How to fight election disinfo on Mastodon (UPDATED)
Mastodon's small, but a lot of people there have good networks on other sites and in the real world.
Last updated: November 9
If you're on Mastodon, please help get the word out! Here's a toot to boost – or just share this post.
If you don't care about Mastodon but still want to help fight disinfo, check out 5 ways to fight to protect democracy by fighting election disinformation
"In the months leading up to the midterm elections, there have been major efforts to disrupt what is the most basic right in functioning democracies: voting."
– Shireen Mitchell (aka digitalsista) of Stop Online Violence Against Women, in Disinformation: A Racist Tactic, from Slave Revolts to Elections, on Union of Concerned Scientists' The Equation
"There's a new racist, transphobic new Chief Twit who's personally boosting homophobic disinfo as well as getting rid of half the company – including the head of Trust & Safety, the Human Rights, responsible AI, and accessibility teams. Later this week, Twitter's introducing a new product helping people boost disinfo for only $8/month, such a deal! And then they'll be letting people whose accounts have been suspending for breaking the site's rules against disinfo, hate speech, and harassment back on.
What could possibly go wrong?"
– me, in 5 ways to fight to protect democracy by fighting election disinformation
Election Day is over – but the election isn't. Now the focus will shift to post-ballot counting, claims of fraud, problems with voting machine, election lawfare ... so many opportunities for disinformation! After the 2020 election, disinfo fuelled an attempted coup. This year, nobody knows what to expect – Eddie Perez' How Elon Musk’s Twitter Could Impact the Midterm Elections on Tech Policy Press and Manufactured Chaos is on a Collision Course with the 2022 Midterm on Trust the Vote sketch some possibilities.*
Disinformation is a problem on all social media platforms. Just last week, Calif0rnia Attorney General Bonta sent a sharply-worded letter to the CEOs of Meta, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit warning that the disinfo on their platform poses a "very real and growing threats to our democracy and to the rule of law."
That said, disinfo's likely to be especially bad on Twitter for the next few weeks.
Sounds like a good time time for Mastodon to get involved!
Mastodon's a decentralized open-source social network, running on hundreds of different "instances" that can talk to each other. As Twitter turns into a hellscape hundreds of thousands of people are checking it out – as a backup, if Twitter goes down, and a potential alternative. Even though the numbers still are tiny compared to Twitter, a lot of the people and communities looking at it have very good networks on other sites and in the real world as well – academics, for example. So as I discuss in more below in Mastodon, WTF (which also has a brief introduction to Mastodon if this is all new to you), we can collectively potentially have a big impact on disinfo if we engage. With the stakes as high as they are, it's worth a try.
Here are four things you can do to help fight disinfo on Mastodon.
- THINK before you engage or share
- SHARE accurate information about the election
- REPORT disinfo when you see it
- GET THE WORD OUT – and get people in your networks involved
Actually, you can and should do these things on any social network and in real life – you'll reach more people there than on Mastodon. They may seem mundane ... but when enough people get involved (as happened in 2008 and 2020), it can make a big difference.
That said, these are also especially good things to be doing on Mastodon right now!
This info is based on work done in 2020 with Shireen, Stop Online Violence Against Women, Indivisible Plus Washington, Indivisible Whidbey, Washington Indivisible Network, and Indivisisble's Truth Brigade. How To Respond to Disinformation and Digital Voter Suppression and Deep Dive goes into more detail (although hasn't been updated for 2022, so some of it's a bit out of date). Thanks to all involved!
THINK before you engage or share
Don't amplify disinfo!
To start with, make sure information is accurate before sharing. NPR's How to avoid sharing false or misleading news about the election has some excellent suggestions.
On Mastodon, remember that it's very easy for anybody to set up an account that claims to be a reputable source. Are they really who they say they are? Check their Twitter to see if they've posted anything about being on Mastodon – for example, if you see an account like @mastodon.social@ifilljustice claiming to be voting rights advocate Sherrilyn Iffill, do a Twitter search from:sifill_ mastodon to make sure it's really her. [Spoiler: it is.]
If you're responding to disinfo, make sure not to amplify it. Mastodon doesn't have Twitter's algorithmic timeline, but even so sharing a link to disinfo (or boosting a link somebody else has shared), leads to more people seeing the headline and images – which can have a lot of power.
So if you do share links to or screenshots of disinfo, make sure to use Mastodon's content warning feature (it's the little CW at the bottom of the box where you type the contents of your toots) – and mark the image as sensitive, which will blur it by default.
SHARE accurate information about the election
Take the time to verify that the information you’re sharing is accurate before you share updates! Websites and social media accounts for voting rights organizations, official state and county election departments, reputable local media, and disinformation experts are other usually-reliable sources.
On Mastodon, voting rights advocates like @mastodon.social@ifilljustice and disinfo fighters like @email@example.com @firstname.lastname@example.org and @email@example.com. Check to see who they're following as well and go from there.
On Twitter, lists like Election Protection coalition's national and state partners are good starting points. So is The Leadership Conference's coalition list, and the League of Women Voters' Vote411. You can check all of these even if you don't have a Twitter account.
I'm not aware of equivalent resources on Mastodon – if somebody else is, please let me know!
REPORT disinfo when you see it
ReportDisinfo.org is an easy-to-use site to report disinformation, run by Common Cause Election Fund. You can include a link to the web page, or upload an image.
Social network sites also allow you to report disinfo; it's worth doing even though they might ignore it. There hasn't been a lot of disinfo yet on Mastodon, but that may well change. The appendix has the details and a screenshot about how to report disinfo (or other problematic comment) on Mastodon.
GET THE WORD OUT – and get people in your networks involved
There's a lot of other important stuff going on, and disinfo doesn't get a lot of coverage, so most people don't know how significant the threat is ... or how they can help make a difference.
Union of Concerned Scientists' Countering Disinformation in Your Community and PEN America's How to Talk to Friends and Family Who Share Misinformation are excellent resources. So is 5 ways to fight to protect democracy by fighting election disinformation, which is based on work I did in 2020 with Shireen Mitchell and Indivisible's Truth Brigade.
And get the word out on Mastodon too! Even though it was founded with a strong anti-Nazi and pro-LGBTQ+ focus, people on Mastodon aren't used to thinking of it as a place to do activism.
Again, keep your instance's norms in mind; put content warnings on political toots if that's what you're supposed to do. Don't flood the local timeline – if you're tooting a lot, make them unlisted. Still, with a little creativity you can find ways to do it without being obnoxious.
Two easy step:
- amplify this toot by @VotingRightsNews@indieweb.social – or whatever toot or tweet led you to this post!
- amplify this tweet by @thenexusofprivacy
SUPPORT Black Twitter
"I define “Black Twitter” as a network of culturally connected communicators using the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities. It’s the culture that we grew up with. It’s the culture that we experienced in our lives and school, in the workplace, with entertainment – and you see conversations coalesce around specific cultural moments."
– Dr. Meredith Clark in Black Twitter 101: What Is It? Where Did It Originate? Where Is It Headed?
Actually there's another very important thing you can do on Mastodon – or anywhere else – to fight disinfo. It's just as easy to do as any of the others, but it's less obvious why it's so critical. So I decided to leave it to the end where I could go into more detail.
Black Twitter is the front line of the online battle against disinfo. The good news is that you can support Black Twitter, whether or not you have a Twitter account. The bad news is that most people don't make the effort. So here's a straightforward three step process.
- Find high-quality tweets by Black tweeters and Black-led organizations that share accurate election information and respond to disinfo. @BlkVotersMatter, @MsLatoshaBrown, @SIfill_ , @sandylocks, @barbs73, @TJC_DC, @NAACP_LDF, @digitalsista, @ElieNYC, @michaelharriot, and @MauriceWFP are good starting points for national perspectives. Look for local people as well – if you're in the Seattle area, check out my Seattle-area Politics Twitter list.
- Amplify them – on Mastodon, Twitter (if you still have your accont), and other social networks.
- Donate, if you can, to the Patreons, GoFundMe's, Kickstarters, and/or non-profits of the Black tweeters you find useful.
As to how to amplify ... well it's easy enough on Twitter: like, retweet, reply or quote-tweet them. Even if you're just saying something like "good point" these all help more people see them.
If you're on a Mastodon instance allows cross-posting from Twitter, the crossposter lets you send your quote tweets and RTs to Mastodon as well. If not, well, cut-and-pasting works. Some instances ask people to put content warnings on political toots, or make them "unlisted" to keep them of the local timeline ... if you're not sure, ask somebody who's been around for a while what to do.
And cut-and-pasting works for email and whatever other social networks your on too!
Black Twitter's not giving up without a fight
If you're wondering why I think supporting Black Twitter is important enough that it made this short list of ways to help save democracy ... well, like I said, Black Twitter's always been on the front lines of the fight againsst disinfo. Rachelle Hampton’s The black feminists behind #YourSlipIsShowing, a campaign against Twitter trolls masquerading as women of color and @digitalsista's Hacking of 2016 would have never happened had folk #ListenedToBW have some highlights from back in the day.
But fighting disinfo is far from the only thing that happens on Black Twitter. Black Twitter is a big part of why Twitter (at its best) is as a vibrant, interesting, and fun place despite the racists, Nazis, and crypto bros. Even more importantly though, for many people Black Twitter is a community that provides support, laughter, connections, and joy. Now, the racist new Chief Twit is burning it all down and racists are celebrating and spewing hate speech. That sucks for everybody, but it especially sucks for communities like Black Twitter that are being directly targeted.
Still, at least for now, Twitter's still working well enough that connections and discussions can still work (as long as you continue do a lot of blocking). And it's not like pre-Elmo Twitter was a paradise. As BBC presenter and broadcaster Richie Brave says in Black Twitter’s Mass Exodus: The Community Will Find Another Way on Elle
"Twitter has always been a hostile place. I have had death threats, people have said they hope my ill father dies, I have been called the n-word thousands of times."
Threads from @alwaystheself, @timjacobwise, and @shengokai have some great perspectives on why a lot of Black tweeters are sticking around until the site goes down or becomes unusable. Dr. Clark's Elon Musk’s purchase is not Black Twitter’s problem on The Grio is also very relevant.
You can support Black Twitter more effectively if you still have your Twitter account – so if you haven't deleted it yet then I would strongly encourage you to wait. That said, you can also support Black Twitter from Mastodon. And if you're a non-Black person who cares about racial equity, it's especially important to do that.
Otherwise, even if it's not your intent, you're leaving Black Twitter hung out to dry at a moment that's key for them – and for democracy.
Please don't do that.
If you—like me—are unfamiliar with the landscape of free and open source software (FOSS) social media, Mastodon is weird. It's really really weird.
– Sarah Jeong, Mastodon is like Twitter without Nazis, VICE (2017)
If you're still wondering what Mastodon is, it's a decentralized, open-source Twitter alternative. With Twitter turning into a hellscape, a lot of people are looking for a backup and potential alternative. Mastodon's one obvious possibility, and several hundred thousand people have signed up over the last week in what's being referred to as the #TwitterMigration.
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, a lot of different sites run Mastodon – and other software that can communicate with it.** Different sites (sometimes also called "instances" or "servers") have different cultures, norms, and codes of conduct, which can make things confusing And the software and terminology can be very confusing as well – and I say that as a lifelong software engineer who's written about technology for years and even built a small social network for my friends. So some people quickly decide Mastodon's not for them, at least not yet.
But for people who are to put some time and energy into learning a new social network, the learning curve's not so bad – and some instances are very welcoming to newcomers. So quite a few people are sticking around and giving it a shot.
The numbers are still tiny compared to Twitter, but a lot of the people in the #TwitterMigration have very good networks – academics, for example, or artists looking at mastodon.art or any of the other art-focused sites. Some of communities are experimenting with Mastodon could be very helpful at fighting disinfo if they engage. For example, looking at the lists of academics and research and GLAM-focused servers, there are probably several thousand #AcademicTwitter folks who have set up Mastodon accounts. And journalists are moving there as well.
So it's a big enough, skilled, and well-connected population that getting a chunk of people effectively engaged in fighting disinfo as election day and the aftermath play out could maybe, just maybe, make a big difference.
And as I was writing this article, Twitter suspended the executive director of the League of Women Voters of California with no warning and no explanation. After an uproar, they said it was by mistake and restored her accout, but still .... How bad will things get there over the next few weeks?
Like I say, Mastodon has its issues. @ISASaxonists and @IBJIYONGI have some good threads on racism (which as Margaret KIBI's Fringe Mastodev: the Beginnings discusses has long been a problem). There are also harassment problems. From a privacy perspective, there's no encryption even for private messages, so don't use it for anything confidential. Still, it's worth considering as a backup – sites like fedifinder.glitch.me and Debirdify let you find people you follow on Twitter that have put their Mastodon address in their bios. Danielle Navarro's Everything I know about Mastodon on Notes from a Data Witch and Per Axbom's A Brief Mastodon Guide for Social Media Worriers are good introductions.
Even if you do set up a Mastodon account, I'd strongly encourage you not to leave Twitter yet. Sunny Singh's Leaving Twitter says more about you than Elon Musk and threads from @alwaystheself, @timjacobwise, and @shengokai have some perspectives on why.
How to report disinfo on Mastodon
There isn't a lot of disinfo on Mastodon yet, at least not on the instances I'm on. But as Mastodon becomes more popular, that's likely to change. That's bad, because Mastodon's defaults don't provide protections against impersonation. If somebody sets up an account with the name, avatar, and description that match a well-respected voting rights organization who's not yet on Mastodon, it could easily fool people. And decentralization makes it harder. What happens if soebody on another instance sets up an account that looks like The Nexus of Privacy?
Still, Mastodon does have basic reporting in place. If you see a disinfo post, you can report the user. Here's what the screen looks like:
Image description: At the top, "repording firstname.lastname@example.org". On the left, five items. At the top, text saying "This report will be sent to your server moderators. You can provide an explanaiton of why you are reporting this account below." Below that, a text box for additional comments. Below that, text saying "This account is from another server. Send an anonymized copy of the report there as well?" Next, a yes/no option – not currently selected – saying saying "Forward to chaos.social". At the bottom, a blue button labeled submit. On the right, the content being reported. Two toots with text images, each with a yes/no option. The top yes/no option is selected and displayed in blue. The bottom yes/no option is not selected.
If the person sharing the content is from another instance, you have the choce of whether to forward the report on to them as well. If it's a well-known instance – mastodon.social, masstodon.onlnie, mastodon.art, fosstodon.org, etc – or instance with a good code of conduct, it's a good thing to do. If it's an instance with moderators that don't care – or worse, a malicious instance where the moderators are trying to boost disinfo – it's a bad idea. Unfortunately there's no easy way to know about the moderators on other instances.
* Perez is former Director of Product Management for Societal Health at Twitter, and a member of the Board of Directors of the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit election technology research, development, and education organization ... so he knows what he's talking about.
** Mastodon's only one of many decentralized social networks in what's collectively called the Fediverse, but it's getting the most attention so I'm concentrating on it here. Per Axbom's The many branches of the Fediverse and Kiernan Christ's What on Earth Is the Fediverse? on Lawfare are good introductions to the Fediverse Here's how Christ describes it:
The Fediverse is a network of interconnected servers, which communicate with each other based on decentralized networking protocols. These servers can be used for any number of different services, such as social media or file hosting. The most popular services are Mastodon, PeerTube (video hosting, like YouTube), and Pleroma (social networking and microblogging similar to Mastodon).