Gab, Mastodon And The Challenges Of Content Moderation On A More Distributed Social Network

from the experimentation-through-federation dept

While so many of the discussions and debates about content moderation focus on a few giant platforms -- namely Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- it's fascinating to see how they play out in other arenas. Indeed, one of the reasons why we're so concerned about efforts to "regulate" content moderation practices on social media is that focusing on the manner in which those big, centralized platforms work could serve to stifle newer, more innovative platforms, whose very set up may inherently deal with the "problems" in the first place (see my protocols, not platforms discussion for one example).

There are a few interesting platforms out there trying to take a different approach to nearly everything -- and one of the more well known is Mastodon, an open source "federated" system that is sort of somewhat like Twitter. If you somehow have missed the Mastodon boat, I'd recommend the long piece Sarah Jeong wrote about it two years ago, which is a pretty good intro to the topic. The really short version, though, is that anyone can set up their own Mastodon community and, if others so choose, they may "federate" with other Mastodon communities. You could build a Mastodon instance that is totally isolated from others, or you could build one that connects to others and allows "toots" to go from one instance of Mastodon to others. And, of course, the federating can change over time. It's kind of neat in that it allows for multiple communities, who can set different rules, norms and standards, and thus you get much more widespread experimentation. And, unlike a fully centralized system, like Twitter, the ability for different instances to just "go there own way" if they disagree, allows for much greater flexibility, without a centralized content moderation impossibility.

I'm still more interested in much more fully decentralized protocol-based systems, but a federated system like Mastodon, that allows for a distributed set of mini-centralized instances that can join together or separate as needed, is still pretty fascinating.

However, it got more fascinating and interesting earlier this month when the social network Gab moved to Mastodon. If you haven't followed this space at all, Gab likes to call itself the "free speech alternative" to Twitter, but in practice that has meant that it's the place that many trolls, racists and other general assholes have gathered after being kicked off of Twitter. Gab announced, back in May, that it was planning to shift its platform to Mastodon, setting up its own instance. In theory, this solved some "problems" that Gab had been facing -- starting with the fact that Apple and Google had removed Gab's mobile app from their app stores (something Gab sued over, in a strategy that was not very successful). Since there are a bunch of Mastodon apps that allow users to log into any particular Mastodon instance, Gab itself made it clear that this was a key reason for the move:

Of course, building on top of someone else's better tested open source code probably also helps Gab with the long list of technical issues the site was having. And then there's the pure troll factor. Besides harboring social media trolls, Gab, as a company has always sort of gleefully taken on a trollish roll in the way it works as a company as well. And, considering that part of the very reason that Mastodon's creator, Eugen "Gargron" Rochko, set up Mastodon in the first place was to build an alternative to Twitter that was free of Nazis, assholes and trolls... it was a truly trollish move to jump onto that platform and at least imply to many a plan to "invade" (or, perhaps we should say brigading) the wider "fediverse" of Mastodon.

The switch over happened earlier this month and it's been fascinating to watch how it's all played out. The shortest summary might be that the federated model has shown to be somewhat resilient so far. Mastodon itself put out a statement urging various Mastodon instances not to federate with Gab and also suggesting that the various Mastdodon app developers choose to blacklist Gab's domains from their apps (meaning that Gab's plan to use this to get back into the app store might not work as well as planned).

The Verge has a long, in-depth article about how all of this is playing out, and it seems like, as a federated system is designed to do, different parts of the system are experimenting and figuring out what makes sense. Most of the other instances have decided they don't want to federate with Gab.

If you join a major Mastodon instance right now, chances are you won’t be connected to Gab. “All the admins that I know, that I interact with myself, have already blocked Gab,” says Rochko — including Mastodon.Social. “Essentially, they’re isolated.”

As for the various app makers, they're figuring out what they want to do:

This has turned app access into a battlefield. Developers can lock Gab out by disabling login options to the instance or completely blocking content from its servers. And several have done just that. Mastodon lists six major mobile apps on its homepage. Four of them — the Android client Tusky and the iOS apps Toot!, Mast, and Amaroq — block Gab in some fashion.

Amaroq developer John Gabelmann banned Gab to avoid potential problems with the App Store. “My core objective is to keep Amaroq publicly available and to abide by all Apple policies, which keep unmoderated extremist/hateful content off the store,” he tells The Verge. “If your network is large enough and unmoderated enough to get the negative attention of Apple, Amaroq will follow Apple’s policies.”

Mast’s creator Shihab Mehboob, by contrast, blocked Gab after users requested it. He’s gotten one-star reviews from angry Gab users, but “if hate speech is masquerading as free speech on an app I’ve built, it’s upon myself to somehow moderate that and reduce it where possible,” he says. “I understand that the Fediverse is intended to be open and entirely at the user’s discretion as to what they want to see/use/partake in, but that shouldn’t cover Nazi-based ideologies. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.”

Other app developers maintain that this blocking doesn’t fit Mastodon’s mission. The Android-based Fedilab app’s free version initially blocked Gab because of Play Store content policy fears. But the ban has since been lifted. “I will simply not block instances with the app,” wrote Fedilab’s developer. “I clearly think that’s not my role … If you want a strong block, it’s in the hands of social network developers or your admins.”

And the developer of Subway Tooter, who goes by Tateisu, is skeptical that stores will censure apps for supporting Gab. “They can run their web app on a web browser,” Tateisu points out. “If Google wants to ban it, they should start from their Chrome web browser.”

This is all quite interesting. It's also the kind of experimentation and more distributed decision-making we'd like to see more of online. This is not a truly distributed system where the power is moved all the way out to the ends, but it is a federated system where the power is moved to various nodes -- leading to more competition and variety. The fact that most of the major Mastodon instances have said they don't want to federate or deal with Gab is an expression of preferences, and in many ways a better overall system than one in which a single company is making the decisions. And it's much better than politicians telling companies what they need to do. Of course, in a world without Section 230 -- or one with a nonsensical requirement for "neutrality" in platform moderation -- would these options even be available?

Filed Under: content moderation, distributed systems, federation, mastodon, moderation, platforms, protocols, social media
Companies: apple, gab, google, mastodon, twitter


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  1. icon
    Shufflepants (profile), 16 Jul 2019 @ 11:00am

    Re:

    Almost. But from the Nazi-logic point of view, all of those different Mastodon groups and orgs are obviously under the control of said "cabal of (((globalists)))".

    Because that's how conspiracy theories work. Anyone who acts or argues against the claims made by the conspiracy theorist is either a direct member of the conspiracy, under the thumb of some one who's part of the conspiracy, or has been brainwashed by the conspirators. And this makes the set of conspirators ever growing, until the conspiracy theorist sees almost everyone as part of the conspiracy except for those "righteous" few fighting against an overwhelming system, which really feeds into the underdog and persecution complex of the conspiracy theorist and makes them feel even more special and righteous as they "know" they are one of the few people fighting for the "truth".


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