Could Mastodon rival Twitter as a safer social media platform for the LGBTQ+ community?
Millions flocked to the microblogging platform last year following tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeover of Twitter.
LGBTQ+ users raised particular concerns over Musk unpicking several of Twitter’s policies against hate speech and online harassment, while also reinstating users banned for sharing anti-LGBTQ+ views.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The changes in Twitter policy led to a flood of people seeking alternative social media, with many migrating to Mastodon.
Rather than being controlled by one authority or owner, Mastodon is a decentralised social media platform – in effect a constellation of small, independently-run sites that can interlink and share posts.
Each of the sites, also known as servers or instances, are run by their own administrators who can create their own rules.
Mastodon’s founder and lead developer Eugen Rochko said the platform’s total active monthly users increased from 300,000 to 2.5 million between October and November last year.
Analysis of Mastodon data by several media organisations found the platform’s total user base has declined since that spike, though it remains far larger than a few months ago.
Mastodon currently hosts more than 12,000 instances, with hundreds using the acronym LGBTQ+ in their description or title.
So how does the platform compare to Twitter in protecting its users from harm online?
What has changed at Twitter?
Twitter has faced questions about its ability and willingness to moderate harmful content after Musk slashed 50% of staff in November, including workers responsible for moderation, human rights and ethics. Hundreds of others quit shortly after.
The site has since been leaning heavily on automation to moderate content and has done away with certain manual reviews, its head of trust and safety told Reuters last year.
Musk also dissolved Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, a volunteer advisory group.
Hate speech on the platform has risen since Musk’s takeover, a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate has shown.
The study revealed tweets using a slur against gay people had risen by 58% since Musk’s arrival, while posts including a slur against trans people had risen by 62%.
A study last month by media watchdog Media Matters and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found a large rise in retweets of posts by prominent right-wing figures that falsely equated LGBTQ+ people with child abuse “groomers”.
Musk has declared the new Twitter policy to be “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach“, indicating that users would have greater freedom to post negative or hateful tweets but the posts would not be boosted by the site’s algorithm.
Twitter still bans “hateful conduct” including targeted harassment or hate towards a person, group or protected category of people.
How does Mastodon differ?
Mastodon is a decentralised platform based on open-source code, and has no owner to direct overarching policy.
Instead, each instance is run by its own administrators, who are usually volunteers. They set their own safety policies and manage moderation. Users can share posts with those within their instance, as well as others across the wider Mastodon network.
Moderators can block other instances from interacting with their own, meaning none of their users can see or interact with any content from the blocked server.
Typically, they would take this step if they feel the other instance is enabling hate speech or other inappropriate content which they want to protect their users from seeing.
Mastodon asks administrators to pledge to keep the network a “harassment-free experience for everyone”, including by using inclusive language and showing empathy towards others.
However, the platform does not have the power to enforce any moderation standards.
Rochko, the CEO of a non-profit that develops the software Mastodon runs on, told the Financial Times newspaper last month that he had turned down more than five funding offers from U.S. investors to keep the site in the hands of its users.
“It’s really important to have this global communications platform where you can learn what’s happening in the world and chat to your friends. Why is that controlled by one company?” he told Reuters last year.
What are the advantages of Mastodon’s approach?
Mastodon is by no means free from online harassment, said its supporters, but administrators’ ability to mute and block content from entire instances can help protect users from online abuse and hate.
David Wolfpaw, who uses they/them pronouns, set up the Tech.LGBTQ+ Mastodon instance in 2017 and remains the leading administrator for the site.
Its code of conduct is against hate speech of any sort – which is at the moderator’s discretion.
“Harmful content absolutely exists on Mastodon. A big difference is that we have much more control over moderation,” Wolfpaw told Openly.
“We can better make decisions for our community. I don’t need to debate if a transphobic server setup for harassment is worth keeping around at all. I simply block their access.”
What problems could lie ahead?
Concerns have been raised over Mastodon instances with links to illegal and abusive content.
In 2019, Gab, an alternative social media network known for its right-wing base, created its own Mastodon instance.
Rochko said in a statement that he regretted their arrival on Mastodon but was powerless to ban them as the network’s open-source software licence means it is available to all.
However, Rochko noted the Gab instance had been blocked by many servers, including the one he moderates, mastodon.social.
“As a truly decentralized network, each Mastodon server operator has to make the call on their own. Many have already opted to block communication from Gab’s servers,” he said.
Others have noted that Mastodon’s volunteer-led moderating can be slower than corporate-run social media sites.
“(On Mastodon) you are not beholden to, like on Twitter, Elon Musk’s whims. But whoever runs the instance essentially has complete control over it,” said Garfield Benjamin, a sociology lecturer at Solent University specialising in social media.
“So while they might have policies that moderate and protect privacy, you do kind of have to just trust them.”
Reporting by Lucy Middleton; editing by Sonia Elks.