The hidden dangers of the decentralized web

When Elon Musk took over Twitter last year, many users migrated to the free and open source platform Mastodon. Mastodon, like other decentralized social networks, is not owned by one of the major technology players and does not depend on the centralized system of a company. Instead, it operates on servers that run independently. Other decentralized social media platforms, such as Steemit, use blockchain technology to ensure that data can be stored on servers anywhere in the world.

Twitter’s exodus to Mastodon was prompted by Musk’s caution and concern that the platform would disintegrate in his hands. In fact, mistrust of established social networks is generally high, thanks to data breaches, inconsistent leadership, and dubious geopolitical ties. In response, advocates of decentralized social networks claim that these alternatives increase transparency and give users more control over their online experiences. But decentralization also has drawbacks, many of which reflect larger cultural ills.

Chief among the problems fostered by a decentralized network is the rise of conspiratorial thinking. As Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Golumbia argues in his book The politics of Bitcoin: software as right-wing extremism, conspiracy theories that are deeply embedded in American life are largely governed by the same logic that underpins decentralized technology. Using cryptocurrency as an example, Golumbia shows how many of the beliefs of bitcoin’s staunch supporters depend on far-right thinking. Decentralized banking is built on distrust of existing financial institutions, promising cryptocurrency enthusiasts greater control over their money. As a result, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin may be attractive to people who think the US Federal Reserve is stealing value from ordinary people, or that “elites” have too much power and may be pulling the strings behind the scenes. government. More often than not, those elites code themselves as “Jewish control,” playing on long-standing anti-Semitic tropes. While many people who invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may not take these extremist, far-right views, the systems they are getting into often do.

Decentralization emerges as the solution for seemingly questionable established institutions, be they banks or platforms, because it promotes individual ownership. It is based on looking for a place to protect yourself and your specific group. Mistrust, such as that described by Golumbia, and the sentiments that lead many to flee Twitter for Mastodon, often manifest themselves in conspiracy, heightened when institutions are inconsistent or have acted badly. Pushing for decentralization does not make users inherently conniving. But when they move to a new platform, even one that is decentralized and supposedly more trustworthy, because they distrust the old one, they often bring this distrust with them as conspiracy.

Decentralized social networks are also designed to be suspicious of the outside world. This is evident in Mastodon’s “federated network” of servers, through which users connect, much like how you might write to a Hotmail email from a Gmail account. New users choose a server to join upon registration, 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 security, 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 reporters on Twitter. is currently blocked by more than 200 other servers, who claim that reporters are malevolently surveilling others. It’s easy to imagine how decentralized and therefore more isolated online spaces like these federated Mastodon servers could end up provoking conspiracy thoughts.

On other decentralized Web3 platforms, conspiratorial ideologies come to the fore in more explicit ways. For example, Steemit instructions for new users advise that the first thing to do when joining is to “write down your master/owner keys on a piece of paper and keep the paper in a safe place. Anyone can use your password to log in, transfer money, comment on others, and fish out their friends. How would you call it? The ‘master key/owner’ is not enough.” The platform suggests that users should protect themselves from the dangers of the digital world because other spaces and users cannot be trusted.


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