When Social Media Moderation Becomes Our Responsibility

6/2/2023

Being in the fediverse today is a familiar and weird experience at the same time.

On the surface, it’s all very similar to Twitter and other social networks. Yes, the system for following/finding someone is kind of clunky and there are unique features and conventions there, like the “content warning” and the emphasis on image descriptions. These details are quickly learned, though.

Things can get (and do) more complex.

Time and again, differences emerge between instances (themselves, a difficult concept to explain) and groups of users, such as long-time users and newcomers coming from Twitter. And although the power dynamics are good, better than those of commercial alternatives — decentralized, with distributed power — this doesn’t mean that the architecture is ready or does not need adjustments, improvements.

One obvious, long due is to give more transparency to instance blocking.

Instances, or communities, have the power to block each other. And they, or most of them, make use of this power. Which is great: the social network Gab, that one for white supremacists? It’s Mastodon under the hood, which doesn’t mean much because almost all other instances preventively block it.

So far, so good. The problem is that reporting these blocks is right now at the discretion of the instance administrator. There is no way for anyone to know about the blocks done on their behalf, nor about the blocks of other instances to theirs.

And, at the very least, Mastodon should notify members involved in cross-instance lockouts. This helps users to be aware of the administration’s actions and make informed decisions to stay or migrate instances. (Migration is a smooth process and you don’t lose followers by doing it.)

A practical example. In late 2022, Brazilian instances blocked another, called Ursal. Some administrators, such as Donte’s and Bantu’s (both in Portuguese), published posts justifying the decision. We cannot tolerate certain abuses, and we are all grown ups with limited time. The omission of the administration of one instance requires the administration of other instances to moderate other members about basic civility practices. This isn’t sustainable, and it’s also pretty lame.

Nothing wrong with blocking instances with bad admins. The problem is that I only found out about the blocking when it was already in effect. The account for my Portuguese-written blog was at Donte and, as much as I now agree with the admin’s decision and praise his hard work, this decision affected the relationship I had with people at Ursal, who, like me, were not aware of the troubles of Ursal admin. We were taken by surprise with the breakdown.

When I migrated my blog’s account to its own instance, re-establishing contact with Ursal, someone from Donte questioned me:

Is Ursal blocked on Donte? I had followers and followed people from there. Does this mean that our communication is no longer possible?

Yes, it means exactly that.

A global and automatic notification system would avoid this kind of unpleasant surprise. There’s nothing like that on Mastodon roadmap, although a (great) feature suggestion was made on GitHub two years ago.

Nevertheless, despite everything, the decentralized fediverse/Mastodon model has been better than Twitter’s centralized one. If on Elon Musk’s network the abuses run wild and are only stopped at the threshold of absurdity (if ever), here on the other side, with ordinary people in charge, dialoguing, playing politics, making mistakes and learning, and trying to get it right, the environment in general is more harmonious, more pleasant.

Rushes like this involving Ursal are inevitable. We are, after all, people trying to find a common denominator to live together in an environment where communication is limited, one to many, unnatural. With patience and good will, however, we will go far.

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