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12 July 2023

Big Tech can’t erase politics from social media

To become a permanent alternative to Twitter, Threads will need to embrace politics.

By Sarah Manavis

Twitter has long occupied a unique place in a social media landscape that is becoming increasingly homogenous. It was always going to be difficult to replicate, but since Elon Musk officially took over the platform last October – making it dramatically worse – people sure have been trying. In the last nine months, a litany of sites – such as Mastodon, Substack’s Notes and Bluesky – have experienced a few weeks of hype, briefly being labelled the “new Twitter”, before suddenly falling out of fashion.

None of these alternatives has yet captured Twitter’s appeal. A viable alternative must look like Twitter and function almost identically, with main feeds and open spaces where anyone can join in a conversation. While some platforms have achieved these fundamentals, it has never felt like everyone is using the site – like you could swap Twitter for it, safe in the knowledge that everyone you’d like to follow is there.

That was until last week, when Meta – Facebook and Instagram’s parent company – launched Threads, the closest like-for-like Twitter alternative so far. It is a micro-blogging platform that looks and functions just like Twitter; you can easily make a profile via your Instagram account, and the accounts you follow on that platform are automatically imported. Since it went live last Thursday, 6 July, more than 100 million people have signed up, making it the fastest growing app in history. Already it has been populated by politicians, athletes and celebrities, making it look like a cleaned-up version of Twitter’s best days.

Its pre-existing user base, identical aesthetic and rapid growth makes Threads appear set to eclipse Twitter in the near future. But a few key features make it a different offering. Firstly, the feed on Threads – as on TikTok – is entirely algorithmic, meaning you don’t get to choose to see posts from people you follow, but are instead forced to see content from accounts the platform pushes into your feed (already, many users have complained – on Twitter – that this is creating a monotonous experience of dull, same-y posts). And because Threads is linked to Instagram, people’s feeds are largely filled with mind-numbing posts written by influencers and corporate brand social media managers – only this time, they come without nice pictures.

But where Threads differs most dramatically from Twitter is not in functionality, but in its ethos. When asked by a journalist whether Threads would, like Twitter, be a home for political and news content, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said: “Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads – they have on Instagram as well to some extent – but we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.” Saying he didn’t think news and politics were worth the “scrutiny, negativity… or integrity risks” they posed, he also elaborated: “There are more than enough amazing communities – sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment, etc – to make a vibrant platform without needing to get into politics or hard news.”

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[See also: Why social media has become tedious]

Broadly, this aligns with a shift among tech platforms – particularly those under the Meta umbrella – encouraging users away from political debates and discussions of the news, and towards what these companies see as more personal, gentler online interactions. This shift has been most notable on Facebook: after the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the site’s algorithm moved from heavily promoting news sources and political content to filling feeds with posts predominantly published by people users know. A similar change has occurred on Instagram after the platform became more politicised during the pandemic and following the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 – the site has since created an increasingly video-focused, algorithmic feed that promotes less politics and more memes and lifestyle content.

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There are many reasons why a platform in 2023 would try to move away from promoting content around news and contentious issues (it seems likely that this is related to the PR issues Meta has experienced in the last few years since the release of the Facebook Papers and the Cambridge Analytica scandal). As Mosseri’s statement indicates, this is the type of content causing legal headaches for social media sites, especially with many people now calling for platforms to be legally regarded as publishers. But even if Threads takes active steps to minimise political posts, it seems likely that if it remains popular it will become a home for political discourse anyway.

The insurmountable hurdle is that political debate has always flourished on social media, even when a platform hasn’t been expressly built for it. This is an inevitability in spaces where people are encouraged to talk to each other, and to state their individual opinions. You see this on every major platform: even with the changes to Instagram’s algorithm, it’s still common to see content from social causes and politicians, as well as infographics, on a near daily basis; on Facebook, personal interactions between friends and neighbours regularly (and easily) descend into aggressive political debate. Younger generations are seeking out news on social media, rather than traditional news sites (TikTok, for example, is rapidly becoming the main site for news among younger demographics).

Is it possible for Threads to host such a wide range of content while separating itself from controversial issues? The topics Mosseri cited – sports, music, fashion, beauty – are, after all, hardly apolitical. The only way to achieve this insular social media utopia would be to create something so banal, so unstimulating, that we’re left with a site with next to no appeal.

Even so, Threads may eventually overtake Twitter. The former’s unprecedented growth and the latter’s unrelenting downward trajectory makes this increasingly likely, regardless of what Threads does or doesn’t do in the coming months. But to get people to keep using Threads, and to not return begrudgingly to Twitter, the company will be forced to embrace the presence of political content. Without this freedom there’s little reason to use a site made for talking. The result would be a space only distinct for its terminal monotony.

[See also: We are heading for social media burnout]

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