In recent weeks, the open-source social media platform known as Mastodon has seen a striking growth of Chinese users as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to police its online network. Following Beijing’s typical rounds of censorship, thousands of Chinese social media users have found salvation in the German-made site.
A mammoth-sized growth
After a viral video of a woman being shackled by her neck in Jiangsu was shared online on Douyin — China’s equivalent to TikTok — in February, the CCP launched a full-scale hunt for posts responding to the video to be censored.
As such, Chinese users flocked to Mastodon, with the number of users posting in Chinese reaching between 50,000 to around 154,000 users from February to August 2022. A grand total of 9.5 million posts were published by Chinese users, according to calculations by a tracking bot.
“I think users of Mastodon may have two main types of content interests. One is that they need a corner to express their personal daily life, and the other is that they want to discuss and vent their dissatisfaction with politics and society,” a Chinese computer science master who requested to be named James for anonymity told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Mastodon is a decentralized social network developed in 2017 by German developer Eugen Rochko, which gives users the chance to create their own independent servers that operate based on open-source algorithms, rather than relying on a parent server owned by a large company.
Given Elon Musk’s recent Twitter drama, users have been searching for alternatives, with Mastodon being one such alternative. Much like Twitter’s tweets, Mastodon has its own “toots” with a character limit of 500.
Users can also follow other users on Twitter, as well as create their own networks or “instances,” which allow users more control and communication with other servers. Mastodon also has tools for users to post publicly and privately, in addition to anti-abuse tools for protection.
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Out of Beijing’s sights
Through a small network of Mastodon instances, the social media site has become a place for people to share their posts while incognito without the fear of deletion or censorship.
The platform also prevents users from being harassed by “little pinks” — a term used to describe Chinese hyper-nationalistic social media users loyal to the CCP.
The limited availability for older posts to reemerge online also gives users more cover against the possibility of being exposed in the future. Also, due to the shared access between instances, it may be difficult for China’s censorship apparatus to act, even if it did ban some instances like Alive.bar.
While Mastodon may offer some protection from censorship, usage by Chinese users actually varies depending on the situation in China’s social network.
When China enforced a new rule allowing the release of user location based on internet protocol addresses in April, there was a significant rise in Chinese Mastodon users.
In 2019, the book and movie review site Douban — a site for liberal discussions — was hit by increasing censorship.
Frequent Mastodon user Humar Issac — a Uyghur woman from Xinjiang, who is now living in Sweden — was first invited into a community server, where “normal people” welcomed her. She gained worldwide attention for sharing her harrowing tales of how she lost contact with her parents during the round-up of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
“I really needed an outlet to talk about my situation in Mandarin. Back then, Mandarin was my most comfortable language,” Issac said according to Communications Today.
Despite the various reasons, Chinese conversations still veer towards politics, with topics such as women’s rights and violence against women going viral on Mastodon.
The platform also saw a surge in activity from Chinese users following the news of a chained-up mother near the city of Xuzhou, prompting many to share their own experiences.
Another viral topic surrounds the CCP’s COVID-19 restrictions, with many users sharing their experiences of testing and lockdowns.
Other topics include Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and even former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination.
However, users like Issac still find it hard to promote Mastodon in China since the CCP can still target viral terms online and hinder exposure.