Switching from Facebook to the Fediverse: What’s stopping us?

Switching from Facebook to the Fediverse: What’s stopping us?

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This article is Part 3 of a series of blog posts on the current social media landscape – and how and where to find alternatives to the controversial tech giants. Read Part 1 and Part 2 for context.

Photo by Thought Catalog from Pexels. Free to use under a Pexels license.
Photo by Thought Catalog from Pexels. Free to use under a Pexels license.

As of writing, the Stop Hate for Profit Facebook ad boycott – which we first tackled in Part 1 of this series – has grown to over 1,000 advertisers. While a cynical interpretation of the campaign is arguable (“the boycott is temporary”, “corporations are just doing it to increase profits by improving public perception,” etc) it still raises a valid question, and perhaps even a challenge:

“If for-profit companies are boycotting Facebook, why aren’t more non-for-profit organisations doing the same?”

This question is particularly relevant for non-profits working in the field of human rights – especially those who are familiar with the problems inherent in Facebook’s attention-based business model.

In other words, doing human rights advocacy through Facebook could be a case of “one step forward, two steps back”: Though awareness and even impact may be achieved on a particular progressive front, it comes at the cost of all the economic, social, and political problems associated with surveillance capitalism.

In the first part of this series on finding alternatives to corporate social media, I argued that Facebook is not going to change. In the second part, I introduced the Fediverse: free and open-source software (FOSS) alternatives to Facebook and other Big Tech social media platforms.

Why aren’t progressive changemakers leaving Facebook for more ethical alternatives? To conclude this series, I’ll discuss some of the challenges involved in switching to Fediverse and similar platforms, in the hopes that shedding light on such limitations will contribute to addressing them.

1. Your audiences are probably on Facebook.

A basic principle of communication is to meet audiences where they are. And, unfortunately, regardless of where or on what issue you’re doing your advocacy, the odds are your key audiences are using Facebook or other corporate social media platforms.

Facebook stated that in the first quarter of 2020, “2.99 billion people were using at least one of the company’s core products (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger) each month.” Despite relative blips, such as the recent ad boycott, that number is trending upward, with COVID-19 driving record numbers to these platforms.

Below, I’ll talk more about why that will probably continue to be the case, but at the end of the day, if you’re an advocate who needs to say something, the people who need to hear it are more likely there, and for someone to consider leaving Facebook (or even using it less), you will have to do even more work.

2.99 billion people were using at least one of the company's core products (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger) each month.

Convincing someone to leave Facebook (or use it differently) is an advocacy campaign all by itself. And this is extra work not many advocates can afford to take on.

2. Facebook offers the chance to go viral.

Before the Cambridge Analytica and similar scandals encouraged the Techlash, the power of social media to create change was quite the cliche. Uprisings like the Arab Spring and movements like #MeToo were used as examples of how social media can level the playing field, allowing the powerless to bring down the powerful.

Although corporations and governments have recently co-opted such power for their ends, the opportunity for progressive movements to reach millions is still there, and such a possibility is difficult for any changemaker to ignore.

Facebook has succeeded in shaping the expectations for what a successful progressive campaign looks like. If your engagements do not number in the thousands and your reach does not number in the hundreds of thousands, your first instinct is to think that you’re doing something wrong.

Although there are better ways of planning for and measuring impact, many changemakers just can’t avoid even the chance for their campaign to go viral.

3. Facebook will always have “better” technology than FOSS alternatives.

According to statista.com, Facebook stated that it had 8 million active advertisers in the first quarter of 2020. Although there are big names on the boycott list, 1,000 advertisers will hardly make a dent.

With all of this advertising money, Facebook employs not only the best designers, developers, and experts more commonly associated with software development, but also other experts outside traditional technology-focused fields (behavioural, psychological, and more) to ensure that, compared with the competition, using Facebook is more fun, convenient, and even addictive.

Of course, “better” is in the eye of the beholder. And, prior to the Tecklash, the criteria for better did not include privacy or security or ethics. Most people are attracted to beautiful user interfaces, a smooth user experience, and the most cutting-edge features – all the things Facebook can very easily afford.

The feature set is so comprehensive that some people do everything on Facebook; various aspects of life – work, finance, family, friends, romance – all in one shiny package. For many changemakers, advocacy is just another aspect they’re more than willing to add.

4. FOSS alternatives attract problematic people banned from Big Tech platforms.

Mastodon icon. Via Iconfinder. Creative Commons (Attribution 3.0 Unported).

Although it often happens only when enough damage has already been done, Facebook and other Big Tech social media do enforce improvements to community moderation.

In varying degrees, Big Tech platforms have de-platformed or even banned problematic groups, such as neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers, various extremist groups, and so on.

When such groups are banned, FOSS platforms do provide viable alternatives. The most prominent example is when the controversial social media network Gab migrated to Mastodon. Mastodon has responded to the issue, from encouraging the block of Gab instances to featuring only groups that adhere to more progressive ideals.

But this is generally an issue with FOSS in general. Being open means you won’t be able to fully control how your software is used.

What’s next?

In a spectrum that runs from using Facebook as actively as possible on one end, to not using Facebook at all on the other, each changemaker will have to choose for themselves where they want to be. How much they’re willing to concede or compromise as a necessary cost of doing advocacy in our age of attention and surveillance is fully up to them.

At the end of the day, those who understand the damage that Facebook has done and continues to do to our rights and values are the people who probably have the most motivation to challenge Facebook’s dominance and leave it for truly better alternatives. But if even these progressive changemakers can’t leave, then who will?

About the Author

Red Tani is EngageMedia’s advocacy and communications director. He helps advocates tell meaningful stories that create impact using the power of video, online tools, & other technology that is free, secure, and ethical.

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