Yeah, I’m not sure that this aligns with the key strengths of a real-time social discussion app.
Today, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has announced that both Instagram and Threads are ramping up their systems to avoid recommending political content, in order to limit topical exposure to users who’ve had enough of constant, divisive political debates.
As explained by Mosseri:
“If you follow political accounts on Threads or Instagram, we want to avoid getting between you and their content. That said, we also don’t want to proactively amplify political content from accounts you don't follow. To that end, we’re extending our existing approach to how we avoid recommending political content to additional surfaces. Over the next few weeks we will be improving how we avoid recommending content about politics on recommendation surfaces – like Explore, Reels, and Suggested Users – across both Instagram and Threads. If you want political recommendations, you will have a control to opt into getting them. These recommendations updates apply to public accounts and only in places where we recommend content. They don’t change how we show people content from accounts they choose to follow.”
So, to clarify, on both Instagram and Threads, the recommendation systems powering Explore, Reels, and within its "Suggested Follows" display, will now more actively avoid highlighting content and profiles related to political topics, unless people specifically opt-in. Which will soon be possible via a specific toggle in your settings.
The critical note here being that this will be opt-in, with politics-related content restricted by default, as part of a broader effort to reduce angst-inducing, politics-related debate in each app, and make them a more joyful experience.
Which, it's worth noting, has already proven to be a viable, workable approach on both Instagram and Facebook, which has actually been borne out in real-world experience.
Meta's pushback against political content began back in January 2021, in the wake of the Capitol Riots after the U.S. election. With social media platforms once again being blamed for inciting division, and users repeatedly complaining about such, Meta decided that it would undertake a more active program to reduce political and news content in user feeds.
As Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted in a Facebook earnings call on January 27th, 2021:
“One of the top pieces of feedback we’re hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.”
That was also aligned with the beginning of Meta’s AI recommendations push, in which it sought to follow the lead of TikTok by showcasing top-performing video content from across the app within user feeds, whether users followed the creators of such content or not.
And while some users have since complained about the reduction in political content, overall, the initiative has been effective. Some 40% of the content that people now see on Instagram comes via AI recommendations, with a slightly lesser amount on FB. In the past year, that approach has driven a 7% increase in time spent on Facebook, and a 6% increase in the same on IG.
The move has actually been a critical win, because at one time, it did seem that both Facebook and Instagram were on the way out as key connective surfaces, amid TikTok’s rise. But switching to a more entertainment-focused approach, centered on Reels recommendations, now has both of Meta's core apps back on the right track.
It’s less “social”, as it’s more about showing people the most entertaining content from across its network, in order to maximize engagement in each app. But it is working, while it’s also enabled both platforms to veer away from political discussion, reducing scrutiny on Meta more broadly.
And whether you think that makes sense or not, whether you like those AI recommendations in-stream or you don't, the metrics indicate that this has been a success.
So, logically, Meta's now looking to expand the same to Threads, where it’s repeatedly noted that it’s looking to take a different approach to real-time discussion.
However, from a Threads perspective, I'm not sure that this will be effective.
Why is that?
Because Threads, at least in perception, is seeking to usurp X as the real-time discussion platform of choice, and Twitter succeeded (in relative terms) for years, almost despite itself, because it offered a means to tap into the pulse of whatever was happening, at any given time.
Which not only involves political content, it’s actually central to this approach.
Sure, political content can be divisive, and harmful, and it is indeed annoying to many users. But it’s also a key element of day-to-day discussion, and if Threads wants to play a role within that space, politics-related chatter will be critical to its existence.
There’s also a question of what constitutes “political” content, and then, how that might impact posting behaviors.
If I wanted to get more followers on Threads, for example, this will now mean that I should avoid sharing my opinion on any potentially political topic, because that’ll then exclude my account from follow recommendations. Is Elon Musk a political topic? I don’t post about politics, but I do post about social platforms. Do I now need to modify my approach?
From an individual perspective, this may not be a big deal for a lot of users. But for brands, who are looking to use social media platforms to maximize their reach, and connect with new audiences, and for influencers who actually drive the conversation in social apps (on X, 20% of its users create 100% of its content), this will be very relevant. And while most users on Facebook and IG seem happy to replace political debate with videos of cute dogs and clips from old TV shows, I'm guessing that those who've come to Threads seeking a new platform for rea-time discussion will be less enthused about such restriction.
At the same time, not even Meta seems to be sure what constitutes political/offensive material, given its more recent debate around the term “Zionist”.
Also, if it’s using AI to determine this, do you need to be careful about the specific terms that you use in any debate? And how much can you post about politics without being restricted?
It’s all pretty opaque at this stage. And while as noted, users will be able to opt-in to political content if they choose, so you will be able to engage in such if you choose, Meta also knows that most people won’t switch that toggle. It's the same as how it offers a “Following” feed, but won’t make it the default, because it knows that most users won’t bother to switch over. Which then enables it to squeeze more engagement out of its AI content recommendations, by showing people a wider range of content types from users that they don’t follow in the main “For You” feed.
Essentially, Meta’s looking to take the same approach that it has on Facebook and IG within Threads as well. But I suspect, in large part, that misses the point.
Really, over time, I’m actually starting to lose faith in the prospect of Meta building Threads into a viable Twitter alternative at all, based on such moves.
Originally, when Meta launched Threads in July last year, I presumed that Threads would eventually unseat Twitter (before it became X) as the home of real-time engagement, due to Elon’s radical and unpopular moves at the app, and Meta’s experience in building social platforms.
Nobody knows what works in driving engagement more than Meta, right? Facebook and IG are the two biggest social platforms in the world, and if anyone can see what trends are driving interest, it’s definitely the Meta team.
I still think that’s true, but as time goes on, we’re also seeing a variance in perception based on this, because what works on Facebook/Instagram is unlikely to be what also drives engagement in a real-time social app.
Or at least, a real time social app as we know it.
- Mosseri has repeatedly noted, from the beginning, that Threads will not be a place for discussing news and politics. Just after the app launched, Mosseri said that “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.” Which sounds a lot more like Instagram than a real-time social app. Tweets about the latest beauty trends aren’t what drove engagement on Twitter.
- Back in December, Mosseri ruled out launching chronological search sorting tools in the app, due to concerns that it would quickly be flooded with spam. Yet, being able to sort chronologically, and track trending topics, is a key value proposition of X, and you definitely can’t keep up with real-time discussion on Threads the same as you can in that app. Interestingly, the Threads team did actually release a prototype of this functionality a few weeks later, before rolling it back, which would suggest that there is some debate among the Threads team on this element.
- Earlier this month, Mosseri said that, in his view, features like trending topics won’t have a big impact on Threads’ growth. Mosseri’s perspective is that while tools like this may be important to “power users”, they’re not to everybody else, and if Threads wants to grow its community, it’s better off focusing on other elements. Which would be true for IG, again, where topical communities are the focus, but for a real-time discussion platform?
Essentially, Mosseri seems to be missing the point of the key value proposition of a real-time discussion app, in that you need to be able to tap into real-time discussions as they’re happening, as opposed to an Instagram-like system, where users are more looking to browse and be engaged by different content.
What it seems like is that Meta's actually trying to make Threads into a complementary community-building tool for Instagram creators, in order to facilitate real-time engagement, while also leaning into broader trends around private group engagement, but in public instead.
Maybe, that’s ultimately the value proposition for Threads, but that’s not what most Threads users, I would suggest, have been seeking.
Though that is, at least in part, what Mosseri has outlined for the app from the beginning.
On launch, Mosseri explained that:
“Obviously, Twitter pioneered the space, and there are a lot of good offerings out there for public conversations. But just given everything that was going on, we thought there was an opportunity to build something that was open and something that was good for the community that was already using Instagram.”
Note that last point, “the community that was already using Instagram.”
In Mosseri’s view, it seems that Threads is more of an IG add-on, as opposed to a standalone Twitter alternative, while Zuckerberg has also reiterated that they want to make Threads different to what Twitter had been, and X now is.
"The goal is to keep it friendly as it expands. I think it’s possible and will ultimately be the key to its success. That's one reason why Twitter never succeeded as much as I think it should have, and we want to do it differently."
So really, Meta has been telling us all along that Threads isn't designed to be a Twitter replacement, despite so many people seeking such.
The question now is: “Do people really want a nice, friendly platform for discussion of random topics instead?”
Do Threads users actually want to avoid political debate by default, and have an app designed to keep them updated on non-confrontational subjects? Or instead, is Threads set to lose interest because it’s not a Twitter replacement?
It seems like more of a perceptual debate around what a real-time engagement app should be, but at the least, it does seem like Threads will limit discussion around certain topics, in order to keep things more positive and upbeat.
In a year of many elections around the world, and much surrounding debate, that could be a difficult balance to uphold, while it will also impede the growth of the app, as users seek alternative places to engage in related discussion.
Sure, you can still follow your favorite accounts, and interact with their posts, political or not, by choice. But the restriction of broader interaction, via trending topics, real-time search, and this new opt-out, will have an impact.
Though any such analysis is really academic. The data will tell the tale in the end, and if Meta gets it right, Threads will continue to grow, by aligning with the same entertainment focus of its other apps.
Do you want Threads to be fun, light, and free of politics?
Maybe, that will work, though it may not be what many expected when the app was first launched.