Twitter in India: Why was rival Mastodon trending?

  • Published
Mastodon login pageImage source, Mastodon
Image caption,
A number of India's Twitter users say Mastodon is a more egalitarian alternative

Some of India's most influential Twitter users are looking to move to little-known network Mastodon amid an outcry over Twitter moderation methods.

Mastodon's apparent trend-surge was prompted by Twitter suspending a leading Indian Supreme Court lawyer's account twice.

Users have told the BBC they believe Twitter has a "highly inconsistent stand" on issues such as hate speech.

In contrast, they argue Mastodon's anti-abuse systems are far more robust.

The smaller social network's name was soon trending on Twitter in India as users announced their new accounts.

However, exactly how many have actually set up an account - and how many will abandon Twitter altogether in favour of the rival platform - remains to be seen.

So, why were people angry with Twitter?

The anger began to build against the social network - which is said to have more than 30 million users in India alone - after lawyer Sanjay Hegde had his account suspended twice.

The first time was because he had retweeted a 1936 photograph of Nazi Germany in which a German national, August Landmesser, refused to perform the Nazi salute, which Twitter said violated its rules on "hateful imagery".

"After a massive outcry, Twitter restored my account but without the photo," Mr Hegde told the BBC's Krutika Pathi.

Soon after, Twitter took action against his account again, emailing him a notice to take down a tweet from 2017, in which he retweeted a poem that protested against the hanging of two revolutionaries.

He had added the title of the poem - Hang Him - in his tweet, which he believes "triggered some automated bots on Twitter's backend".

The two incidents sparked a larger discussion on how Twitter moderates its content in India, with many saying that the platform tolerates rhetoric against minorities.

Twitter has denied these charges. It put out a statement saying it does not moderate its content based on "ideological or political" viewpoints.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

But regular Twitter users, as well as technology experts, say the platform has a blemished history when it comes to moderating content in India.

Nikhil Pahwa, the editor of internet watchdog Medianama, told the BBC that Twitter "hasn't done enough to address hate speech".

A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that Twitter removed nearly a million tweets and blocked around 100 accounts in India as part of their "country withheld" policy.

The report said most of the blocked content was critical of the government's recent move to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, and were made after requests by the government itself.

"With Twitter, the problem is mounting - there is a growing sense that the platform is closing down or suppressing voices that are critical of the government, so there is a lot of concern over that," said Nilanjana Roy, an author who recently signed up for a Mastodon account.

Image source, BBC/Twitter

The platform has also come under attack from Dalit (formerly untouchables) activists and writers, who say that Twitter routinely suspends their accounts while allowing problematic trends - #BoycottAllMuslims was a top trend last month - to continue.

"The bias against marginalised groups - Dalits, women, religious minorities - on Twitter is very blatant," says activist Kavitha Krishnan, who added that she has complained to the platform previously but had never received any response.

Others have also pointed to the lack of action the company has taken when it comes to women on Twitter, who regularly face death and rape threats.

"It's not fun being a woman on Twitter and watching the abuses go by - you feel as though you are exposed to an industry that is continually polluted," Ms Roy said.

"What this incident has also shown is that there is a search for something that is beyond Twitter - it might be Mastodon or it might be something else that we haven't even seen yet."

What exactly is Mastodon?

Mastodon is an open source network, where users can post, comment, follow other users and publish images and videos like on a conventional platform.

But what is most significant is that it is decentralised and open-source - this means that there is no single entity running the network.

Instead, users create and run their own servers. This means the social network then is made up of many servers - each of which has its own rules. This also allows users to choose servers that they think conform with the policies they agree with.

Mastodon was first released in October 2016 and the network claims to have more than 2.2 million users. Twitter has more than 300 million users.

While many have hailed Mastodon as a great alternative to Twitter, some have pointed out that its not as easy to use, which means its unlikely that Mastodon is going to take over - even in the long term.

Others have dismissed the movement to leave Twitter as "a temporary fad" which is unlikely to make a lasting mark.