Meta’s “friendly” threads collide with the hostile internet

Mark Zuckerberg has launched Meta’s Twitter app, Threads, as a “friendly” haven for online public discourse, framing it in stark distinction to the more adversarial Twitter owned by billionaire Elon Musk.

“We’re definitely focusing on kindness and making this a friendly place,” Meta CEO Zuckerberg said Wednesday, shortly after the service launched.

Maintaining that idealistic vision for Threads, which attracted more than 70 million users in its first two days, is another story.

Truth be told, Meta Platforms is no newbie to dealing with the internet hordes of rage-provoking and obscenities-posting.

The company said it would impose the same rules on users of the new Threads app it maintains on its photo- and video-sharing social media service, Instagram.

The Facebook and Instagram owner has also actively embraced an algorithmic approach to posting content, which gives him more control over what kind of fare works well as he tries to steer more towards entertainment and away from the news.

However, by linking Threads with other social media services like Mastodon and given the appeal of microblogging to news junkies, politicians and other fans of rhetorical combat, Meta is also taking on new challenges with Threads and trying to blaze a new path through them.

For starters, the company will not extend its existing fact-checking program to Threads, spokeswoman Christine Pai said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

The company said it would impose the same rules on users of the new Threads app it maintains on its photo- and video-sharing social media service, Instagram.  Image: Yui Mok/PA cable
The company said it would impose the same rules on users of the new Threads app it maintains on its photo- and video-sharing social media service, Instagram. Image: Yui Mok/PA cable

This takes away a defining feature of how Meta has handled misinformation about its other apps.

Ms Pai added that the Facebook or Instagram posts were classified as fake by fact-checking partners, which include a unit at Reuters – will carry their tags if also posted on Threads.

Asked by Reuters why it was taking a different approach to disinformation about Threads, Meta declined to answer.

In a New York Times podcast on Thursday, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, acknowledged that Threads was more “supportive of public discourse” than Meta’s other services and therefore more likely to attract a news-focused crowd, but said the company aimed to focus on lighter topics such as sports, music, fashion and design.

However, Meta’s ability to distance himself from controversy was immediately questioned.

Within hours of launch, Threads accounts were seen by Reuters they were posting about the Illuminati and “billionaire Satanists,” while other users compared themselves to Nazis and fought over everything from gender identity to violence in the West Bank.

Conservative figures, including former US President Donald Trump’s son, have complained about the censorship after labels appeared warning would-be followers of posting false information.

Another Meta spokesperson said those labels were a mistake.

More content moderation challenges are in store once Meta connects Threads to the so-called fediverse, where users of servers operated by other non-Meta entities will be able to communicate with Threads users.

Meta’s Pai said Instagram’s rules will apply to those users as well.

“If an account or a server, or if we find many accounts from a particular server, violate our rules, then access to Threads would be blocked, meaning that the server’s content would no longer appear in Threads and vice versa,” he said.

However, researchers specializing in online media said the devil would be in the details of how Meta approaches such interactions.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Meta, posted on Threads that the company would face greater challenges running key types of content moderation enforcement without access to back-end data about users who publish prohibited content.

“With federation, the metadata used by large platforms to link accounts to a single actor or detect abusive behavior at scale is not available,” Stamos said.

This will make it much harder to stop spammers, troll farms and business-oriented attackers.”

In his posts, he said he expects Thread to limit the visibility of fedeverse servers with large numbers of abusive accounts and enforce tougher penalties for those who post illegal material such as child pornography.

Even so, the interactions themselves raise challenges.

“There are some really weird complications that arise when you start thinking about illegal things,” said Solomon Messing of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

He cited examples such as child exploitation, non-consensual sexual imagery and gun sales.

“If you come across that kind of stuff while you’re indexing content (from other servers), do you have a liability other than blocking it from Threads?”

– Reuters

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