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Is Mastodon the answer to online hate speech?


Compelled by Twitter India’s arbitrary enforcement of its content policies, numerous Indian users are now moving to to Mastodon, a free, open-source platform ad-free decentralised platform that many are hailing as a nicer, more civilised alternative to Twitter.

But there are significant drawbacks to the system that need to be considered.

“Though, the Mastodon.social instance is growing in numbers and might be one of the largest, the real advantages of Mastodon will be tested when users from India start hosting their own instances and shift to a proper decentralized model. The Mastodon.social instance in the past has stopped accepting new users,” an SFLC.in spokesperson told MediaNama.

Advantages of Mastodon

  1. Mastodon feeds are arranged chronologically, not by algorithms: Toots are arranged in a chronological manner. Unlike Twitter, where black-boxed algorithms determine the order of tweets in your Twitter feed, only time determines their order on Mastodon.
  2. No ads: Unlike other platforms, Mastodon doesn’t rely on ads or promoted content for revenue generation. Thus, there is no targeted advertising that can skew your view.
  3. Open source: Since Mastodon is FOSS (free and open-source software), all its code is freely available, nothing is black-boxed. People can easily establish causality between code, the interface and effect.
  4. Can’t be shut down: Unlike Twitter or Facebook which can be shut down, causing users to lead their online social networks, Mastodon, due to its decentralised and open-source nature, can’t effectively be.

Mastodon also offers several anti-harassment tools that are different from Twitter, Facebook:

  1. Servers can be made private, semi-private, and secured.
  2. Server admins can made their domain bock-lists public, as Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko has for mastodon.social (available here).
  3. If you move to a new account, you can bring your social graph with you. This is something that Facebook, Twitter, etc. have been struggling with when it comes to data portability.
  4. Trending hashtags are reviewed by server admin to ensure that they are not gamed for abuse, as it often happens with Twitter.

Read More: Indians move to Mastodon: A primer to the platform

Problems with Mastodon

“Though decentralized social media platforms like Mastodon offer great advantages due to their free and open source nature and non-commercial interests, they might not be able to completely solve the problem of hate speech/ abusive content online,” the SFLC.in spokesperson explained. Here are some of the constraints of Mastodon that need to be kept in mind:

  1. Servers might be independent, but they still need to be financed: Currently, Mastodon’s independent services are being hailed as revolutionary. But Mastodon only provides the software code, not servers. And running a server isn’t free. Mastodon itself links out to masto.host, a fully managed hosting service, that will cost at least €7/month to run a server. Right now, people either self-finance their servers, crowdfund them (as Eugen Rochko, the creator of Mastodon, also does on Patreon for mastodon.social), or have other kinds of sponsors.
  2. What happens when Mastodon scales up? Currently, mastodon.social, the second-most popular instance on Mastodon, has about 380,000 users. Compare that to Twitter’s 321 million MAUs. Content moderation on mastodon.social might seem easy and effective right now, but once this scales up, will it remain that way? Will stopping registrations on an instance always be the solution, something that Rochko has also struggled with evaluating?
  3. Content moderation on a federated system is not that easy: As per Mastodon, every instance (server) has its own, mutually agreed upon community guidelines. There are no overarching rules that govern all instances on Mastodon. So theoretically, I could start an instance with neo-Nazi content, and nobody can do anything about it. And that’s exactly what Gab, a white supremacist website/instance did (Read Verge’s coverage of it here). Gab still exists on Mastodon; it’s just not listed by the fediverse anymore. Individual instance owners can block it, as can the app clients with run Mastodon. This incident revealed that in such a decentralised platform, kicking out an instance just wasn’t possible. Also, since Mastodon is a fediverse, where users from different instance still talk to each other, the trolling, at least theoretically, isn’t confined to one instance.
    • The Gab incident led to the creation of Mastodon Server Covenant, and only servers that conform to it will be listed on joinmastodon.org, but all instances remain on the network.
  4. Verified accounts aren’t available on Mastodon: Rochko, the creator of Mastodon, tooted that getting a verified account is not possible on Mastodon. As the platform scales up, this will become an issue. As expected, it already has fake accounts of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, forcing Congress to tweet:

How is content moderated across servers?

MediaNama’s editor, Nikhil Pahwa, asked this question on the instance mstdn.social and got a few responses, including one from Rochko. Here are the abbreviated responses:

Q: After the platform scales up and someone toots a revenge porn video that’s boosted across instances:
– How will Mastodon deal with it?
– How will an aggrieved party get justice?
– How will an instance deal with it?
– What can a govt do? What can’t it do?
– Will shutting down an instance be an option if it refuses to take down video? What will users on that instance, who haven’t committed a crime do?
Nikhil Pahwa, MediaNama

A: “If origin instance deletes the video, everyone else automatically deletes it too. If not, the instances can delete their copies manually via mod tools. Instances are technically websites like any other, so the same tools are available for taking them down (domain registrar, hosting provider). Those depend on jurisdiction, of course. If an instance announces shutdown ahead of time users can export their data and move followers to a different account on another instance.”
Eugen Rochko, founder of Mastodon

Other users gave these answers, the following options also emerged:

  • Problematic instances can be banned, blocked by other instances, or sandboxed, that is, accounts from the instances can be found, followed and interacted with, but their toots don’t appear in public timelines. Also, notifications don’t appear unless the user follows someone from that instance.
  • The Gab incident is a good parallel (discussed above).
  • As Mastodon is a social network protocol, like SMTP is for emails, the network itself has to be value neutral.

(Answers included above are from Shashank Mohan and @khush@mastodon.social.)

***Correction (November 11 10:51 am): SMTP, an email protocol, had been erroneously written as SMPT. Article was originally published on November 8 at 8:19 pm.

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