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BBC is testing being on Mastodon, says fediverse better fit for public purposes than Twitter or Threads

In another sign of shifting forces in the social media universe, the UK’s national public service broadcaster, the BBC, is dipping a toe into the fediverse by setting up its own Mastodon instance.

The BBC is labelling its move as an experiment — and, to be clear, it’s not abandoning its presence on more mainstream social networks at this stage (or possibly ever) — with the organization saying it plans to be on Mastodon for six months. After which it says it will take a decision on whether or not to continue, based on evaluating factors such as how much engagement its presence is generating and how much cost is entailed in hosting its own little piece of the fediverse.

“We aim to learn how much value it has provided and how much work and cost is involved. Does it reach enough people for the effort we need to put in? Are there risks or benefits from the federated model, with no centralised rules or moderation and no filtering or sorting algorithms? We’re learning as we go, and we’ll write about what we discover in the hope that it might be useful for others,” it writes in a blog post.

The BBC’s Mastodon server, https://social.bbc, will also only host BBC-owned social media accounts for publishing to the fediverse. The public service broadcaster is not accepting sign-ups to its server from non-BBC accounts in a bid to shrink fediverse complexity (moderation is a particular risk it’s sensitive to).

For now there’s just a handful of BBC-owned social media accounts live on Mastodon, including accounts for BBC Radio 4 (@BBCRadio4@social.bbc) and BBC 5 Live (@BBC5Live@social.bbc). The organization said it may add more accounts from other areas of the BBC in the future as the experiment progresses.

So far the BBC’s Mastodon accounts have — at most — a few thousand followers apiece vs tens of millions for the BBC’s most popular Twitter/X accounts.

Writing about the move in the blog post, Tristan Ferne, of BBC Research & Development, said it’s taken the decision to experiment with distributed and decentralized social media because it sees the fediverse more naturally aligning with the BBC’s public service purposes.

He describes Mastodon as “a Twitter-like social networking service with around 2 million active monthly users”. But the blog post simultaneously seeks to highlight the contrast between centralized social media services such as Twitter (now X) and the fediverse — straying into what reads like tacit criticism of the former, with Ferne name-checking both (Elon Musk-owned) Twitter and (Meta-owned) Threads as being less aligned in principle with the BBC’s public service values because they are “avowedly commercial networks”.

“The principles of the Fediverse, with an emphasis on local control, quality content, and social value, are far more aligned with our public purposes than those of avowedly commercial networks like Threads or Twitter,” he writes.

Meta-owned Instagram-branded Threads is still extremely new on the scene, only launching officially last month. But the nascent Twitter alternative lacks a feed that shows users content exclusively from their own followers (albeit, Meta has said it is going to add one) — meaning so far users feeds have been stuffed with algorithmic recommendations, including from the flood of brands that quickly signed up.

Add to that, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri has explicitly said they’re not interested in hard news or politics content on Threads — so you can forgive the BBC for assessing Threads as “avowedly commercial”.

As for Twitter/X, the BBC has plenty of reasons to be cautious about the future viability of its presence on the Musk-owned platform since it’s been a frequent target for attacks on its integrity since Musk took over Twitter — including earlier this year when Twitter mislabelled the BBC as “government-funded media”.

After the BBC objected to the erroneous label Twitter removed it. And, following another controversial Musk decision to remove legacy Twitter labelling, BBC accounts on the platform are now either unlabelled — or else (some) display a gold Verified Organization badge which Musk-owned Twitter uses to denote companies or organizations (typically charging a hefty monthly fee).

In another high profile run-in in April, Musk agreed to an in-person interview with BBC reporter, James Clayton, which was broadcast live on Twitter Spaces but the then-Twitter CEO spent chunks of the interview turning questions back on the reporter and accusing the BBC of lying and/or spreading misinformation — a theme his army of Twitter followers duly picked up to amplify his bashing of the broadcaster in comments on the platform.

Musk’s aversion to the mainstream media seems particular trenchant where organizations are non-profits and/or either wholly or partially publicly funded.

The non-profit US broadcaster, NPR, has been another frequent target for Musk — and his attacks led it to set up a presence on Mastodon earlier this year, too. In that case NPR did (essentially) leave Twitter in April — announcing its @NPR account would go silent by stopping posting any new content to the platform.

NPR took the decision to end Twitter posting after being mislabelled “state-affiliated media” (a label which, prior to Musk, Twitter had only applied to propaganda outlets in autocratic countries such as China and Russia). Twitter removed the erroneous label after NPR complained but added another incorrect one — badging it “government-funded media”.

The broadcaster dubbed that “inaccurate and misleading” — pointing out it’s a “a private, nonprofit company with editorial independence” which receives “less than 1% of its $300M annual budget from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting”.

Musk followed NPR’s decision to go dark on Twitter by tweeting “Defund @NPR”. He also threatened to reassign its account to another company.

It remains to be seen what the X owner will have to say about the BBC’s flirtation with the fediverse.

Musk is certainly no fan of Mastodon. Under his ownership Twitter has sought to block users from promoting an alternative social media presence on the decentralized network by erroneously flagging links to some Mastodon servers as harmful.

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