In recent years, Mastodon has become the model for a friendlier kind of social network, promising to ward off the hateful or ugly content that is spreading on larger and more centralized networks. Journalists greeted it as "Twitter without Nazis & # 39; s"And for years that promise has generally been delivered. But last week the social network was Gab migrated to Mastodon – and the Mastodon admins are forced to solve the Nazi problem of the internet.
The answer was messy. Many prominent Mastodon servers are already moderating against racism, so Gab has had to deal with a wave of individual blocks of individual servers. But going further has turned out to be controversial, exposing in-depth questions within the community. Before the migration, one user asked Mastodon to add a hard-coded ban on Gab & # 39; s servers so that all instances would close it automatically. It was an extreme measure, but one that they thought was justified. "Gab has inspired mass shooters and murders," they wrote. "You don't understand the type of threat that they represent."
Mastodon founder Eugen "Gargron" Rochko now believes that a scorched earth campaign against Gab & # 39; s fork from Mastodon is not practical. "You have to understand that it is not possible to do everything across the platform because it is decentralized," he says The edge. "I have no control."
It is a difficult problem, playing the deepest limitations of decentralized projects such as Mastodon. Mastodon originated from the idealistic open-source software movement, designed to let everyone run their own social media site. But it was never meant to support something like Gab. Although Gab has no official political affiliation, it is known as a refuge for extreme right-wing or explicitly fascist users who are too extreme for larger networks. The & # 39; hands-off moderation & # 39; approach is at odds with many Mastodon supporters, whose creator has officially declared that he "is completely opposed to the project and the philosophy of Gab."
For parts of Mastodon, Gab's move is an unfortunate by-product of running an open platform. For others, it is an existential threat – or an opportunity to take a moral position.
Mastodon seems on Twitter at first sight. Users can post messages of 500 characters, called "toots" (a name chosen by an early financial backer), post messages or "boost" on their own timeline and follow other users or private messages. But instead of a single site that is run by a company, it is a software platform built on the open source ActivityPub protocol. "Mastodon is essentially a way to host a social media website," explains Rochko.
Since its launch in 2016, Mastodon users have set up thousands of these websites. (An unofficial directory lists around 2,500 as currently online.) They include generalist forums such as Rochko & # 39; s own Mastodon.Social, as well as interest-based communities such as Fosstodon – for open source software enthusiasts – and Sinblr, for banned Tumblr porn makers. Some examples are essentially experiments, such as Dolphin.Town, where messages can only contain the letter "e".
Many instances of Mastodon keep users at a higher standard than larger social networks. Under Gab, meanwhile, users post a striking amount of hatred and have even protested a very modest moderation. As of this writing, the first page of the Gab timeline displays a warning about & # 39; International Judaism & # 39 ;, a series of messages with the hashtags & # 39; # eugenics & # 39; and & # 39; # ethnostate & # 39 ;, and a political cartoon of four lynched bodies (marked with an LGBT Pride rainbow, a Star of David, a Black Power fist, and a feminist symbol) above the caption "COMING SOON."
Some Gab content has crossed the border to criminal activities. The UK has imprisoned two teen neo-nazi & # 39; s in June for the placement of terrorist propaganda. Florida police also arrested a user last month for posting racist threats and owning a firearm as a convicted felon. And in 2018, a man posted an anti-Semitic Gab message just before killing 11 members of a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Gab denies that it approves of hatred – CEO Andrew Torba says it just allows it any speech that is "legal in the United States" with a few exceptions. It rightly notes that Facebook and Twitter also contain hatred and violent threats. However, Gab is much smaller than these sites, and the bad messages are particularly concentrated.
When Gab migrated to Mastodon, the content threatened to end up on the larger platform. Mastodon is organized in a "Fediverse", which means that users can follow and communicate with users in one instance. It makes Mastodon feel like a single community, but it can make users vulnerable to trolling from one time to the other. Fortunately, administrators can also block instances so that messages or users are excluded from that server.
Until now, that was the standard response to Gab. The official Mastodon site will only list bodies that have the Mastodon Server Covenant. The covenant orders "active mitigation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia" – which forbids almost any contact with Gab. For Rochko it seems the clearest way forward. "The software that drives Mastodon is released under an open-source free software license, which means that anyone can use it," he says. "And you know, that offers a large number of advantages – but a few disadvantages."
If you become a member of a large Mastodon institution now, chances are that you are not connected to Gab. "All the managers I know that I communicate with myself have already blocked Gab," says Rochko – including Mastodon. Social. "In essence, they are isolated."
Gab may not need Fediverse. It is not dependent on Mastodon for hosting, payment processing, domain registration or other basic infrastructure. Although a recent one motherboard article quotes Gab says that thanks to Mastodon it has become "unstoppable", Mastodon seems to really solve one big problem: mobile app access.
Apple and Google kicked Gab out of their app stores years ago. Moving to Mastodon gives users a built-in suite of apps to choose from, filling one of the biggest gaps in the social network. Gab apparently had returned to the Google Play Store from July 10, yet the Mastodon protocol ensures that users have many backup options when it is banned again.
This has turned app access into a battlefield. Developers can block Gab by turning off instance logon options or completely blocking content from its servers. And several have done exactly that. Mastodon lists six important mobile apps on the homepage. Four of them – the Android client Tusky and the iOS apps Toot !, Mast and Amaroq – somehow block Gab.
Amaroq developer John Gabelmann forbade Gab to prevent potential problems with the App Store. "My main goal is to keep Amaroq publicly available and adhere to all Apple policies, which keep non-moderate extremist / hateful content out of the store," he says. The edge. "If your network is large enough and non-moderated enough to get Apple's negative attention, Amaroq will follow Apple's policy."
Mast & # 39; s maker Shihab Mehboob, on the other hand, blocked Gab after users asked for it. He has received reviews from angry Gab users, but "if hate speech presents itself as a free expression for an app I have built, then it is up to me to somehow moderate it and reduce it where possible," he says. "I understand that Fediverse is meant to be open and in its sole discretion as to what they want to see / use / want to participate in, but that should not relate to Nazi-based ideologies. A line must be drawn somewhere are. & # 39;
Other app developers state that this block does not fit in with the Mastodon mission. The free version of the Android-based Fedilab app initially blocked Gab because of the fear of Play Content policy. But the ban has since been lifted. "I don't block instances with the app," wrote The developer of Fedilab. "I clearly think that this is not my role … If you want a strong block, it is in the hands of social network developers or your administrators."
And the developer of Subway Tooter, who comes from Tateisu, is skeptical that stores will reject apps because they support Gab. "They can run their web app in a web browser," Tateisu emphasizes. "If Google wants to ban it, they must start from their Chrome web browser."
Gab calls himself the largest copy of Mastodon, with more than a million migration accounts. That number is almost double the user base of the previous largest copy displayed, Japanese forum Pawoo.net, and three times the basis of Mastodon.Social, the second largest authority.
Rochko disputes the statistics of millions of accounts because people signed up for those accounts before Gab moved to Mastodon, and we don't know how many of them are still active. He also notes that Mastodon communities are often on purpose small; any limit registration or stop accepting new users after a certain point. While Gab has sought status as a direct peer of the "Big Tech" sites that it detests, the great appeal of Mastodon is intimacy – four days after migration, programmer Darius Kazemi published a guide specifically glorify the virtues of small communities.
Some Gab users enjoyed the idea of invading the platform. An illustrated move with a shot of The shining, tagging an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson "Gab" and tagging a screaming Shelley Duvall as Mastodon. But becoming a member of Mastodon is not the same as flooding in a traditional, centralized social network. If most instances block Gab, one of the largest Mastodon nodes may be more the largest group to build a site with WordPress or start a workspace on Slack: more of a boasting than a takeover.
It is unclear how many Gab users interact with other parts of the Fediverse. The managers of a prominent example of Mastodon, who asked not to be mentioned for fear of bullying, said they had not noticed Gab-related activities on their server. On the other hand, another administrator who spoke anonymously said they had "seen an increasing number of reports from users about people bothering fights and users – mostly about transgender problems."
Even without direct action, the manager said that the basic fear of having Gab on the Fediverse put people on edge. When one user mistakenly accidentally thrown another one, the admin said, they were also harassed with the accusation that they were from Gab. "People behave more paranoidly, but I can't say I blame them."
Mastodon certainly had problems before Gab. Among other things, The Daily Dot reported early this year some marginalized users felt ignored or undervalued on the platform, including some who said they were leaving because of problems with the Rochko development process. But Gab's migration appears to be at the heart of Mastodon's mission, where two principles – security and openness – are at odds with each other.
Even Gab & # 39; s de facto defenders do not tend to argue a lot about its content. (The creator of Subway Tooter apologized for becoming insensitive to "the Nazi problem.") Instead, the battle lines seem to be focused on helping individual users and administrators avoid interaction with the instance, or to avoid Gab pushing away from Mastodon as far as possible by all necessary means.
When Tusky blocked Gab, a poster about F-Droid repository suggested that the app should no longer be considered free software – saying that even if Tusky met the letter of the open source law, it violated his mind by building censorship in the code. Another user responded by asking for a "promotes intolerance" flag on Fedilab for allowing Gab logins. "This is not about freedom of expression. It is about enabling hatred toward specific groups," wrote the user, who says she has been attacked because she is a transgender woman. "I'm not asking to block apps, just to know which apps aren't actively fighting intolerance from others."
Mastodon's riddle is a microcosm of a much bigger conflict online. The internet has given billions of people a way to strengthen their voice, but the considerations have become palpable. Removing gatekeepers can allow disinformation and dislike flourishing. Uncensored online forums can be co-opted by fools and bullying, silencing their less powerful goals. And in the light of violent suprematic movements that target real people, openness – once an undisputed pillar of internet culture – can seem like a hopeless abstract principle.
Mastodon and its members are currently navigating between two bad options. If they completely ignore Gab, they could end up as a less hospitable community for marginalized people. But if they go to war, they run the risk of breaking Mastodon. And anyway, at the moment, Gab has demonstrably shaken the work of admins and developers who have cared for their community for years.
At the end of my conversation with Rochko, I ask if he has any final comments. "It's just a shame that these are the circumstances that we're talking about Mastodon again," he tells me. "I'd much rather see it specifically about Mastodon. Instead of, you know, Gab."