Technology Won’t Save Us

As Gab embraces ActivityPub, it turns out technology won't save us from ourselves after all.

I’m a big fan of the ideas behind IndieWeb, the Fediverse, ActivityPub, and the general concept of distributed social networks. You own your content, your personal data isn’t sold to the highest bidder, and the censorship is limited1. I don’t have any factual backing for the following statement, but my impression is that these ideas were first embraced - and implemented - by people leaning towards the bottom left quadrant of the political spectrum. Digital hippies, if you will.

But because of the ongoing purge of many prominent, conspiracy-fueled, hate-mongering bigots from mainstream social networks, people found in the upper right quadrant of the political spectrum no longer feel particularly welcome on these sites. It’s only natural, then, that they start to gravitate towards social networks and sites run by like-minded people.

And with that, the alt-right is coming full steam to the Fediverse.

ActivityPub And The Alt-Right

An example of one upper-right quadrant social network is Gab. It promotes itself as a champion of " free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online." And “all are welcome.” In reality, however, Gab is a right-wing echo chamber, mostly populated by white male conservatives. A quick look at Gab’s most popular posts and their comments is a good indication of the state of the Gab nation.

It’s hard to tell how large Gab is. In December 2018, the site reported that it had 850,000 registered users2. The number of active users during a week in January, 2019, was just shy of 20,000, though. Still, Gab is one of the most prominent sites of its kind. Today, the site announced they are in the progress of moving to ActivityPub as their communications protocol

How well Gab’s transition to ActivityPub remains to be seen. Their users won’t be able to easily infect the Fediverse. Other services can simply decide not to federate the content created by Gab users. Fediverse client maintainers can ban Gab domains so that their client doesn’t work with the site. And Fediverse users can easily mute and block every Gab account they come across.

I doubt that the intention of ActivityPub’s creators was to design a vehicle for the alt-right to thrive and multiply. But that’s a risk you run when you make something that can be used freely by anyone.

  1. Or at least at a level agreed upon by a particular service’s users. ↩︎

  2. I have a Gab account myself. It’s not because I secretly dabble in nocturnal hate-mongering, it’s an attempt to prevent other people from creating a Gab account in my name. ↩︎


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