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Meta's Threads, which is basically a Twitter clone, minimizes news and politics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People on social media have intently followed a war between platforms.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Twitter is a huge cultural force, the arena for news and politics. But just as the platform is disrupted by the erratic moves of new owner Elon Musk, a new platform is attracting a lot of users. Threads has become the most rapidly downloaded app ever. It's run by the folks who make Facebook and looks a lot like Twitter, but its managers say they do not want to emphasize news and politics.

INSKEEP: Well, how does that work? NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn is here. Bobby, good morning.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about Meta, which owns Facebook, which owns Instagram and also now runs Threads. Why would they avoid news and politics on that platform?

ALLYN: Well, Meta learned long ago that if they de-emphasize politics and news, they could make more money. When people share content about influencers, about celebrities or when people are chatting about or sharing photos about friends and family, that's what really keeps people engaged. That's what keeps people scrolling, and that's what keeps the advertising dollars rolling in. So Meta executive Adam Mosseri, when he announced that Threads was going to not put an emphasis on news and politics, he had an eye towards making more money, honestly. But he also, you know, thought that that would be a way to avoid nasty political debates and avoid scrutiny.

INSKEEP: As I'm listening to you, though, I'm thinking about a reality of social media. We're told that we make social media, but really the experience is shaped a lot by the companies and their algorithms and which posts they promote or which posts they downgrade.

ALLYN: That's right. I mean, Facebook, years ago, made a decision to down-rank hard news and instead put the emphasis on interactions between friends and family - wedding announcements, vacations and the like. And that's what really keeps people engaged. I mean, politics and news is what made Twitter so relevant and so powerful - quite the opposite. I talked to Alex Stamos. He's the former chief security officer at Facebook. And he says, you know, Threads can try to turn the algorithmic knobs up or down on different types of discussions. But Stamos, who now leads Stanford's Internet Observatory, says that so many people coming over from Twitter, it's really just a matter of time before Threads becomes like Twitter.

ALEX STAMOS: Lots of political commentators have gotten very used to the blood sport of Twitter, and they're going to want to bring that kind of fighting over to this new community. And whether or not the platform can actually shape that is a really open question.

INSKEEP: If Threads manages to tamp down the ugliness, what would be there instead?

ALLYN: Threads - it can become overrun with influencer content, with memes, with jokes, with people just tweeting kind of about very trivial affairs. It's lighter fare - right? - and Threads wants to keep it that way. But let me summarize what Sol Messing told me. He's a former top researcher at Facebook, and he says if news and politics are de-emphasized, it's hard to imagine how the app doesn't make society dumber. Now, as an academic at NYU, Messing has researched how social media shapes the public's understanding of news and events and politics. And what you and I and everyone see on social media influence what we think about the world. And here's what his recent findings have found.

SOL MESSING: When folks see more political content in their news feeds, they tend to become more interested in politics. They tend to develop more consistent policy preferences. They tend to report voting at higher rates.

ALLYN: Yeah. So Messing is saying that if Threads does displace Twitter, the politics and news go to the wayside, the public could become less engaged with policy and politics. And - you know what? - they might even vote less.

INSKEEP: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn, thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF NYM'S "SENSORY FADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.