So there has been some talks recently about how fediverse handles moderation and some of its issues, and to see how we can improve moderation from a technical perspective. Now I have an idea that I want to share with you all, because so far I haven't seen anyone else talk about it, and I think this could solve a lot of issues with our current method of moderation. But before going into that, I want to explain the current situation and why this is important, so that you understand what issues I'm trying to solve.
When it comes to moderation, Fediverse follows a more mainstream approach, where admins/moderators of an instance block users and other instances on behalf of you. And as a user you also have the tools to block/mute users or instances.
Compared to all of the other centralized platforms, there is something different here on fedi, and that is the ability to block entire instances, which will, on an instant, block a huge chunk of users that are on it. This can be a very powerful feature for moderators, but if not used carefully this can lead to problems. For example, if someone decides to block an entire instance just because of a few bad actors on it, then they're also blocking all of the other users on that instance who haven't done anything wrong to get blocked.
If you're a fediverse user and your instance admin blocked another instance from federating, that means you can't interact with anyone on that instance anymore, but you as a user is never notified of any of this so you won't know when it happens. Just think about that for a moment, this is equal to cutting the cord with that server, stopping the federation entirely. And if you had any friends on that instance, then you will lose contact with them.
Federation doesn't solve all problems
So what people usually say is that in the fediverse you can move instances, so if you don't agree with the moderators of one instance, you can simply move to a different one. While it is great that we have this option in the fediverse, it is not as easy as it sounds. And one project that I want to note here is Hubzilla because from what I've read so far they do it much better, they have this thing called nomadic identities which are independent from the server you use, and so you can very easily move from server to server and bring all your data with you. And furthermore, on Hubzilla you can even clone your account to different servers, so this will be the equivalent of being on several different instances at the same time and they all mirror each other, how cool is that?!
Centralization makes it worse
Email is another federated service just like our fediverse. And if you look at email the problem there is that most people are on a few servers like Gmail, Outlook, etc. And so this gives the ones in control of these servers more power over other servers on the network. And if you look at the fediverse now there is a similar problem arising here, most users on the entire fediverse are on a couple of popular instances, so if your instance got banned by these big instances then you're pretty much out of fedi. Centralization & censorship is a threat to federated networks, so keep that in mind.
And some people also say you can start your own instance, but you can't expect the average social media user to go through the process of setting up a server and maintain it, if you have the money and technical skills to do that then you can, but this is not a viable solution for the majority of people. Peer to peer apps are much better in this regard because there everyone is automatically made a node in the network, so they don't have to do anything for it. But on fedi this is not the case, you have to rely on servers.
There is no simple solution to this problem, but I'll list some of the key points here that I think are important:
Transparency regarding moderation actions
So I've mentioned above how users are not notified when their admin blocks an instance, this is the first and foremost problem we should try to solve. All of the moderation decisions should be made transparent to the users of that instance, and the admin/moderator should also explain the reason why they chose to block these. So I've been informed that they recently found a solution for this on Friendica, so that's great 😀. What they did is that they implemented a notification system that notifies all users of an instance when their blocklist gets updated, and it'll show a link to that blocklist where they can check to see all the instances that are currently blocked and the reason for their blocking. This is how it should be done, and I want other fediverse platforms to do the same.
One thing that I want to add here is that it'd be nice if users are informed about it when someone they follow (or that instance) gets blocked. As a user I want to know when this happens, or else I will be in the dark about it, not knowing that I can't see/interact with that person anymore.
So the more transparent you make moderation, the better it'll be.
Different levels of blocking
This is an important one I think, moderators/admins should have the power to "hide" a user from the public instead of outright blocking them. There will be some edge cases when it comes to blocking, so the moderator may not want to outright block it, but just simply hide it from the public timelines or something. This feature might already be on some fediverse platforms, I remember opening a profile from my mastodon account and it blurred the profile and showed me a little warning saying "This profile is hidden because of sensitive content" or something like that, and I had to click on a button to agree to seeing that. I really liked this little thing, because the profile wasn't blocked or anything, but my moderators could show a warning instead.
So blocking shouldn't be an all-or-nothing strategy, there should be different levels of blocking, because this is better for moderators and users alike 🙂
So this is that big idea I had in my mind, let me explain. I mentioned in the beginning how fediverse allows its users to block/mute other users and even instances. So currently when you first join fedi your personal blocklist will be empty, even though your instance admin might have blocked some users/instances on your behalf. But what if we actually made it so that the instance blocklist syncs with the user blocklist? 😀 So in that case when you join fedi your blocklist will be filled with your default instance blocks, and every time the moderators block a new server it'll get added to the blocklist of all users. This kind of mechanism would allow moderators to create a safe space for everyone, but at the same time if someone wants to unblock any of these they can do that on the user level. So if I found out that I have some friends on an instance that is blocked for me, I can just unblock that specific instance so that I can still talk to my friends, and this is a user level action so I can only unblock it for me, not for other users on my instance.
So lets call this method of blocking as "soft blocking" because as a moderator you're simply just updating the default blocklist for your users, and if any of them really want to then they can unblock it for themselves. This should be the default way of blocking for fediverse moderators because I think it satisfies the needs of both moderators who want to create a safe space for their users, and also alleviate the concerns of people who are worried about censorship and losing contact with their friends.
There might be some exceptions where instance admins might want to apply a "hard block" so that users can't unblock it even if they want to. I'm specifically thinking of blocking illegal content here, because in that case there might be some laws that make it tricky, so if you're worried of legal issues then having the option of a hard block could be useful. One thing to note is, for the users they will still see these hard blocks on their personal blocklist, but there won't be that unblock button that allows them to unblock these.
P.S. Let me know what you think of this idea? Is it practical or doable? Is there anything else I missed?
So far we've been talking only about the technical side of things, to see how we can improve moderation by giving more power and choice to the users. But looking at some of the replies I got on this post I felt like maybe a lot of people don't understand why we're doing it in the first place, why should we give more power to the users over admins? So I wrote a separate post, to answer that question, but also to make people understand how much of a complex topic moderation actually is, it isn't just simply "blocking bad content".
The social impacts of moderation & censorship - https://social.trom.tf/display/dbc8dc44-7762-f814-5ad9-208146996908