Since its launch on July 6, Meta’s Threads app has reportedly surpassed the 100 million user mark in just under a week, believed to be a record for the most downloaded smartphone application in history.
Given this rapid adoption, media focus on Threads has portrayed it as a potential “Twitter killer,” exploiting an opening created by Twitter’s perceived weakness after its acquisition by Elon Musk last October. This opportunity arose as the online Left—the historical core of Twitter’s user base—has been displeased with the platform’s policy and technical changes. To judge by the media coverage, Threads’ threat to Twitter casts Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the hero, contrasted with Musk’s dastardly villain.
This all begs the question, though: Exactly how, and when, did Zuckerberg become the good guy?
It’s hard to imagine a more successful strategy designed to offend left, right, and center over the last decade than that pursued by the Facebook founder. Facebook’s user experience has significantly degraded since the early 2010s, dampening enthusiasm across the political spectrum. The Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal of 2016—which seems almost quaint today—briefly undermined confidence in the Facebook platform, with user growth eventually steadying, despite significant FTC and SEC fines for misuse of customer data and investor disclosures related thereto. Given these practices’ purported benefit to the Donald Trump and Ted Cruz 2016 presidential campaigns, Cambridge Analytica-related opprobrium came mostly from the Left.
More recently, Facebook’s heavy-handed use of censorship, fact-checking, user warnings, and account suspensions during the Covid-19 pandemic under the guise of policing “misinformation” have brought allegations of viewpoint discrimination and collusion with the federal government to suppress speech. A court order in Louisiana issued last week blocked several government agencies and administration officials from contact with social media companies “for the purpose of encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech”—in direct response to such actions by Facebook and other social media platforms, which included the censoring of posts related to Hunter Biden’s laptop just prior to the 2020 presidential election. In all this, the complaints have come from the Right, the target of most of this manipulation.
And it’s hard to dispute the impact of Zuckerberg’s own personal efforts to swing the 2020 election through his Center for Tech and Civic Life, which issued roughly $400 million in grants directed almost exclusively to Democrat-leaning districts to fund various election efforts and equipment, perhaps most notably the funding of ballot drop-boxes. Many states subsequently passed laws to ban the private funding of election administration.
Much of the frustration resulting from the recent changes at Twitter (thus creating the opening for the Threads app) has resulted from the Augean stable-cleaning undertaken via the “Twitter Files” published by Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, and other independent journalists. Whether the online Left chooses to acknowledge it or not, most fair-minded people see viewpoint censorship, government-directed speech suppression, and blatant attempts at swinging electoral outcomes via social media as wrong. Unlike Twitter, which experienced a change of control, Meta has no corresponding “Facebook Files” detailing that platform’s own historical misdeeds. Progressives couldn’t talk enough about Russian electoral interference related to approximately $100,000 spent on Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential election, but these efforts pale in comparison with the far more pervasive influence of Facebook’s own efforts to shape electoral outcomes in 2020.
Zuckerberg and Meta can’t be faulted for seeking to exploit a market opportunity. With the company’s investment in the “metaverse” having largely fizzled, and in light of Musk’s desire to remake Twitter as a free speech forum, his right-leaning recent political statements, and the aforementioned Twitter platform changes, the launch of Threads allows Meta to make a strategic pivot. The company can draw a favorable contrast between Zuckerberg and Musk among Twitter exiles and address challenges with user engagement at its legacy Facebook and Instagram offerings by energizing its huge installed user base without the significant customer acquisition and switching costs associated with launching a de novo offering.
Users downloading Threads should be clear-eyed about what they’re signing up for. To the extent that Twitter was ever successful, it wasn’t in a monetary sense. At its peak, it was a powerful megaphone (and echo chamber) for opinion leaders, media figures, and the online Left. If it was designed to harvest data for financial gain—and the Twitter Files give no real indication that this was its primary objective—it was curiously inept at it.
By contrast, Threads may prove to be the worst of both worlds: a platform that carries over the censorship, viewpoint discrimination, and “community guidelines” of the old Twitter regime, combined with the much broader user base it inherits from the Meta legacy platforms, which can be more readily mined for economic advantage.
There is nothing wrong in offering a competing product that some consumers may deem superior. But to see Mark Zuckerberg as some kind of white knight in an ideological battle with Elon Musk and Twitter is delusional.
Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images