Time to be smart about social networks

Published May 2, 2022, 1:06 PM

by Professor Rom Feria

If you have not heard about Elon Musk buying Twitter (although he has until October, I think, to complete the takeover), then now you know. The major social media services that Filipinos love using, Facebook and Twitter, are owned by individuals, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk respectively. What does this mean for institutions, specially governments like the Philippines? It means that the narrative is controlled by foreign individuals, who have their own biases, their own agenda, their own alliances. We all know these two companies can (and they do) block any user for any reason. Personally, I have friends who were blocked in violation of whatever rules these services have. 

There is no denying that Facebook and Twitter are polarizing. One side claims the other as trolls. One side claims the other as disinformation spreaders. The thing to ask, which side has the ears of the Facebook and Twitter executives — then if you are on the other side, tough luck! What I am saying is, it is *not* objective.

Institutions, including governments, must start re-thinking their strategy on the use of these foreign social media companies. Whatever is posted on Facebook and Twitter is owned by these companies — they can do whatever they want with it. They can make your content invisible or they can promote your content. In other words, you do not own, nor do you have control of, your posts. 

Luckily, there are options that institutions can do. Use a similar service that is based on free, open source software, *and* supports a social web API standard, such as ActivityPub. Find out more about the standard at https://www.w3.org/TR/activitypub/Friendica is a popular Facebook alternative. Mastodon is a popular Twitter alternative. Both support ActivityPub, which means it connects to the federated universe, or the fediverse.

As an example, let’s take Mastodon, the Twitter alternative. First, it is not exactly the same as Twitter, but you need to use it to determine if the features match your needs. Unlike Twitter where there is only one Twitter, you can search for a Mastodon server (see the website for a list) and create your account on it. Like Twitter, you can post and your post will be seen by everyone on the same server. However, unlike Twitter, your post can also be seen by other users on different Mastodon servers (and they can interact with you as if you are on the same server, but you are not, but you are on the same fediverse!). Each server has its own purpose, own rules and own administrators. If you don’t like how your local server is managed, you can back-up your content and transfer to another server. This is something you cannot do with Twitter, nor Facebook!

To illustrate, I have an account on Mastodon.social (mastodon.social/@rpf). I can interact with users on Mastodon.social (local). In addition, I can interact with other users from different Mastodon servers aka fediverse, e.g., indieweb.social, floss.social, cloudisland.nz, to name three. I chose Mastodon.social as it is the one maintained by the developers. I could spin up my own Mastodon server (with only a dozen family users) if I want to — no foreign entity can control it. 

How does this benefit institutions? No single entity can block content from your server. It will take the entire fediverse (hundreds or maybe now thousands of servers) to block your server to silence your users. In direct contrast with Facebook and Twitter — where one person has control.

Imagine a Mastodon instance for the Philippine government where government agencies can post their announcements? No tracking by foreigners, no personal data collection, no censorship by foreigners, and fully controlled and operated by, maybe DICT or DOST-ASTI. I hope that the DICT and NTC can get Smart and Globe to WHITELIST .gov.ph and .edu.ph domains, the same way they are providing free access to these foreign companies’ online services. Imagine if DepEd and CHED have their own instance for their faculty and students — wouldn’t it be nice when they can easily boot-out predators and other malicious actors? There is also an experimental Mastodon instance for University of the Philippines, but it is only open for current employees and students.

The fediverse is so diverse — Friendica posts can be seen on Mastodon. Pixelfed, the federated Instagram alternative, can be seen on Mastodon, too. I have Micro.blog, a subscription-based blogging platform, which is also part of the fediverse — you can find my posts at @[email protected], which you can follow from your Mastodon or Friendica accounts, too. How cool is that?

It is time to lessen the impact of digital colonialism via Facebook and Twitter, right?