As Elon Musk After Twitter was acquired last year, many users migrated to the free and open-source Mastodon platform. Mastodon, like other decentralized social media, isn’t owned by any of the big tech companies and doesn’t rely on a company’s centralized system. Instead, it works on independently operated servers. Other decentralized social media platforms like Steemit use blockchain technology to ensure data can be stored on servers anywhere in the world.
The migration from Twitter to Mastodon was fueled by Musk’s caution and concern that the platform could crumble in his hands. In fact, distrust of mainstream social media is generally high, owing to data breaches, inconsistent leadership, and dubious geopolitical relationships. In response, proponents of decentralized social networks claim that these alternatives increase transparency and give users more control over their online experiences. But decentralization also comes with downsides, many of which stem from broader cultural grievances.
One of the problems that a decentralized Internet causes is the increase in conspiracy thinking. As David Golumbia, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, argues in his book The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, conspiracy theories deeply ingrained in American life are subject to much of the same logic that underlies decentralized technology. Using cryptocurrency as an example, Golumbia shows how many of the beliefs of die-hard Bitcoin advocates are based on far-right thinking. Decentralized banking is based on distrust of existing financial institutions and promises crypto enthusiasts more control over their money. Therefore, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin could be attractive to people who think the Federal Reserve is stealing value from ordinary people, or that the “elites” have too much power and might be pulling the strings behind government. Most often, these elites are coded as “Jewish control,” alluding to long-established anti-Semitic stereotypes. While many individuals investing in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may not share these extremist, far-right views, the systems they enter often do.
Decentralization is proving to be a solution for seemingly questionable established institutions – be they banks or platforms – because it encourages individual ownership. It’s about finding a place to protect yourself and your specific group. Distrust, as described by Golumbia, and the sentiments that cause many to flee Twitter to Mastodon, often express themselves in conspiracies and amplify when institutions are inconsistent or have acted poorly. The pursuit of decentralization does not make users inherently conspiratorial. But when they move to a new platform — even one that’s decentralized and supposedly more trusted — because they’re suspicious of the old one, they often bring that distrust with them as a conspiracy.
Decentralized social media is also designed to be suspicious to the outside world. This is evident in the “connected network” of Mastodon servers through which users connect, much like you can write to a Hotmail email from a Gmail account. New users choose a server to join when they sign up, based on common interests or professional affiliation. However, these servers can also block each other. This is most likely a content moderation feature to promote security, but it can also be used to hide things you don’t agree with or don’t want to see. For example, a mastodon server with hundreds of journalists who joined after Musk started banning tech reporters on Twitter is currently blocked by over 200 other servers claiming the reporters are maliciously monitoring others. It’s easy to imagine how decentralized and therefore more isolated online spaces like these federated mastodon servers could eventually lead to conspiracy thinking.
On other decentralized Web3 platforms, conspiracy ideologies come to the fore more clearly. For example Steemit’s Instructions for New Users We remind you that the first thing you should do when you join is to “write your master/owner key on a piece of paper and keep the paper in a safe place.” Anyone can use your password to sign up, transfer money, comment on others and fish your friends. what would you call it “Master/Owner key” is not enough.” The platform suggests that users need to protect themselves from the dangers of the digital world as other rooms and users cannot be trusted.