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Can Upstart Twitter-Clone Mastodon Create a Nazi-Free Space Online?

Photo: Elena Duvernay/Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

The hot, new social-media destination this week is an app launched last fall called “Mastodon.” Mastodon is, for the most part, a Twitter clone that lets users post 500-character messages onto their timelines, send @ replies, and favorite each other’s “toots” (not tweets). Over the past week, it’s experienced a dramatic spike in user growth, nearing about 50,000 users, as Twitter rolls out changes to its user experience that irk power users, like new methods of formatting replies.

Mastodon does have a considerable number of strengths that set it apart from its competition. It’s open-source — meaning that others are free to use, alter, and deploy the site’s backbone as they see fit — allowing small communities to set themselves up outside of platforms like Facebook. It’s also ad-free and pledges not to use or sell user data, which is a nice sentiment that plenty of companies have pledged, before being pulled down by the weight of their own promises.

But the biggest upside to Mastodon is that there are no Nazis on the platform. (I’m saying “Nazi” here, but I also mean toxicity, harassment, brigading, and general nastiness that has come to plague Twitter.) Partly, this is because Mastodon, developed by German citizen Eugen Rochko, is guided by German law — which prohibits Nazi imagery and Holocaust denial — and not by some vague affection for the First Amendment, as Twitter is.

While those rules are part of its terms of service, there is also little doubt that Mastodon’s lack of Twitter-like toxicity is due to its small size. It’s not that hard to find 50,000 people online who aren’t Nazis, and are mostly pretty nice (not that Mastodon doesn’t have spats). So one question is: Can it maintain its peacefulness as it grows? As of right now, the cost of running Mastodon, which includes supporting Rochko’s living expenses, is just $800 a month (his Patreon page pulls in at least double that currently). That’s a fraction of the operating budget of any large-scale social-media platform, and as platforms grow, costs multiply. Stricter terms necessitate more eyes; one could argue that being laissez-faire about the content allowed on your social-media platform is a way to keep costs down, which is why so many platforms are loose with the rules. Servers, maintenance, personnel, legal representation, content moderators — even the biggest companies rely on human eyes to figure out whether something is in violation of their terms.

But while Twitter’s laissez-faire attitude toward harassment rules may have helped it scale cheaply, it’s also become a liability. Really, Twitter’s biggest misstep might have been branding itself a “global town square” where people with diverse viewpoints come together — and then crossing its fingers and hoping that people act respectfully. Anonymity and pseudonymity make it effortless to be an asshole online.

In this sense, Mastodon might have an advantage. If you’re depressed enough, you might imagine that the only option is now to keep everyone in their separate ideological and behavioral corners — Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, Discord, Voat, Gab, Mastodon — occasionally venturing out into the “neutral” No Man’s Land of Twitter or Facebook to try and change some hearts and minds. If this is the case, then maybe Mastodon can stay Nazi-free, but that all depends on motive.

While creating strict anti-harassment rules can have a serious effect, and Twitter’s hesitance to take action on the issue for years definitely emboldened trolls, history shows that trolls will always disregard rules; that’s kinda the whole point. Put together a raid on 4chan or in IRC, find a target, and flood it with trolling and harassment via throwaway accounts. If you get blocked or banned, just create another until your target logs off, deletes their account, or calls the cops. Breaking the rules, implicit or explicit, is part of the appeal.

Ultimately, the question of Mastodon’s future might come down to the familiar debate over the intent of online white nationalism. Are the people tweeting KKK Pepes doing so because they wish to express their beliefs? Or because they want to trigger some snowflakes? If it’s the former, balkanized social networks seem like the inevitable, tense future of the internet. If it’s the latter, then nowhere is safe.

Twitter shot itself in the foot by positioning itself as upholding free speech above all else, emboldening racists and sexists and homophobes to flood peoples’ mentions. Being clear about content guidelines from the jump works in Mastodon’s favor, and protects it from charges of hypocrisy. But if, by some weird stroke of luck, Mastodon is more than a flash in the pan and starts attracting sign-ups by the thousands, that’ll attract people looking for a fight, hidden by the veil of online anonymity, and up against a shoestring operation. We know what happens next.

Mastodon Doesn’t Have Nazis. Yet.