While content moderation on Mastodon is far from perfect, it may be miles ahead of what’s in second place.
Last week, when working on an article for FOSS Force I wanted to embed a toot, which is what Mastodon calls tweets. That’s easy to do in Twitter, but I wasn’t sure that Mastodon had that capability. I looked around briefly, didn’t find the answer, so I dashed off a quick toot for help.
“Help! How do I link to a particular toot?”
The other option would be to post a screenshot, which would entail a teeny bit more work with results that wouldn’t be quite as satisfactory.
I quickly received a reply from someone who follows me explaining how it’s done, which is drop-dead easy and pretty much like it is everywhere else. Click on the three dots below the toot, chose “Embed,” and code automagically shows up to copy and paste, so the next thing you know you have a bone fide and connected toot showing up in an iframe on your web page that’ll look like this after you write a tag to center it:
A little while later, when I took a break to check-in on Mastodon, I found in my notification column a couple of additional replies to my help-seeking toot, as well as a reply that didn’t seem so nice from someone with the handle “@spiritsplice.”
“@BrideOfLinux, quit talking like a fag,” it said.
I was a little taken aback, but maybe, I thought, he was only trying to be funny or sarcastic. I’m big on giving people the benefit of the doubt, or at least, I try to be. Besides, I’d only come-across one other rude person during my short time on Mastodon, and that person had been politely rude, like a proper Englishman.
“Are you intentionally being rude?” I tooted back.
His answer: “Talking like a fag is rude.”
“Because I asked how to do something on Mastodon?”
“Only faggots say toot,” he replied.
By this time I was pretty convinced that not only was he being rude, he was being rudely rude, in a typical, gun toting ‘Murican sense.
But what if he was just new in town and hadn’t learned his way around Mastodon — including knowledge of the platform’s social boundaries, I thought. I mean, I really wanted to be 100% sure before I sounded the alarm and publicly called him out.
“It’s what Mastodon officially calls posts,” I explained.
“I wonder,” I added to the same toot, “do you have something against LGBTQ people? Your use of the term ‘fag’ and ‘faggots’ indicates you do.”
“Make sure you drink Draino before you put your mask on,” he replied.
That did it.
I blocked him and filed a formal complaint with his server, but not until I took screenshots of the thread so that I could get the word out about this guy. After blocking him, I wouldn’t be able to link to the thread.
Actually, looking back it’s kind of surprising that I even bothered to call him out. If this had happened on Facebook or Twitter, where I’ve seen worse, I would’ve just blocked him and gone on my way, but in the couple of months I’d been on Mastodon I hadn’t seen this kind of behavior, and wanted to keep it that way.
The Mastodon Difference
At this point, I should probably explain that while Mastodon has a look and feel, as well as a functionality, that’s very similar to Twitter, or just about any other social network, it’s different under the hood. Instead of being one giant megalithic architecture housing all users under a single roof, Mastodon takes what’s called a “federated” approach. It’s a collection of independently operated servers (or “instances”) of various sizes, each running its own copy of the software that makes the platform tick and networked into the greater federation, which has little say over how individual instances manage their communities.
This includes moderation.
When I reported spiritsplice, that report went straight to the administrator(s) of the @pieville.net server(s), who then decide according to the standards of their instance whether to take action on the complaint. This meant that if pieville is a server hosting a lot of homophobic, sexist, and/or white supremacist loudmouths, which I suspected, the administrator was likely to take no action at all, other than giving me the middle finger and a silent “FU.”
That’s why I took the screenshots of the conversation with spiritsplice and tooted them with the warning, “This thread just happened to me.” Even if the administrator of spiritsplice’s instance chose to ignore my complaint, admins at other instances aren’t bound by that decision. If they think that this user is a problem, they can block him from their server to protect their users, and I wanted to get the word out to admins at other instances that they might want to take a look at this guy.
My suspicion that pieville, the server used by spiritsplice, might not only be full of bad actors, but actually created especially for bad actors (you don’t have to get permission to connect yourself to the federation), began to be verified right away. Shortly after I posted the photos of the thread, Ariadne Conill, a streetwise maintainer at Alpine Linux who never fails to say what she thinks), posted: “Pieville should just be suspended everywhere. It’s a bunch of alt-right fuckwits.”
Shortly afterwards, Conill’s observation was verified by Paul Atkinson, who’s evidently an admin at the @sphere.fx4.net instance.
“Well, just blocked that whole instance from federating with ours,” he wrote. “Y-i-k-e-s. Hopefully other admins follow suit on the larger instances. Thanks for pointing it out.”
About five minutes later the conversation was joined by Patrick Masson, who for many years was GM and director at Open Source Initiative and who’s now interim GM at Apereo Foundation, a community of developers, academics, and edtech companies collaborating to develop and implement open source software to aid teachers, students, and researchers.
“I just looked up pieville.net, and based on the server admin’s toots, I wouldn’t expect the pieville admin to intervene,” he said. “Perhaps you can share the exchange with your server admin to have the user and/or server blocked on your instance (if that is what you’d like)?
“This is my first experience with a user abuse issue. I’ve heard Mastodon has ways/tools to moderate better than Twitter, so I’m seeing how this plays out.”
What Masson meant to say was that this was is first experience with a user abuse issue on Mastodon; he as much experience with such issues on Twitter. Several years back he came under a vicious attack that included threats on Twitter, that eventually led him to unfollow everyone he followed, and all but abandon his Twitter account, after Twitter’s moderation team turned out to mostly useless.
As to Masson’s suggestion that I contact my server admin to get spiritsplice blocked from the instance I use — I’d already done that. Shortly after I posted my photos of the offending thread to the fediverse as a whole, I sent Paolo Vecchi, my contact with the server I use, a direct-message that included those shots, along with an explanation.
Because my server is located in Luxembourg, about a quarter way around the world from me, I had to wait until the next morning to see a reply, however.
“I’m very sorry you have been subjected to these attacks,” Vecchi wrote. “I’ve blocked the whole instance as that isn’t the only account posting stuff that is unacceptable.
“Thank you for reporting the incident and please keep doing so as we don’t want accounts/instances like those poisoning our Fediverse.”
Vecchi wasn’t the only person to thank me. During that afternoon and evening admins from other instances got involved, and they always not only thanked me for sounding the alarm, but urged me to continue to do so whenever I run across a bad actor.
I imagine that if this had happened on Twitter, and I had sent a tweet to the twitterverse asking users to be on the lookout for a bad actor, it would either be ignored, or more likely, that spiritsplice’s friends would’ve ganged up on me and that many of my followers would have either joined the attackers or become enablers by posting eye-rolls with “snowflake” references.
I’m also pretty sure that Twitter’s moderators would be pretty useless. I know they would be at Facebook, because I’ve been there and done that so many times that I no longer bother.
On Twitter, however, they sing another tune than I’m singing here about the efficacy of Mastodon’s community-based content moderation. I often see tweets about how, with moderation being so complicated and all, moderation on Mastodon is doomed to be an unholy mess because of the federated nature of the platform.
Moderation on Mastodon isn’t perfect, however, which should surprise absolutely no one. Communities are complex, and what people deem to be acceptable content ranges from anything-goes to I’m-offended-by-everything, which probably makes the job of a content moderator on a social site something like being a cat herder.
The federated nature of Mastodon, where community standards can vary from instance to instance, makes moderation even more difficult, and can be something of a labyrinth for Mastodon users — especially when it come to choosing an instance to be home for an account.
On Thursday, Mark Cathcart, a retired executive director of systems engineering and senior distinguished engineer at Dell, and prior to that, an IBM Distinguished Engineer, blogged about a head butt with moderators on a Mastodon instance that ended up costing him his Mastodon account.
I’m not going to tell the entire story here because Cathcart tells it well in his blog, but it does serve to illustrate that Mastodon has its own unique problems with moderation, and that picking the right server to host an account might be more important than is at first evident.
It also reminds us that Mastodon should not be confused with utopia — which so far doesn’t exist anywhere in nature.