Slamming Twitter for censorship and inability to control hate speech, thousands signed up for Mastodon last week. But can the micro-blogging site, started in 2016, live up to its promises for a safer, more civil online discourse?
Eugen Rochko says he wasn't surprised at the sudden surge in Indian users last week on Mastodon, the micro-blogging website he created three years ago. "Events not dissimilar to it have happened from different communities," says the 26-year-old German tech-entrepreneur in a Skype call. "It's what motivates me to continue to work on this platform."
Rochko was referring to a recent controversy on Twitter's censorship and "opaque" moderation policies, one that led to thousands of its users wanting to quit the platform or look for alternatives.
It started last week when Twitter suspended the account of Delhi-based Dalit poet Dilip Mandal, after he accused Twitter of being casteist in its account verification process. Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde's account was also suspended twice in a month: once for posting a satirical poem and then for posting an anti-fascist photograph.
Several Twitter users saw this as an attempt to silence voices critical of the government, even pander to majoritarianism. Anti-caste activists also pointed out instances where prominent Dalit personalities, such as politician Prakash Ambedkar and Tamil film director Pa Ranjith, didn't receive "blue ticks" despite having thousands of followers, whereas Jay Shah, son of Union home minister Amit Shah, for instance, was granted one with 27 followers. A blue tick indicates that an account holder is officially verified by Twitter, and helps a user win more credibility and followers.
Then there was the problem of trolls.
Aditi Mittal, a Mumbai-based stand-up comic, recalls the time when she tweeted sarcastically on the prevalence of marital rape in India. The reaction to it, she says, "blew me away. I was getting rape and death threats".
"At first, you reported them, blocked them and your day was done," says Mittal, who has 385,000 followers on Twitter. "Now, they are in thousands. You can't report everyone."
Besides, she adds, Twitter policing was selective and inadequate. Account suspension tended to be temporary and ineffective; people indulging in hate speech and communal rhetoric often went unchecked. Trolls with pro-government leanings, some of them followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seemed to operate with impunity.
By 4 November, hashtags like #BoycottTwitter and #CancelAllBlueTicksInIndia were trending on Twitter. Members of the Dailt organization Bhim Army protested outside Twitter India's office in Mumbai, demanding that Twitter verify (and give blue ticks to) the accounts of several Dalit personalities.
Some users then proposed Mastodon as an alternative. It seemed like an easy switch: The website has a Twitter-like interface complete with character-limits and hashtags. User tweets are called "toots", retweets become "boosts". Where it differs is that it's open-source, decentralized and allows users to create private networks called "instances" based on mutual interest groups. It carries no advertisements and claims to have robust systems in place to protect users against harassment and hate speech.
On 7 November, #Mastodon (with nearly 2.2 million users, against Twitter's 320 million users worldwide) was trending at #4 on Indian Twitter. Rochko told Mint in an interview on 13 November that Mastodon had received 26,000 new users in the past week from India. He also hired an Indian moderator with Hindi language skills and is now looking for Tamil and Bengali moderators.
For now, Mastodon seems to be cashing in on Twitter's failings. Long-term users say the Twitter user experience has changed in such a way over the years that it has forced them to look for an alternative. For many, the problem arises when politicians and companies try and shape online conversations with hashtags and promoted tweets, or at Twitter's perceived failure to contain the trolls and hate speech on its platform.
"I was an early adopter on Twitter, but it's very different now," says writer, columnist Nilanjana Roy (210,000 followers and a blue tick) on email. "In India, Twitter feels not like an escape from the news and politics, but like a space that is far too heavily shaped by our country's politics. It also feels biased—they are quick to suspend accounts critical of the government, but take almost no action against handles that routinely abuse women, minorities, or spread falsehoods."
A study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American non-profit promoting press freedom, found that since August 2017, Twitter had agreed to uphold 131 of 4,722 requests from the Indian government to remove content. In contrast, it had agreed to only one of the 900 requests made between 2012-17. Users claim many of these are requests to censor users and tweets critical of the content, a charge Twitter disputes.
"Twitter's commitment to inclusion and diversity is fundamental to who we are and crucial to the effectiveness of our service," the website's India account tweeted on 7 November. "Voices from across the spectrum can be seen and heard on Twitter and we are committed to the principles of openness, transparency, and impartiality."
Several users dismissed this as doublespeak. Mastodon tweeted: "All moderation is political. To claim impartiality and non-bias, especially in 2019, is to take the side of the status quo."
Mastodon, which runs mainly through crowdfunding, intends to promote a more "egalitarian" forum. However, it is not without its problems. Since individuals can host their own groups, it has also attracted right-wing extremist social media websites like Gab, which has been linked to the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue terror attack last year.
Rochko is aware that several Indian users are looking for safer spaces and a civil discourse—this is why the website has updated its community guidelines to include a ban on casteism, he says. Given the free access, it's difficult to stop trolls from joining the platform. "But we have a higher moderator-to-user ratio compared to giants like Twitter," he says. "So we can afford to give more attention to reports and issues as they arise."
Mastodon's claims were put to the test in the hours after the Supreme Court's Ayodhya verdict. Mittal, who joined the platform around that time, says it was refreshing to encounter a balanced discourse. "There were conversations where people disagreed with each other but there were no threats." It remains to be seen whether the character of the website will undergo a change with the increase in user traffic and toots.
Thejesh G.N., co-founder of Datameet, a community of data scientists in India, says Mastodon's appeal lies in the fact that it gives people privacy and greater control over their data. The need for the two, he adds, is already being felt as users get more and more data-literate.
"The change will be gradual rather than a Big Bang," he adds. "I don't expect people to install this instead of Twitter if they buy a phone tomorrow. Even I won't stop using Twitter. But for many, it might just become a broadcast medium. Users will express themselves somewhere else."