across all known Mastodon instances, revealed that Mastodon at large saw a significant upswing in the number of users. At the time of publishing, it said that the fediverse had added over 25,666 accounts in the last one week, bringing the total to 3,580,638 accounts. Rochko tooted that 12.9K users had been added to mastodon.social in the last week.
How does content moderation happen on Mastodon? Content on Mastodon is moderated on each instance, that is server, not across the platform. Each instance has its own content guidelines which are enforced by the instance moderators.
Mastodon support in Indian languages: Given the huge influx of Indians on Mastodon, Rochko tooted a job alert for a content moderator in Hindi:
He also tooted a link to crowdsourced Hindi and Tamil translations of Mastodon’s user interface:
Mastodon in a snap
Toot: tweet (some instances also call it a noot, an awoo, etc.)
Instance: server (like mastodon.social)
Local: toots from people on the same server where you have an account. So if you have an account on mastodon.social, all mastodon.social toots are local for you
Federated: toots from across the Mastodon fediverse so if you have an account on mastodon.social, a toot from pawoo.net is federated tweet for you
Mastodon fediverse: the collection of all Mastodon instances
- Every username on Mastodon is in this format: @firstname.lastname@example.org. The first part is your username, and the second identifies your local instance (server). All accounts local to mastodon.social follow Eugen Rochko by default, but you can choose to unfollow him.
- Character limit is 500, unlike Twitter’s 280.