Mastodon Instance Blocking FAQ

Mastodon Instance Blocking FAQ


Hi, I'm

I wrote this to see if I could dispel common misconceptions about the nature of instance blocking and shared blocklists like the one I made.

When I see a lot of conversations between admins and mods who use instance blocking and those that don't, I see a bunch of similar arguments and sentiments come up, so here's my responses to them as a moderator that has looked at and blocked many instances, and as someone who has formerly been skeptical of what I saw as 'SJW culture'.

Isn't this censorship or anti-free speech? [START HERE]

This video summarises it better than I can, and it's fun too :).

Isn't it hypocritical to discriminate against certain groups of people, even if they are hateful?

No. Yonatan Zunger has an excellent article on explaining this in better terms than I can.

Can't you just let users block each other? 

Because it doesn't give anyone a guarantee of safety.

I would argue that a safe environment is one where someone doesn't have to be concerned or worried about abuse or oppressive ideologies aimed at them, not where someone has to react as an individual against individual cases of abuse. Proactive rather than reactive, community-based rather than individual-based.

Whether a victim of abuse can block someone or not doesn't really matter because the emotional damage is already done at that point, because it took the damage to occur be able to do it. In the long run, that wears someone down. It's also very isolating because it's all on the individual to manage it.

I don't personally want to be in an instance where people in vulnerable groups (like myself) are basically expected to fend for themselves. That's a pretty unhappy way for a place to be IMO and one of the reasons people left Twitter for our kind of Mastodon instances.

But if you're not bothered by certain people and don't get as much abuse as someone else, you're free to go on an instance where you can block people on an individual level. Nobody's stopping you, everyone has choices that suit them.

There's another angle of platforming. Letting the people with ignorant or violent beliefs on your server to say the things they say means that you are giving them a platform from which they can attempt to spread their ideologies. Sure, they can do it somewhere else, but the point is at least it's not on an admin's or community's conscience that they enabled them to do that in their space (and made them feel all uncomfortable or unsafe in the process because it was violent or ignorant).

Shouldn't people toughen up?

See the question above if you haven't already.

I think you're making unrealistic and kind of unpleasant expectations. Just because someone can deal with instances of abuse, it doesn't mean it doesn't take it's toll and it doesn't mean it should be tolerated. I mean, what makes you think people should live in an emotionally unsupportive environment? What good does it do a person to suffer constant abuse online? (If you believe people you don't like who say they have been abused are liars, I don't think I can do much to try to change your mind so you might just want to stop here.)

I mean, why should you or anyone else say whatever you want without caring about whether it might hurt other people? I'm not saying you have to bend over backwards, I'm not saying you have to necessarily change your political beliefs, but why not at least ask people about it, and see if you can understand how it might happen.

Why not read and learn the experiences of the people of marginalised communities and identities, or heck, even just the story of someone who has been bullied or abused, and find something you can empathise with, or see in yourself, even if you can't understand their respective communities and identities.

Isn't this controlling your users?

I feel like this question is pretty loaded, and generally the wrong question to ask. See the next question.

Aren't you shielding your users from oppositional ideologies?

There are multiple aspects to this, it's a complicated subject, and my knowledge is pretty cursory, but I'll try. Some instances are some of these, and some instances are all of these.

There's a lot to unpack, here because there are a variety of reasons. Not all instances do all of these things or have all these reasons, but these are the general gamut.

1) Violent and discriminatory behaviour and ideology


These decisions to defederate are based on real psychological harm, not specifically about ideology. If someone has a violent or discriminatory ideology, it causes harm to our users (see the above questions on defederation and harm for more on that). They also invariably lack any real evidence or justification (ie. anti-trans, anti-NB gender), so it's not like the intellectual quality of our discourse will be diminished without these people. (If you think it will, then I recommend you educate yourself more.)

People come to these kinds of instances because they feel safe to express themselves (themselves being things that don't harm anyone else) and they trust that admins will take the necessary steps preserve that space. You may not understand that entirely right now, but they do

2) Casual unpleasant behaviour and ideology

One part of this is casual remarks that might sound innocuous, but are actually pretty unpleasant to someone else, like a person of a different ethnicity or gender. And I know that this can seem pedantic, but it makes other people feel uncomfortable and not want to participate (silencing their speech).

I also know that some communities and individuals can jump down other people's throats over this. It's something that I honestly feel that needs to be improved in our communities. This might be something we agree on. But that also means the unintentionally-offending person has to take responsibility for what they say and take the concerns and feelings of others seriously.

3) Science denialism, conspiracy theories, fundamentalist religion, etc.

Like with violent ideologies, people often don't want to give these ignorant ideas a platform, and I'm guessing at least some of you will understand that. 

I know not everyone believes this, but for me, just because someone has the right to say and believe whatever they want (and I'm certainly not arguing this from the perspective of human rights and law), it doesn't mean that strangers have to give them a platform on their own server. Even if you agree that we shouldn't give anti-vaxxers a platform, you might ask that this can go too far, and you're right, it totally can, but that is kind of an ongoing debate that communities will just need to have, both internally and with other communities. It's not a clear-cut situation, there may be multiple solutions depending on the context, and just allowing everyone isn't a real solution because your discourse will filter itself out if you don't.

4) Safe spaces

Quite frankly, the fuss about safe spaces is overblown and messed up and some culture war bullshit. They are not what various commentators say they are, who, judging by the way they write, have no real understanding of the concept.

Safe spaces aren't about ideological restriction (and you know, if you consider inhibiting bigoted speech some moral ill, I'd implore that you seriously take a look at yourself), just specific places of reprieve from contentious, stress-inducing ignorances from certain groups of people, or places where everyone generally understand or are sympathetic to the kinds of problems you face. Like if you're gay, lesbian, queer, etc. it can be nice to have a space where people don't resent you or say dumb/unpleasant things about it. If people want to have a space where people can have that and want to instance block to get that, you should respect that decision, really.

Don't you just like to have a place where you can relax and not have to see or talk about anything that you find stressful?

But what about groupthink? Doesn't blocking people create groupthink?

No, it just prevents debate and communities from being poisoned by aggressive individuals or those who have violent and/or misinformed opinions.

Honestly, this is part of a really weird false narrative in the culture wars that leftists have groupthink and the same opinions. We don't. Groupthink is not endemic to one political area, it can happen to a lot of different communities.

Even I, as a moderator who supports instance blocking, has been kicked out of or has had to leave various communities for this reason. I don't stand it myself, and I will condemn it where I see it, but you are looking for it in the wrong places and by the wrong signs. We have plenty of disagreements in the instance-blocking Mastodon sphere but in short, we just don't tolerate nasty bullshit.

Also, even if you disagree with someone's reason for it, you don't have a right to enforce another person's or community's personal boundaries. If you care about freedom of speech, then you should care about an individual's (or a community's) right to set their own boundaries and terms for speech and interaction.

Isn't this just a way to pressure other instances to do the same as you?

Not intentionally. I just want users in the instance I moderate to be safe and free to express what they want without fear. 

I understand that it can be pressurising to an instance admin as other users on their instance who might be rather ambivalent to their ideologies or have friends on other instances might want to abandon theirs if it gets cut off, and that really sucks. But I have a duty to protect the people in the instance I moderate, and I can't guarantee that if they are moderating the way they do, so we're kind of at a stalemate here, and I'm definitely not willing to expose my users to harmful people.

Are shared blocklists a witch hunt?

No (at least, not for me). There admins out there like myself that would rather not whitelist but still want strong protections. Sharing information and providing records helps provide this, especially to smaller and more vulnerable instances.

If we have irreconcilable differences, then I simply want both of us to go our own way. And if you're not okay with my taking my instance my own way, then you're kind of acting like a stalker.

However, I do understand that people might be unhappy that people just block them without a way to talk about things, but that's unfortunately how Mastodon works. And while I have from time to time given other forms of contact, they have just become vectors for harrassment, and I don't have the energy to deal with that.

Are blocklists an attempt to centralise the federation?

No, but it doesn't matter because there will be enough disagreements or differences in style in enough instances that there will never be any real centralisation.

Each instance defines their own boundaries, and it is possible that some instance's policies are incompatible with federation with others, and it's possible that some instances want to standardise certain policies they have, and that's fine too. Things might coalesce a little as the landscape shifts, but as long as there are multiple instances, there is never going to be standardisation.

Blocklists (like mine) can be guides for instances that have a commitment to ensuring that their users aren't hurt by unpleasant actions and people on other instances or risking an instance's legal responsibilities because of other instances' content (ie. child porn). There are other lists out there and admins and mods are free to ignore recommendations based on how they operate.

For instance, the instance I moderate tends to media-block and suspend more often than other instances. Some instances that my instance federate with have very few or no instance blocks at all.