When Elon Musk took over Twitter last year, many users migrated to the free and open-source Mastodon platform. Mastodon, like other decentralized social media, is not owned by one of the major tech players and does not rely on a company’s centralized system. Instead, it runs on independently managed servers. Other decentralized social media platforms, like Steemit, use blockchain technology to ensure that data can be stored on servers anywhere in the world.
Twitter’s exodus to Mastodon was spurred by Musk’s mistrust and fear that the platform would disintegrate in his hands. Indeed, distrust of established social media in general is high, thanks to data breaches, inconsistent leadership and questionable geopolitical ties. 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 drawbacks, many of which reflect larger cultural ills.
Foremost among the problems fomented by a decentralized web is the rise of conspiratorial thinking. As David Golumbia, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, argues in his book The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, the conspiracy theories that are deeply rooted in American life are governed by much of the same logic that underpins decentralized technology. Using cryptocurrency as an example, Golumbia indicates how much of the beliefs of hardcore bitcoin supporters depend on far-right thinking. Decentralized banking is built on distrust of existing financial institutions, promising crypto enthusiasts more control over their money. As a result, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin may be attractive to people who believe the US Federal Reserve is stealing value from ordinary people, or that the “elites” have too much power and can pull the strings behind the government. More often than not, these elites are coded as “Jewish control,” playing on long-standing anti-Semitic tropes. While many people who invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may not espouse these far-right extremist views, the systems they enter often do.
Decentralization is emerging as the solution to seemingly dodgy established institutions – be they banks or platforms – as it promotes individual ownership. It is based on finding a place to protect yourself and your specific group. Distrust, such as that described by Golumbia, and the feelings prompting many to flee Twitter for Mastodon, often manifests itself in conspiracy, heightened when institutions are inconsistent or have acted badly. Pushing for decentralization does not make users inherently conspiratorial. But when they switch to a new platform — even a decentralized and supposedly more trusted one — because they distrust the old one, they often bring that distrust-qua-conspiracy with them.
Decentralized social media is also designed to be suspicious of the outside world. This is evident in Mastodon’s “federated network” of servers, which users connect to, much like how you can type in a Hotmail email from a Gmail account. New users choose a server to join when signing 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 safety, 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 of hundreds of journalists who joined after Musk started banning tech journalists on Twitter is currently blocked by more than 200 other servers, which claim that journalists maliciously monitor others. It’s easy to imagine how decentralized and therefore more siled online spaces like these federated Mastodon servers could end up provoking conspiratorial thinking.
On other decentralized Web3 platforms, conspiracy ideologies are put forward more explicitly. For example, Steemit’s instructions for new users advise that the first thing you should do when joining is to “write down your master/owner keys on a piece of paper and keep the paper in a safe and secure place. Anyone can use your password to login, transfer money, comment others and fish your friends. What would you call it? The “master/owner key” is not enough. The platform suggests users to protect themselves from the dangers of the digital world as other spaces and users are not trustworthy.