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Will Meta’s Threads Dominate the 2024 Elections?

A steady stream of instability at Twitter has users looking for other social media platforms. The newest offering from Meta – Threads – is a ways off from toppling its competition. 

The Threads logo on a smartphone screen.
(TNS) — For those of you getting your hopes up after the latest spin on Elon Musk's roller coaster this week, no, Twitter isn't dead.

And no, Threads — the Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook/Meta-created social media platform that launched this week — isn't replacing Twitter, saving democracy and draining the bile out of online political chatter.


Take a deep breath after the past few days of breathless headlines about Threads being the "Twitter killer." We're not there yet, even after Threads' meteoric debut. Say what you will about Twitter — and we've noted its transphobic turn under Musk and how Donald Trump spewed disinformation there to confuse Latino voters — but the platform retains a powerful ability to shape national narratives because of the number of media outlets and influencers on it.

Ask Trump. The man rode Twitter into the White House, using it to break news and gut his enemies — and often, inadvertently, himself.

Threads isn't powerful enough to kill anything just days after leaving the digital womb. And given the challenges it faces, it likely won't be ready for adulthood in time to be used in the 2024 presidential election.

"I don't think 2024 will be 'the Threads election,' " Beth Becker, a social media strategist and trainer, told me. "I think Threads can be a player. But it's a hot fad today."

Put it this way: Next week, when Becker delivers her presentation titled "2023 Social Media Platforms: Beyond the Big 5" at the influential progressive Netroots Nation political conference in Chicago, she won't be urging campaigns to dump all their cash into Threads.

But she will encourage campaigns to look at other alternatives. Like Mastodon, one of several social media platforms that sprung up in the wake of Twitter's last few years of chaos. Becker has found "thoughtful, respectful" political conversations there.

But Mastodon's biggest drawback is that it isn't as user-friendly as Twitter. It had 10 million users as of March, according to Statista. It's likely not going to be the next Twitter.

Searching for the next Twitter is to this generation of political operatives, analysts and journalists akin to Boomers' fascination with finding the next Bob Dylan. Except that unlike Musk, a majority of people like Dylan.

The early adoption numbers for Thread were impressive — in context. Within two days of launching Wednesday night, 70 million people opened accounts on Threads, according to Zuckerberg. One reason why is that Meta — the Zuckerberg-led parent company of Facebook and Threads — also owns Instagram and made it very easy for its 2 billion users to open an account on the new platform.

Having a huge source of potential users also stoked the hopes of those wishing for a Twitter coup. If even a fraction of Instagram followers migrate to Threads, that would put it on equal footing as Twitter, which has about 250 million U.S. users. But it is not a given that people who live on the more gentle plains of kids-and-cats-and-vacations image sharing on Instagram are looking to migrate to a potential political battlefield like Threads.

If they did, they'd hang out on Twitter.

Right now, days-old Threads doesn't have the numbers to topple Twitter. And the No. 1 rule of politics is: Count your votes. Until Threads has enough users, it won't convince a critical mass of political campaigns and their operatives to invest a ton of money there now. The budgets on most campaigns other than one for president or the Senate are typically too tight to expend resources on something that is unproved.

"I heard that Threads was trending. But where did I see that? I saw it on Twitter," said Niles Swinney, deputy digital director at Left Hook, a left-leaning political consulting firm whose clients include Rep. Barbara Lee.

Here is what it would take for Threads to overtake Twitter as the place where politics is discussed online — and we use the word "discussed" in the most generous way imaginable:

Attract the influencers there: What makes Twitter the national online public square — for better or worse — is that top media members, political leaders and celebrities are there. Within the first days of Threads, at least half of the Republican presidential primary field had created profiles on the new site — with the notable absence of the one candidate who has his own social media platform, Trump, owner of Truth Social.

"What's critical for Meta is to get the influencers over there," said Sean Clegg, a partner at Bearstar Strategies, a political consultancy that represents many top Democrats in California, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, a longtime technology early adopter who created a Threads profile.

Within hours, top Twitter users including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (13.3 million Twitter followers), Oprah Winfrey (42.2 million) and top podcast host Joe Rogan (11.3 million Twitter acolytes) had set up Threads accounts.

Improve the Threads experience: Threads doesn't yet offer some features that Twitter does. You can't easily see what topics and people are trending. It's harder to share GIFs. Users don't have a tool to search for specific text, nor does the platform use hashtags as Twitter does.

Those features had better be coming.

"If it takes six months, will all those people trying Threads now still be around? Will Threads be able to hold their attention that long?" said Becker, the digital strategist.

Keep it civil: One of the main drawbacks of Twitter is that it's become a vituperative cesspool of hate. And that's on its better days.

The hope of Twitter haters is that Threads — or whatever supplants it — is a kinder place to exchange ideas. Ocasio-Cortez sought to take advantage of that moment of civility on her first day on Threads, posting: "Quick, while it's still nice here, AMA (ask me anything)."

Twitter has long been a repository of misinformation. A Knight Foundation study found "more than 6.6 million tweets linking to fake and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 election." Musk reinstated many of the Twitter accounts that were banned after he took control of the company last year.

Clegg said "the biggest threat to democracy is misinformation. The transformation of the (Twitter) platform under Musk was into an extreme misinformation engine. And we'll see how Meta positions itself in contrast to Twitter. It's a ripe opportunity."

Matt Shupe, one of California's top Republican political consultants, is worried that Threads will discriminate against conservative users by "suppressing discourse and opinion."

"It's my opinion," said Shupe, who has been honored by the American Association of Political Consultants for his adroit use of Facebook, "that Republicans tend to be the target of this kind of suppression."

Something to watch for: Will social media platform users self-segregate by their political ideology, much like cable news users do? Twitter for conservatives, Threads for progressives — the same way people typically choose either Fox News or MSNBC?

Sell political advertising: For now, there is no advertising on Threads. The idea is that an ad-free site will be more attractive to users checking out the new product.

Eventually, though, the ability to sell ads will draw more political campaigns to Threads, especially if it evolves into a place where political media and influencers convene. That said, much like Twitter, Threads likely will not be the best online platform to sell political ads. Facebook — and good ol' email — are better ways to get people to cast a vote.

"The average everyday voter isn't there (on Twitter)," Swinney said. "But they are on Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. The value of Twitter is to reach insiders. It's where you can post your press release. That's why Threads isn't relevant yet. It's not the center of the news conversation. Time will tell if it becomes that."

Until then, Twitter lives on. Enjoy the bile.

©2023 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.