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David Celis

A cowboy coder.

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Fraying Threads

The App Store listing for “Threads, an Instagram app”, showing a two star rating.
The app store listing for Threads. Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash.

At xoxo.zone, we chose to block federation with Threads as soon as they’d publicized the threads.net domain they intended to use. There were a few questions but, thankfully, that decision wasn’t particularly controversial in our community. Outside of our community, though, I’ve seen a lot of skepticism about preemptively blocking Threads.

One of the first and most widely-shared takes I saw was from John Gruber of Daring Fireball, “Not That Kind of ‘Open’”, in which he linked to the Anti-Meta Fedi Pact and wrote…

The whole point of ActivityPub as an open protocol is to turn Twitter/Instagram-like social networking into something more akin to email: truly open. If Facebook were on the cusp of launching a Gmail-like email service, would you preemptively declare that your email server would block them? To me that’s what this “Anti-Meta Fedi Pact” is arguing for.

Maybe I’m wrong! I certainly don’t think the “let’s pledge to block Facebook before their Fediverse thing even starts” people are nuts. But to me this feels like convicting Facebook of a pre-crime. Is the goal of the Fediverse to be anti-corporate/anti-commercial, or to be pro-openness? I think openness is the answer. Others clearly disagree.

Gruber misses the point entirely. ActivityPub isn’t some critical communication protocol akin to email and, while openness is one goal of ActivityPub, the freedom of server admins to choose how they federate is another. More importantly, blocking Meta isn’t about being anti-corporate/anti-commercial (though I’m sure that’s partially at play for some), and the idea that it’s akin to “convicting Facebook of a pre-crime” is a naïve conclusion to draw. Our problem with Meta isn’t that we’re worried that they’ll be bad for the fediverse; our problem is that Meta is already bad for the entire internet and society at large.

Meta’s existing atrocities form a long list, but Erin Kissane provides a thoughtful and detailed exploration of Threads and federation. She approaches the argument from all angles while doing her best to check her own biases and, if you don’t understand why federating with Threads is a bad idea, you should stop here, read her article, and then come back. If you have even more time, you should read her entire Meta in Myanmar series. Either way:

Threads isn’t yet running ads-qua-ads, but it launched with a preloaded fleet of “brands” and the promise of being a nice, un-heated space for conversation—which to say, an explicitly brand-friendly environment. (So far, this has meant no to butts and no to searching for long covid info and yes to accounts devoted to stochastic anti-LGBT terrorism for profit, so perhaps that’s a useful measure of what brands consider safe and neutral.) Perhaps there’s a world in which Threads doesn’t accept ads, but I have difficulty seeing it.

That “preloaded fleet of brands” made Threads feel particularly soulless when I first joined, and a lot of the content I get served on Threads still falls into the category of “brands and blue checks post inane, thought-leadering engagement bait.” Most of it is just tedious to read and boring to interact with, but the worst kind of content on Threads is actually sinister and (surprise!) Meta does practically nothing in the way of content moderation to prevent it. This brings me to a particularly sobering excerpt from Kissane’s article:

I would note that most mainstream fedi servers maintain policies that at least claim to ban (open) harassment or hateful content based on gender, gender identity, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation. On this count, I’d argue that Threads already fails the first principle of the Mastodon Server Covenant:

Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, anti-semitism and transphobia of other platforms.

Don’t take my word for this failure. Twenty-four civil rights, digital justice and pro-democracy organizations delivered an open letter last summer on Threads’ immediate content moderation…challenges:

…we are observing neo-Nazi rhetoric, election lies, COVID and climate change denialism, and more toxicity. They posted bigoted slurs, election denial, COVID-19 conspiracies, targeted harassment of and denial of trans individuals’ existence, misogyny, and more. Much of the content remains on Threads indicating both gaps in Meta’s Terms of Service and in its enforcement, unsurprising given your long history of inadequate rules and inconsistent enforcement across other Meta properties.

Rather than strengthen your policies, Threads has taken actions doing the opposite, by purposefully not extending Instagram’s fact-checking program to the platform and capitulating to bad actors, and by removing a policy to warn users when they are attempting to follow a serial misinformer. Without clear guardrails against future incitement of violence, it is unclear if Meta is prepared to protect users from high-profile purveyors of election disinformation who violate the platform’s written policies.

That open letter was back in July, well before the ongoing humanitarian crisis and genocide in Gaza. Every time I’ve decided to check in on Threads recently, I’ve seen (in addition to everything observed above) a virulent mix of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and propaganda, all courtesy of Threads’ algorithm.

Like Kissane, I try to be pragmatic. I understand why people would choose to federate with Threads. I spent a lot of my life on Twitter and I still struggle with the fact that my community has scattered to the wind, with only a small percentage finding their footholds elsewhere. Some people think that Threads is best positioned to be the next large, text-based social network now that so many have fled Twitter. Personally, I don’t believe there will be another huge, centralized social network like Twitter (at least not any time soon).

For me (and, thankfully, the community I help moderate), federating with Threads isn’t an option. Meta’s long track record should make it painfully obvious that they care more about their business metrics than the community they profit from. They continue to avoid content moderation as much as possible and have proven time and time again that not only will they allow vile and hateful content in their networks; they’ll visibly proliferate it. Meta is not a good steward of their communities, and we’re under no obligation to allow them unfettered access to any of ours.

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(this started as me just linking to @kissane‘s post with a short comment but then i found i had more to say 😅 especially after i remembered Gruber’s post from a few months ago)

@davidcelis remember when Gruber was bullish on Musk and Twitter, with a take along the lines of "do you really think that this rich business tycoon visionary doesn't have a plan?"