Unlike Twitter, Mastodon moderates speech avoiding bad sites


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Elon Musk doesn’t seem to have an obvious theory on how to moderate speech on Twitter, now that he owns it. His free speech rhetoric ran into the difficulties of running a service where many users would prefer not to have to deal with certain types of speech, and where big business and celebrities would certainly prefer not to have of “verified” Twitter accounts that claim to be them, saying things that spoil their carefully cultivated public image.

The chaos of the past week has led many Twitter users to explore alternative services such as Mastodon, a decentralized platform based on “open source” software (which is freely available and can be modified under reasonable conditions). Alan Rozenshtein, associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota is one of the few people to have researched how Mastodon moderates speech (his research paper may be found here). I asked him to explain the differences between how Twitter works and Mastodon.

Q: You claim that “the dominance of closed platforms [like Twitter] is an aberration” in the history of the Internet. Why is that?

A: The Internet was designed to have little centralized, top-down control. This is true both in terms of the fundamental architecture, by which the network organizes itself, and the most popular applications that run on it, from email to web browsing. While closed platforms like AOL were popular in the 1990s, they fell out of favor in the early 2000s and it wasn’t until the rise of Facebook and other social media sites that the most Internet users have come to spend most of their time online in “walled gardens.”

Q: A lot of people are disappointed with how closed platforms like Twitter and Facebook moderate speech. Why do you think this disappointment is almost inevitable?

Large platforms are faced with what might be called the moderator’s trilemma. They try to moderate a, one, large and diverse community with, two, a single moderation policy without, three, a significant fraction of users being upset. The problem is that it’s not clear that you can satisfy all three parts of this at the same time. A small community with shared values ​​may have only one generally accepted moderation policy. But Facebook and Twitter don’t want to be small; they want to connect the whole world. They also don’t want to have a do-it-all platform, because (as Elon Musk is currently learning) neither the users nor, more importantly, the advertisers who pay the platform’s bills will tolerate it. So what they’ve de facto accepted is that they’re going to be the punching bag of a lot of people, who different groups think are moderating too much, too little, or just plain bad content.

Q: Mastodon, a Twitter alternative that many people are turning to, is based on an open platform and the “Fediverse”. What is the difference?

The main difference between Mastodon and Twitter is architectural: Twitter is a closed platform, while Mastodon, like all apps built on the ActivityPub protocol that runs the Fediverse, is an open platform. A good analogy with Mastodon is email. There is no single entity that handles email. Rather, email is a system by which different mail servers communicate with each other using a shared protocol. Some of these servers, like Gmail or Outlook, are large and have millions of users, and many of us choose to use them because they’re convenient. But any organization – indeed any individual – can set up and manage their own mail server and participate in the mail network. And while any mail server can block and refuse to communicate with any other mail server, there is no central authority that can force anyone to exit the mail system altogether.

This is, in essence, how Mastodon works. Mastodon servers are called instances, and just as one can send email to users on other mail servers, Mastodon users can, using the shared ActivityPub protocol, interact with users on other Mastodon instances. . And although a Mastodon instance can choose not to communicate with another instance (see below what happened when Gab joined the Mastodon network), there is no central authority that can block entirely a user or Mastodon instance of the network. At the same time, no instance can be forced to host users or content it does not want.

An important point is that the decentralization of Mastodon is a question of technical architecture rather than politics. We can see this by comparing Mastodon to Reddit, a platform often touted as an example of a decentralized social network. Reddit works by setting up a bunch of sub-reddits, discussion forums that choose their own moderator and moderation policy. But this decentralization is a matter of Reddit’s choice to allow it. At any time, Reddit HQ can access a subreddit and moderate content, kick a user, or even disable an entire subreddit, as happened when Reddit banned “The_Donald”, a subreddit for Donald Trump fans. Whether you think Reddit should or should have done this, the fact is Reddit was able to do it. This is the difference between a platform that is decentralized as a policy (modifiable) and one, like Mastodon, which is decentralized as an architecture (unchangeable).

Q: How does the balance between “voice” and “output” in Fediverse change arguments about speech moderation?

With a closed platform like Twitter or Facebook, if you don’t like what the platform does, you have no choice but to threaten to quit the platform. But because being on Twitter and Facebook is valuable to its users, they tend not to leave, and so Twitter and Facebook don’t really have to listen to their users. Mastodon and other Fediverse apps are different. Although you subscribe with a particular instance of Mastodon, you can move instances and keep your subscribers. This puts a check on instances that moderate content in ways that their users don’t like, either too much or not enough. It also means that you don’t need to have a single content moderation policy for all instances. Users can sort instances that best reflect their values ​​and preferences.

Q: What does the fight over the relationship between far-right social media platform Gab and Donald Trump’s Truth Social tell us about how content moderation might work in a more decentralized internet?

Gab, in particular, is an interesting case study, as it shows how the Fediverse can organically self-organize to handle high-level content moderation disputes. When Gab joined the Mastodon Network, it upset many existing Mastodon users, who objected to Gab’s far-right content. But it was immediately clear that Gab couldn’t be removed from Mastodon entirely. Like Eugene Rochko, the creator of Mastodon, Explain at the time, “you have to understand that it’s actually not possible to do anything at platform scale because it’s decentralized. … I don’t have control.

But even if Rochko had no control, each instance could decide what relationship they wanted to have with Gab. Within days, the main instances severed ties with Gab, who in turn severed ties with the rest of the network. The result was that each community – Gab on the one hand, the rest of the Mastodon on the other – was able to strike a balance as to who they wanted to be associated with. No one was denied the opportunity to say what they wanted and to whom. And everything happened organically and bottom-up, without centralized control.

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