“Red alert! For the last six months, EFF, our supporters, and dozens of other groups have been sounding the alarm about several #BadInternetBills that have been put forward in Congress.We’ve made it clear that these bills are terrible ideas, but Congress is now considering packaging them together—possibly into must-pass legislation. I’m asking you to join us, ACLU, Fight for the Future, and other digital rights defenders in a week of action to protect the internet.”
– You Can Help Stop These Bad Internet Bills, Jason Kelley, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Twitter and Reddit have both been incredibly valuable tools for activism over the years. The combination of Apartheid Clyde’s “Twitter 2.0”, and Reddit declaring on their moderators (and on app vendors, and on users, and especially on disabled moderators and users) leave organizers in a pickle.
Can the fediverse help? It’s tiny compared to big corporate social networks, but potentially big enough to have an impact. Of course, for any kind of activism that might targeted by law enforcement, the fediverse is a really bad choice. Use Signal or some other encrypted messaging for that. As Dr. Johnathan Flowers has pointed out, the fediverse also isn’t currently well suited for activism like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. And as we’ll discuss below there are a lot of barriers to other kinds of activism as well.
Playing to the Fediverse’s Strengths
But then again, the fediverse also has some potential advantages, especially for activism on topics like privacy, digital rights, and LGBTQIA2S+ issues.1 The fediverse was largely built by queer, trans, and non-binary people, and many of the cis straight people there are allies. Not only that, a lot of people in the fediverse care passionately about privacy and digital rights. With all the discussion of whether or not they should welcome its new surveillance-capitalism overlords, it’s a topic that’s very much top of mind these days.
So it’s worth experimenting, and the July 20-28 week of action on Bad Internet Bills is a great opportunity – to learn, and hopefully to have an impact as well.
This is the Situation
July 28 is the last day Congress is in session before their summer recess. Supporters of the Bad Internet Bills are trying to sneak them through before then. Digital rights organizations, along with other human rights and LGBTQIA2S+ rights groups, are pushing back on multiple fronts – including social networks. Social network activism has played a big role in stopping other bad internet bills in the past, including last year’s successful battles against EARN IT and KOSA, and campaigns on TikTok, Twitter, and other networks. But why should other networks have all the fun?
I’ll discuss details of the activism campaign below, as well as the fediverse’s strengths and weaknesses as an activism platform. But first, a bit about the bad internet bills.
The TL;DR summary: there are several bills in play, including KOSA and EARN IT. They’re bad, and as well as threatening encryption, they’re especially bad for LGBTQIA2S+ people. The next section has some details and links about why they’re so bad, especially for LGBTQIA2S+ people. Or, feel free to skip ahead to Legislative Activism 101 or the sections on specific tactics like link aggregation and hashtags, and come back later for the details.
Want to help stop these Bad Internet Bills?
Here’s 4 easy things you can do:
1. Boost posts on #BadInternetBills and #KOSA hashtags
2. Upvote and boost posts in the Bad Internet Bills Lemmy Community and kbin magazine
3. Get the word out on other social networks too
4. If you live in the US, contact your legislators using Fight for the Future’s https://www.badinternetbills.com/
Have I mentioned yet how bad these internet bills are?
There are so many bad internet bills out there that I forgot to list one of them in the poll, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of them. Here’s a quick overview of the ones we’ll be focusing on.
EFF’s You Can Help Stop These Bad Internet Bills and Fight for the Future’s Bad Internet Bills have overviews of KOSA, EARN IT, STOP CSAM, the RESTRICT Act, and the Cooper Davis Act, along with links you can click to contact your legislators (if you live in the US). Unfortunately, all of these bills have bipartisan support, so also have a chance of passing. These bills all sound good at first – they’re all framed as protecting children – but the language used would have awful side effects.
To start with, they’d actually make kids less safe. And that’s not all:
- KOSA would be weaponized to attack LGBTQ+ people and abortion rights, as 90+ human rights and LGBTQIA2S+ said in a letter to Congress last year,
- EARN IT would threaten encryption and impose universal scanning of our messages, photos, and files.
- Despite its name, STOP CSAM wouldn’t actually stop child sexual abuse material, but jeopardize the ability to seek information about reproductive healthcare or sexual identity online
- The RESTRICT Act is supposedly just about TikTok, but actually gives the President extraordinary new powers to ban Americans from using entire apps, simply by claiming they pose a “threat to national security.” What could possibly go wrong?
- The Cooper Davis Act would turn messaging services, social media companies, and even cloud providers into Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants.
Like I said … these bills are bad!
Here’s a press conference with more information, including an appearance partway through from Sen. Ron Wyden.
Legislative activism 101
The basic idea of social media activism is straightforward: try to get as much visibility as possible for the campaign, and get people to take action.
Visibility by itself is valuable, raising awareness of the issue. Some percentage of people who hear about Bad Internet Bills will take action, helping to get the word out and (if they’re in the US) potentially contacting their Congresspeople. Contacting Congress can make a difference on bills like these that aren’t straight party-line votes. The more people who do it, the more likely staffers and legislators are to pay attention. So, posts and links that make it easy for people to contact Congress, and explain why it’s worth making the effort.
Visibility can also lead to coverage in traditional media that Congress pays attention to, and that can have an even bigger impact. For example, we’ve heard that Senate Majority Leader Schumer won’t put the bad internet bills to vote, if he thinks it’ll lead to a lot of controversy. Tech journalists are looking for stories about the fediverse. What would it take to get an article in Politico or Wired? Maybe a headline like “Bad internet bills spark protest in the fediverse” or something like that? It’s a long shot, but it’s worth a try.
Lemmy and kbin FTW!
There are a lot of different techniques for social network activism. On Reddit and other link aggregators, for example, it’s about getting upvotes on links in popular subreddits, and ideally getting something on the front page. Back in 2008 an open letter Get FISA Right wrote to Senator Obama made the front page on Digg and wound up in the New York Times, Wired, CNN, and Time magazine; Restore the Fourth took a similar approach on Reddit in 2013.
And good news, the fediverse has link aggregators too: Lemmy and kbin. Here’s a link somebody submitted yesterday in lemmy.world Technology community.
If you look in the comments, there are already a couple people saying that they contacted their legislators (which almost certainly means there are at least a few more who did the same but didn’t bother to leave a comment). And this link has been cross-posted to several other communities where it’s on-topic, so it’s getting broader visibility.
Another link aggregator tactic that works well on Reddit is to have a subreddit that collects all the links on Bad Internet Bills so that it’s easy to track for people who are really interested in the topic. It’s worth trying in the fediverse as well, so I set up the bad_internet_bills Lemmy community and the BadInternetBills kbin magazine, so that I (and hopefully others!) can cross-post links there as the week goes on.2
As this example shows, the most effective “take action links” go to pages from organizations like EFF, Fight for the Future, and ACLU – names that many on the fediverse will recognize. News stories and opinion pieces are also good to share, especially if you include a link to an action as well. Why yes, that’s a hint! If you’re on Lemmy or Kbin, please share news stories and action links about these Bad Internet Bills when you see them!
I 💜 #Hashtags
Hashtags are great for activism, and there are some natural ones for this campaign – #BadInternetBills, of course, and hashtags for each bill like #KOSA. [The links go to accounts on mastodon.social. If you’ve got an account on a different Mastodon instance, you may need need to copy the link, switch to a window where you’re logged into your instance, paste the link into the search box (which is on the Explore page if you’re using the mobile web interface), and then hit return. When people say “Mastodon’s not that hard to use”, you have my permission to roll your eyes at them.]
A key aspect of hashtag activism on Twitter is figuring out how to work with Twitter’s algorithms to get it to “trend” and get it exposed to more people. The fediverse likes to pretend that it doesn’t have algorithms, but Mastodon’s Explore tab (showing the posts with the most activity) and Trending Topics beg to differ. Getting #BadInternetBills to trend, or getting some posts on the Explore page, would be a great way of increasing visibility. On the other hand, we don’t want to overwhelm people’s feeds – and doing it by having everybody cut-and-paste the same message probably wouldn’t go over well in the fediverse. So if trending happens organically, great, but it’s something to focus on for now.
But hashtags are still useful even if they don’t trend, because the give people who want to help the campaign a way to find posts to share. If you’re on Mastodon, Hometown, GoToSocial, Firefish, Akkoma, Friendica, kbin, or other fediverse software that lets you search by hashtag, check out the #BadInternetBills and #KOSA tags; hopefully you’ll see something that looks interesting enough to boost. And a lot of fediverse software allows you to subscribe to a hashtag, which will mean that new links will show up in your home feed.
Once things get going, another good hashtag-related technique is to tag likely supporters (or contact them on other social networks or email), and ask them to help boost posts. People like George Takei, Molly JongFast, and Popehat have over 100,000 followers; evacide, Cory Doctorow, and Mike Masnick “only” have 30-60,000 but that’s not chopped liver. On the other hand, they’re all busy people, and we don’t want to waste their time, so it makes sense to hold off on this until we start to get traction; if things don’t take off this time, we might be better off waiting until the next campaign.
It’s harder than it sounds
Even in the best of circumstances, whether a social network activism campaign clicks is hit or miss. The fediverse has a lot of barriers to activism. For one thing, most people aren’t used to doing activism in the fediverse. Activists on Twitter will reflexively retweet and quote tweet action links when they see them. That’s not the norm in the fediverse. And speaking of quote tweets, Mastodon doesn’t have the equivalent – although Firefish does, and we’ll take advantage of that.
Not only that, a lot of fediverse culture and software sees “virality” as a bad thing. Techniques that would be seen as just fine on other platforms might not work here. Or, they might irritate people, making them counter-productive. Different norms for whether to CW (content warning) political posts add another complication.
And usability issues affect everybody, including activists. The reason I described the cut-and-paste-into-the-search-box contortions above is because of an experience last November. I was experimenting with a voting rights activism campaign. A couple of leaders of a well-known progressive organization said they were willing to help. I sent him them the link, they clicked on it… and wound up in a non-logged-in tab. They couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Of course, seasoned Mastodonians know the trick of what to do, but it’s a huge barrier to newcomers. The harder it is, the less likely people are to take action or even boost links.
Also, let’s not forget the complexities of federation. Over the weekend, I did a short thread with a couple of polls throughout. However: if somebody boosted only one post, there’s no guarantee that their followers could see the whole thread. And software incompatibilities and bugs make it even more confusing. When I posted on infosec.exchange, I tagged the Lemmy privacy community, but it didn’t show up there. A similar approach has worked with other Lemmy communities in the past. Why? I have no idea.
But, other platforms have their quirks as well. At one point, polls performed extremely well on Facebook. A few months later they changed the algorithm and went nowhere. Is Twitter’s algorithm favoring posts with links this week, or should I put the link in a reply? Experimenting is key no matter what platform you’re on. There are ways to work around these issues, at least to some extent. Over time we’ll figure out what works well in the fediverse. And hopefully the software will improve as well, because all of these are issues that affect other people besides activists.
One of the big selling points of Mastodon and the broader fediverse is that it’s not owned by a company like Meta, Twitter, or Google whose business models are based on surveillance and exploiting user data. A lot of people are in the fediverse because they care about privacy. Many have knowledge to share, are eager to learn more, and want to have an impact.
– #Privacy activism on Mastodon and in the fediverse, January 2023
The fediverse also has some advantages when it comes to activism, starting with the people who are there. Queer, trans, and non-binary people, who are directly affected by bills like KOSA, play a big role in the fediverse. As observed in my queer, trans, and non-binary history of the network, our space differs from big commercial social networks. Opinions differ on how to react to Meta joining the fediverse, but people on both sides care about what’s important. That’s encryption, privacy, and digital rights.
There are advantages at the software level as well. For example:
- The integration between Lemmy, kbin, and Mastodon – while imperfect – is quite powerful when it works. It’s a lot better than the connection between Twitter and Reddit.
- Firefish, and Mastodon forks like Glitch-soc and Hometown allow much longer posts. They support formatting as well, which makes a huge difference. Try doing something like this on Twitter (or vanilla Mastodon for that matter)!
- Firefish and Glitch-soc also have more flexible polls than Twitter, and there are probably some good ways to leverage that.
So while it’s hard to know how well it work, it’s worth experimenting. If you’d like to help, here’s three easy things you can do no matter where you live.
- Boost posts on #BadInternetBills and #KOSA hashtags
- Upvote and boost posts in the Bad Internet Bills Lemmy Community and kbin magazine
- Get the word out on other social networks too
1 I’m using LGBTQIA2S+ as a shorthand for lesbian, gay, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, bi, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, agender, two-sprit, and others who are not straight, cis, and heteronormative. Julia Serrano’s trans, gender, sexuality, and activism glossary has definitions for most of terms, although resources like OACAS Library Guides’ Two-spirit identities page go into a lot more detail. Serrano also discusses the tensions between ever-growing and always incomplete acronyms and more abstract terms like “gender and sexual minorities”. There’s a Mastodon instance called lgbtqia.space, and Indigenous people are often overlooked in the fediverse, so I decided to go with the acronym despite its problems.
Ontario Human Rights Commission’s page on Gender identity and gender expression is a good short reference on the distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and sex.
2 At first I was only planning to set up a kbin magazine but as I was writing this article I had a hard time figuring out how to use a Lemmy account to crosspost a link to a Lemmy community and so decided to create a community as well. It’s an experiment, let’s see what works better! And they’re spelled differently because lemmy doesn’t allow uppercase in names, and I wanted to make it more readable and usable through screenreaders than having badinternetbills all munged together, so decided to use underscores. Sorry for the confusion. We learn by doing.
Jon Pincus is the founder of the Nexus of Privacy newsletter, author of Mastodon: a partial history, and a software engineer / entrepreneur / strategist and activist who focuses on justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality.