Threads: You can have political content but you will have to work for it

Last July, Meta launched Threads, a new social network it hoped would compete with X (formerly Twitter), and within twenty-four hours the new app had hit thirty million sign-ups; a few months later it would have almost a hundred million monthly users, according to Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO. Not long after it launched, however, Adam Mosseri—the man in charge of both Threads and Instagram—sparked some controversy by describing how Threads would handle news, including political topics. In a nutshell, he said that while users were free to post and discuss news and politics, Threads was “not going to do anything to encourage” that kind of content. In other words, news and politics would not be recommended by the Threads content algorithm.

The controversy Mosseri triggered with these remarks resurfaced this week, when he posted an update on Threads’ approach to political news and user accounts. If a user followed political accounts on either Threads or Instagram, he said, Meta would do its best to “avoid getting between you and their content”—but at the same time, Mosseri said, the company remained focused on how to avoid recommending such content in various places across the app. The result, he added, is that political news topics and accounts will not show up as recommendations in any of the app’s features, including Explore, Reels, and Suggested Users. (Mosseri noted that if users wanted to see political recommendations, there would be a way to opt in.)

Mosseri and other Meta spokespeople described these moves as consistent with the company’s existing approach to political content, as described in a Meta blog post. “People have told us they want to see less political content,” the post states, and so the company has spent “the last few years” reducing the amount of such content that users see in their feeds or in recommendations. Meta does this, it said, because its policy is not to recommend certain types of content “to those who don’t wish to see it.” The company told Axios that anyone who discovers that their account is blocked from being recommended can request a review of this decision or “stop posting this kind of content for a period of time” in order to be eligible to be recommended again.

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Taylor Lorenz and Naomi Nix of the Washington Post reported that Mosseri’s update had alarmed news- and politics-focused creators and journalists preparing for a contentious US election. Keith Edwards, a Democratic political strategist, told Lorenz that he had met with the White House and urged officials there to join Threads (Joe Biden opened an account in November) but that now he regrets doing so. Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech, wrote in a post on Threads that she was concerned about the site’s policy; in 2018, her Facebook page on climate change had been labeled political, and user interaction first fell dramatically and then “ceased altogether.” Hayhoe said her attempts to work with Facebook to solve the issue had gone nowhere.

One of the main challenges with de-emphasizing political speech, critics say, is that defining what qualifies as political is not an easy task. Topics such as the election seem obvious, but plenty of other issues can also be seen as political. A Threads user called Goldengateblond asked Mosseri to clarify what topics the company saw as political: “News about vaccines and pandemics? Human rights? There are a lot of important things happening that overlap with politics.” A user who described themselves as an artist and activist said that Meta’s definition of politics on its other platforms was extremely broad, adding, “I can’t advertise most of my artwork on FB and IG because they consider my Feminist work to be political. Is being a Feminist political? I don’t feel like it should be.”

Ena Da, a content creator in Brooklyn, told Lorenz and Nix that she was concerned about the vague phrasing around content related to social issues because of how it could affect marginalized groups. Da said that some people’s “entire existence and their perspectives are going to be deemed political, like me as a Black woman. This is going to silence a lot of marginalized people.” A Threads user who described themselves as a disabled transgender combat veteran said that Instagram’s policies had “throttled the hell” out of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the BIPOC community, while at the same time allowing those “actively trying to bring harm to these communities” to speak freely.

Donie O’Sullivan of CNN asked whether the move to de-emphasize politics on Threads might be a good thing because it would tone down the “radicalization echo chamber” that recommendation algorithms have become. But this view was not popular with those who responded. Parker Molloy, a transgender journalist, argued that their entire existence “is considered political by a giant chunk of the country.” Lora Kolodny, a reporter with CNBC, added that almost any topic could be defined as political, and that a policy such as that adopted by Threads and Meta’s other platforms “oppresses activists and advocates” and is “probably bad for science and news.”

Many of those responding to Mosseri’s note about not recommending politics noted that these moves are just the latest in a long line of decisions that Meta has made to de-emphasize politics and news in general, on Facebook and its other platforms. After courting media outlets for years in an attempt to get them to use Facebook, and even paying them through its Facebook Journalism Project and other programs, the company started using its recommendation algorithms to de-emphasize news links and pages in 2018. That process has only accelerated over the past few years, and traffic from Facebook to many media outlets has declined sharply. The Facebook Journalism Project was effectively shut down and much of its staff laid off in 2022.

Mosseri referred to some of this history in an oblique way during an interview not long after Threads launched, when he told Lorenz that “we were too quick to promise too much to the [news] industry on Facebook in the early 2010s, and it would be a mistake to repeat that.” Rob Pegoraro, a technology journalist, wrote in a response to Mosseri’s recent post that Meta’s record of “bad-faith behavior towards journalists” goes back more than a decade, and that supporting Threads encourages Meta to control more of the social media landscape, which Pegoraro said is the “moral equivalent of rooting for the casino in blackjack.” My colleague Jon Allsop said in a conversation we had about Threads’ launch that he was surprised that so many people, “many of whom were saying quite recently that Facebook is evil,” were stampeding to join a new Facebook product.

To complicate things somewhat, just a few days after Mosseri’s announcement, Threads said that it is rolling out a new “trending topics” feature that will rank the topics that users are posting about in terms of popularity, much like X does. Despite the rules against promotion of political content elsewhere on the platform, topics that are political will be allowed to appear in the trending feature. A Meta representative told TechCrunch that Threads will only remove political topics if they violate the company’s community guidelines. The main difference between the two announcements seems to be that trending topics are not powered by the platform’s recommendation algorithm, and therefore aren’t covered by the politics ban.

Some of those who responded to Mosseri’s announcement about de-emphasizing politics said that political content was one of the reasons they came to Threads, looking for an alternative to the extremism often found on X, and that they now feel the company has been disingenuous about its desire to fill the space formerly occupied by Twitter. To be fair, however, Mosseri has been clear about his plans to de-emphasize news and politics from day one, although it’s possible that some thought he was overstating the case. What remains to be seen is whether Meta’s decision to de-emphasize politics will stunt the service’s growth or lead to the departure of some of its early users and fans. Maybe some will even migrate to other platforms—like, say, Reddit.

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