The growing pains of Mastodon content moderation
Since Elon Musk bought Twitter, Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging platform, has seen millions of new users. I wrote elsewhere about the architecture that makes Mastodon unique – in particular, each Mastodon server (called an “instance”) can choose its own content moderation standards, blocking content, users, or even other instances it wishes. This leads to what I’ve called “content moderation subsidiarity” and allows users to tailor their experience while generally being able to follow and be followed by users on other instances.
Mastodon thus represents a new solution to the “content moderator trilemma”: the challenge of (1) managing a social media platform with a giant and diverse user base, (2) using a set of moderation standards from content and (3) manage users dissatisfied with the content moderation they experience. Centralized platforms like Twitter respond to the trilemma by accepting that user dissatisfaction is inevitable; decentralized platforms like Mastodon attempt to satisfy users by foregoing centralized moderation standards.
But it will take time – months, if not years – for millions of new Mastodon users to find, and in some cases create, the instances that best suit their needs. In the meantime, expect a difficult period of growing pains.
An illustrative example is the ongoing controversy in diary.host, a body set up for journalists. Mike Pesca, a former podcaster at Slate and member of the journal.host instance, posted a link to a recent New York Times article story about the potential negative effects of treating transgender children and adolescents with puberty blockers, describing the story as “careful and thorough reporting”. Parker Molloy, another journa.host user and herself a transgender woman, responded by strongly criticizing the article and calling Pesca a “bigot” And one “anti-trans ghoul”.
Sin defended his original post and criticized Molloy’s actions, writing, “you as a member of the activist community attack the article [because] bad bedfellows, insults me and misrepresents history as Republicans versus doctors. This is simply inaccurate.” Journa.host suspended Pesca for “degrading the professionalism of a journalist, based on his identity” (hence the above links to Pesca’s Twitter feed, where he posted screenshots of exchange).
Journa.host also suspended Molloy for “harming the integrity of another [user]who is a moderator on the server,” apparently referring to Molloy’s call to Evan Urquhart, himself a transgender journalist who has critical the New York Times article, as “licker.” It’s unclear if Molloy’s insult to Pesca also factored into his suspension.
Regardless, she has since apologized to both Sin and at journa.host moderators. Molloy moved to a new instance, while Pesca remains suspended. (Although Pesca has describe being “suspended from Mastodon”, he was only suspended from journa.host. This merger between the Mastodon network and individual Mastodon instances is a common and understandable confusion among new Mastodon users.)
Journa.host has been criticized from all sides. Some (myself included) believe that journa.host should not have suspended Pesca for its relatively mild response to Molloy’s attack. Others criticized journa.host for suspending Molloy and for not doing more to fight transphobia. Indeed, he has (it seems to me unfairly) developed a reputation some bodies being generally transphobic, insofar as several large bodies have either limit or outright banned access for their users to journa.host (a move that Molloy has urged versus).
The journa.host controversy illustrates how Mastodon’s rapid growth forces it to confront one of its founding contradictions. For one thing, simply due to the decentralized nature of Mastodon and the fact that no content or user can be entirely banned from the network, it is categorically more protective of speech than any other platform. In this sense, Mastodon, not Twitter, is (as Twitter used to be called) the “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
On the other hand, much of Mastodon’s mainstream culture — at least before the recent influx of Twitter users — supported fairly heavy-handed moderation, especially of users and content considered far-right. As Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko Noted, “One of the things that gave impetus to the creation of Mastodon was the lack of moderation on Twitter against hate groups. The “no nazis” rule of the original server mastodon.social… continues to be an attraction project.” The aggressive moderation standard also reflects the fact that Mastodon, unlike most other social media platforms, does not originate in the United States but in Europe (specifically Germany, where the nonprofit Mastodon is based), which has more permissive legal and cultural rules. standards regarding speech restrictions.
Another example of Mastodon trying to accomplish through standards what it has forbidden in architecture is the “Mastodon server covenant”, which was introduced in 2019. commitment is a set of requirements that instances must meet to be listed on the Mastodon organization website.
These requirements include “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia” so that users “have confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, anti-Semitism and transphobia d ‘other platforms’. But the alliance doesn’t – indeed can’t – require any particular instance of Mastodon to meet these requirements. A non-compliant instance may not be referenced on the Mastodon organization site, but it remains a full member of the Mastodon network.
As Mastodon grows – and especially as it incorporates users who may be dissatisfied with its existing standards – this contradiction will remain a source of tension. In some cases, the network has successfully quarantined instances that deviate from mainstream norms, as happened when the alt-right platform Gab migrated at Mastodon. But enough new users could overwhelm Mastodon’s mainstream culture, especially if those users quit or refuse to join instances they consider overly censored.
The question, for which we will simply have to wait to find the answer, is whether the system achieves equilibrium around a large core of instances that are ready to communicate despite the calls for defederation, or if on the contrary the network balkanizes into a circular, shifting firing squad of mutual blocking that is difficult to navigate and unrewarding to be a part of. If the latter, Mastodon may disable too many users to truly be a viable competitor to Twitter.
Either way, fights will be messy and public. But I suspect that Churchill’s observation about democracy is also true for content moderation on a global Internet: the decentralized option might just be the worst, barring everything else.