By Bryan Jung
Threads, Meta’s recent competitor to Twitter, is facing harsh criticism for blocking search results for terms related to the pandemic, including vaccines.
The new text platform, which is linked to Instagram, rolled out its new search function last week, a major step towards giving it more parity with X, formerly known as Twitter.
After Threads’ July release, Meta has been rolling out several much needed updates in recent weeks, including a requested desktop version and user search functionality.
However, within 24 hours of the recent update, the social media giant was hit with controversy, as the new search function proved useless for those wanting to look for posts related to the COVID-19, reported The Washington Post.
Threads Users Shocked to Find Search Results Blocked
Many users were upset when their search on Threads for content related to “COVID” and “vaccines” was met with a blank screen and a pop-up redirecting them to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Zuck treats users like children. He gets to decide what they will see and talk about. This is reason alone enough to reject Threads and embrace X,” said Michael Robertson, a tech CEO, in a post on X.
Meta confirmed its search policy restrictions in a press statement, saying that the text platform is blocking users from searching for words that could bring up “sensitive” posts, for now.
“The search functionality temporarily doesn’t provide results for keywords that may show potentially sensitive content,” it said.
“People will be able to search for keywords such as ‘COVID’ in future updates once we are confident in the quality of the results.”
Meta acknowledged that Threads was intentionally blocking other terms but declined to provide a list of them.
A search by The Washington Post discovered that the words “sex,” “nude,” “gore,” “porn,” “coronavirus,” “vaccines,” and “vaccination” were also among blocked terms.
Health Experts Decry Censorship
Public health experts and workers also were critical of the company’s decision, telling The Post that its timing was poor, especially amid reports of a recent virus uptick.
“Censorship doesn’t work. Misinfo still gets circulated by code names & other platforms. Tech companies should invest in real solutions like moderation/education,” Lucky Tran, director of science communication at Columbia University, said in a post on X.
Mr. Tran previously told The Post that the decision to censor searches about COVID will make it harder for public health experts and people who work in public health to get out important info to the public about how they can protect themselves.
Hospitalizations in the United States rose nearly 16 percent last week, and have been rising steadily since July, but less than for the same week a year ago, according to the CDC.
CDC statistics show that deaths from the virus are less than a quarter of what they were during the same period in 2022.The agency said cases of the virus are likely to continue into the winter.
Former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC’s “This Week” over the weekend that given the current level of immunity in the population, “the chances of this being an overwhelming rush of cases and hospitalizations is probably low.”
Meanwhile, the FDA approved another round of COVID boosters on Sept. 11 that are expected be available in the coming days.
New Meta Platform Sees Decrease in Users Since Launch
Meta’s decision to block certain search terms illustrates its desire to avoid encouraging any topics that could be deemed “hard news” on its platform.
“Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads—they have on Instagram as well to some extent—but we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals,” Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s chief who was instrumental in the launch of Threads, wrote this summer.
However, Twitter’s ability to share real-time news and information was crucial to its rise to prominance and remains one of its core features.
A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that about 4 in 10 Americans said that social media was an important source for news about the COVID-19 vaccine and virus.
Ever since Threads launched over the summer in an effort to take advantage of some users’ disappointment with X after its take over by Elon Musk, the platform has since failed to maintain its momentum.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted after the launch that he was able to get 100 million new sign-ups within five days of it going live.
Time spent on the app service has since fallen by 85 percent last month, according to tech blog Similarweb.
“Threads reached 100 million sign ups over the weekend. That’s mostly organic demand and we haven’t even turned on many promotions yet. Can’t believe it’s only been 5 days!,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in a post at the time.