I have been receiving a lot of messages every single day about federation with hexbear. Some of our users are vehemently against it, others are in full support. The conversation does not seem to be dying down, rather, the volume of messages I receive about it seems to be increasing, so I am opening this public space where we can openly discuss the topic.
I am going to write a wall of text about my own thoughts on the situation, I’m sorry, but no tl;dr this time, and I ask anybody participating in this thread to first read through this post before commenting.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear that for anybody who participates here, it is required to focus on the quality of your posts. That means:
- Be kind to each other, even if you disagree
- Use arguments rather than calling people names
- Realize that this is a divisive topic, so your comments should be even more thoughtful than usual
With that out of the way, there are a few things I want to cover.
On defederation in general
First of all, I am a firm believer that defederation must be reserved only for cases where all other methods have failed. If defederation is used liberally, then a small group of malicious users can effectively completely shut down the federated network, by simply creating the type of drama between instances which would inevitably result in defederation. In my view, federation is the biggest strength of Lemmy compared to any centralized discussion forum, so naturally I think maintaining federation by default is an important goal in general.
I am also a believer in the value of deplatforming hateful content, but I think defederation is not the best way to do this. Banning individual users, banning communities and establishing a culture of mutual support between mods and admins of different instances should be the first line of defense against such content. There are some further steps that can be taken before defederation as well, but these are not really documented anywhere (in order to prevent circumvention). The point is: for myself, defederation is the absolute last resort, only to be used when it is completely clear that other methods are ineffective.
Finally, I am wary of creating a false expectation among lemm.ee users that lemm.ee admins endorse all users and communities and content on instances we are federated with. Here at lemm.ee, we use a blocklist for federation, which means our default apporach is to federate with all new instances. We do not have the resources (manpower, skills and knowledge) necessary to pass judgement on all instances which exist out there, as a result, users on lemm.ee are expected to curate their own content to quite a high degree. In addition to downvoting and/or reporting as necessary, individual lemm.ee users are also able to block specific users and communities, and the ability to block entire instances is coming very soon as well.
Having said all that, in a situation where all other methods do indeed fail, defederation is not out of the question. Making such a call is up to the discretion of lemm.ee admins, and doing it as a last resort is completely in line with our federation policy.
Hexbear is an established Lemmy instance, focused on many flavors of leftism. They have quite a large userbase who are very active on Lemmy (often so active that they leave the impression brigading all popular Lemmy posts). One important thing to note is that while some forms of bigotry seem to be quite accepted by many hexbear users (but seemingly not by mods - more on that below), they at least are very protective of LGBT rights (and yes, I am quite certain that they are not just pretending to do this, as many users seem to believe). Additionally, while I have noticed quite high quality posts from hexbear users, there are also several users there who seem to really enjoy trolling and baiting (very reminiscent of 4chan-type “for the lulz” posting), and it’s important to note that this kind of posting is in general allowed on hexbear itself.
The reason this whole topic is important to so many people right now (despite hexbear being a relatively old instance), is that hexbear only recently enabled federation. A combination of their volume of posts, their strong convictions, the excitement about federation, and the aforementioned trolling has made them very visible to almost all Lemmy users, and this has sparked discussions about the value of federation with hexbear on a lot of Lemmy instances.
My own experience with hexbear
I want to write down my own experience with interacting with hexbear users, mods, and admins over the past few days. I believe this experience will highlight why I am hesitant to advocate for immediate full defederation from hexbear at this point in time, and am for now still more in favor of taking action on a more individual user basis. Please read and see how you feel about the situation afterwards.
My first real contact with hexbear users was in the comments section of a post in this meta community requesting defederation from hexbear by @[email protected]. That post is now locked, because several hexbear users very quickly started doing the aforementioned “for the lulz” type spamming of meme images in the comments (these are actually just emojis, but they are rendered as full-size images on all instances other than the source instance, due to a current Lemmy bug).
I did not want to take further actions in that thread in general (for archival purposes), but I did take one action, which in retrospect was a mistake: I removed a comment which contained the hammer and sickle symbol. I ignorantly associated this symbolism with Kremlin propaganda, and the atrocities my own people suffered at the hands of the soviet union during the previous century. Many users (including hexbear users) correctly (and politely) pointed out to me in DMs that the symbol has a much broader use than just as the symbol of the USSR, and people elsewhere in the world may not associate it with the USSR at all. I am grateful for users who pointed this out to me without resorting to personal attacks.
Let me be clear here: while I do not have anything against leftism or communist ideas in general (in fact in today’s world, I think discussion of such ideas is quite necessary), Kremlin propaganda has no place on lemm.ee. Any dehumanizing talking points of the Kremlin on lemm.ee are treated as any other bigotry, and if communist symbolism is used in context of Kremlin propaganda (that is the context in which I have been exposed to it throughout my whole life), then it will still be removed. But there is no blanket ban on communist symbolism in general on lemm.ee, and discussing and advocating for leftist and communist topics (as distinct from the imperialist and dehumanizing policies of the Kremlin) is certainly allowed on lemm.ee.
Hexbear user response
Coming back to the events of the past few days: soon after my removal of the comment containing the symbol from the meta thread, two posts popped up on hexbear. One was focused on insulting and spreading lies about me personally. Another was focused on diminishing the horrors of the soviet occupation in my country.
In the comments under both of these posts (and in a few other threads on hexbear), I noticed some seriously disturbing bigotry against my people. There were comments which reflected the anti-Estonian propaganda of the current Russian state, things like:
- Suggesting that my people has no right to exist
- Stating that my people (and other Baltic nations) are subhuman
- Claiming that anybody critical of both nazi and soviet occupations is themselves a nazi and a holocaust denier
I expect to hear such statements from the Russian state - here in Estonia, we are subjected to this and other kinds of bigotry constantly from Russian media - but to see it spread openly in non-Russian channels is extremely disturbing. Such bigotry is completely against lemm.ee rules in general. Additionally, my identity is public information, because I feel it’s important for the integrity of lemm.ee that I don’t hide behind anonymity. Considering this, I’m sure you can understand why I am very worried about my own safety when people leave comments in many unrelated threads (where my original posts are not even visible), baselessly calling me a nazi and a holocaust denier.
Note that the goal of this post is not to start a new debate in the comments about the the repressions of the soviet union in Estonia or other occupied territories, but if the topic interests any users, I can recommend the 2006 documentary The Singing Revolution (imdb). The trailer is a bit cheesy, but the actual film contains lots of historical footage from the soviet occupation, and also many interviews with people who experienced it, who share stories which are deeply familiar to all Estonians. If anybody is interested in further discussion, then I suggest making a post about it in the Estonian community here: [email protected].
Hexbear admin response
After the above events had played out, I reached out to hexbear admins for clarification on their moderation policies and how they handle such cases.
I was actually very happy with their response:
- They immediately removed the personal attacks and dehumanizing comments containing Kremlin propaganda from Hexbear, and assured me that such content is always handled by mods
- They told me that while there are all kinds of leftists on hexbear, Russian disinformation is generally either refuted in comments or removed by mods
- They implemented some additional rules on hexbear to try and reduce the trolling experienced by many other instances, including ours: https://hexbear.net/post/352119
My personal take-aways
Let me play the devil’s advocate here and employ some “self-whataboutism”: among all users that have been banned on lemm.ee for bigotry, the majority were actually not users from other instances, and in fact people with lemm.ee accounts. If we judge any larger instance only by bigoted posts that some of its users make, then we might as well declare all instances as cesspools and close down Lemmy completely. I believe it’s far more useful to judge instances based on moderation in response to such content. Just as we remove bigoted content from lemm.ee, I have also witnessed bigoted content being removed from hexbear.
At the same time, I am aware of some internal conflict between hexbear users over the more strict moderation they are now starting to employ, and I am definitely keeping an eye on that situation and how admins handle it.
I am also still quite worried about the amount of distinct users on hexbear who have posted Kremlin propaganda. I so far don't have reason to believe that these users are employed by the Russian state, but the fact that they are spreading the same hateful content which can be seen on Russian television seems problematic to say the least, and it remains to be seen if moderators can truly keep up with such content.
Where thing stand right now
I am not convinced that we are currently at a point where the “last resort” of defederation is necessary. This is based on the presumption that our moderation workload at lemm.ee will not get out of hand just due to users from that particular instance. My current expectation is that as the excitement of federation calms down (and as new rules on hexbear go into effect), the currently relatively high volume of low effort trolling will be replaced by more thoughtful posts. If this is not the case then we will certainly need to re-evaluate things.
Additionally, nothing is changing about our own rules regarding bigotry. Especially relevant in the context of Kremlin propaganda, I want to say that dehumanizing anybody is not allowed on lemm.ee (hopefully I do not have to spell it out, but this of course includes Ukrainians, LGBT folks, and others that the Kremlin despises), and action will be taken against any users who do this, regardless of what instance they are posting from.
Finally, I am very interested to hear thoughts and responses from our own users. I am super grateful to anybody who actually took the time to read through this massive dump of my own thoughts, and I am very interested to get a proper understanding of how our users feel about what I’ve written here. Please share any thoughts in the comments.