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PANG: Social media and civic engagement must go hand in hand

Social media is not only meant to entertain, but also inform and inspire — and it can't do that without news and politics

Social media rivalries just got elevated to a new level. Meta recently launched Threads, a text-based social media platform that has a nearly identical format to X, formerly branded as Twitter. Within about 18 hours of its launch, and with little promotion, Threads garnered 30 million signups, partly due to its easy registration process through Instagram. Yet, its explosive start has spoiled with a 70 percent drop in daily active users since their early July peak. What happened? Whether or not Threads was meant to replace X, which is going through its own changes with Elon Musk at the reins, the lack of news and politics on the platform is a surefire way to shut the app down as quickly as it came. Threads has a responsibility to encourage thoughtful discourse on news and politics — for its own good as an app, and for promoting necessary civic engagement in society at a time when we need it the most.  

CEO of Instagram Adam Mosseri’s goal for Threads is for it to be a friendly, online platform that has “'less angry conversations” and acts as a “public square for communities,” but does not encourage news or political conversations. In other words, a better X. Two problems — news and politics will inevitably show up on the platform, and people will want to talk about them. Users are seeking spaces that facilitate better conversations on these very topics — something X has yet to accomplish, and something Threads must incorporate into their algorithm if it wishes to appease the people migrating from X for likely just this reason. 

Statistics from the 2020 election show that social media use was associated with higher young voter turnout. Even more, 70 percent of X users say they have used the app to track breaking news. With an upcoming presidential election and many people seeing Threads as a “Twitter killer” when it comes to data and scale, Threads could really have a positive impact on the efforts to keep young Americans critically engaged and informed like no other social media platform has done before. All it needs to do is give the go. 

Not only is Threads’ attempt to minimize news and politics irresponsible, but it is also unrealistic. Threads should learn from prior instances where social media platforms have started out as a place for lighthearted content, but gained long-term traction and community engagement with news and politics content. For instance, when TikTok first started out, it was a place for people to lip sync and dance to songs. Now, the platform houses everything, from commercial ventures to political platforms. Aiding Black creators by presenting them a platform to promote Black Lives Matter in 2020 was also pivotal in giving power to the movement and establishing TikTok as a tool to actually reach people on serious, important matters. While the platform had its own hiccups with shadow banning Black creators, their sustained growth is a flag for Meta that stifling news and politics could mean turning a blind eye to creativity, innovation and activism for current events. With the current policy, this is already happening as those journalists, politicians and other community members who strive to foster civic engagement find themselves without a voice on Threads.

Importantly, Threads has certain technical features that Meta could capitalize on to make the app a better version of X if they so choose. Currently, X does not have a verification system, and has a pay-only premium X Premium. On the other hand, Threads has the verification system carried from Instagram and is completely free of charge. Granted, threads still has numerous areas to improve on basic features — but with its booming start and Meta’s billion dollar budget, Threads is uniquely positioned to upgrade users’ technical experience and test features on presenting news and politics in a way that fosters trust and intellectual enrichment. If Threads continues to promote itself as the new and improved X, then why should it be used to discourage what’s important? Why should the new and improved X alternative diminish the very things that made X an integral part of our lives? 

Minimizing news and politics will turn our progress in the opposite direction, leaving citizens disengaged from the very issues that affect their daily lives. To state the obvious, political polarization and misinformation in America has spiked this past decade. Like climate change and abortion rights — or any other aspect of our society in a visible state of decline — we must confront these issues presented in news and politics head on instead of running from them. Likewise, Meta must think of ways to curate and better monitor these difficult but necessary conversations instead of silencing them and effectively letting them fester on other platforms. 

At the end of the day, Threads must include news and politics on their platform. After all, the competitor it models after has done exactly that, albeit in an extremely controversial and politically polarized way. People are clearly looking for an alternative to X, and Threads could be it. Meta’s plan should not be to block such topics of conversation on Threads, but rather brainstorm new ways to program technology to suit civilized discourse and engagement. As students at the University and proponents of self-governance and critical thinking, many of us hope to speak out about issues important to us and be heard. Whether through an article like this one or a post on the platform of our choice, I encourage us all to continue to demand that our platforms support us by helping to facilitate important conversations on the news and politics we are passionate about. 

Songhan Pang is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.


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