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Zuckerberg's "Threads" Acknowledges It Wants No Politics Or News On Its New Twitter
House Democrats push back on cluster bombs; the economy is outpacing predictions; Boston DSA targets one of its own
You might think it would be harder to get a manned flight to Mars than to make Mark Zuckerberg look like the good guy, yet Elon Musk’s chaotic and hostile management of Twitter managed to do just that, producing this week’s exodus to Zuckerberg’s so-called “Twitter killer,” Threads.
Behind the optimism of the first few hours, though, lay the awareness among veterans of Zuckerberg social networks that for those of us in the news and politics industry, this was likely headed worse than nowhere.
To Zuckerberg’s credit, at least, Threads confirmed those fears quickly, rather than taking years to bleed news organizations out like he did with the fatal-for-many “pivot to video” and his ill-fated news feed.
Late on Thursday, Alex Heath, an editor at The Verge, voiced the question many journalists are wondering.
Will be interesting to see how the news industry does/doesn’t embrace Threads.
Meta as a company has spent the past few years actively distancing itself from news and literally downranking it in FB and IG. Killed the news tab, etc. Now threatening to pull all news in countries proposing laws that would require payments to publishers to host their links.
But if this app is going to be a real Twitter competitor, it’s going to need the news industry to embrace it. Is Meta ready for that?
Meta is not ready for that, responded Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, of which Threads is an offshoot. “The goal isn't to replace Twitter,” he replied this afternoon. “The goal is to create a public square for communities on Instagram that never really embraced Twitter and for communities on Twitter (and other platforms) that are interested in a less angry place for conversations, but not all of Twitter.”
Politics, he said, was unavoidable, but Threads would do all it could to avoid it, making sure it’s algorithm kept it away from people. “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,” Mosseri wrote.
So there it is.
Threads will be a public square but not one where the public can not gather to discuss politics or debate current events. What Mosseri is describing, of course, is not a public square – it is, at best, a town fair. Town fairs are fun, and nobody wants somebody ranting about politics while you’re in line for cotton candy or funnel cake. But you can’t live on funnel cake, and the notion of a permanent town fair – with the mandatory happiness of Instagram attempting to translate itself somehow into text – is a dystopian vision somehow darker than today’s Twitter, which was recently and aptly described as having “Berlin-1937 vibes.”
Pressed by journalist Taylor Lorenz on Threads, Mosseri backtracked somewhat, saying, “We won't discourage or down-rank news or politics, we just won't court them the way we have in the past. If we are honest, we were too quick to promise too much to the industry on Facebook in the early 2010s, and it would be a mistake to repeat that.”
I agree with him there. I was at The Huffington Post when Facebook made big promises and drove the bulk of traffic to news sites, then literally paid news organizations to build video departments — and then overnight shut it all down, leading to the collapse of a significant number of newsrooms. Since then, they have shut down their news feed and threatened countries that they will bar news sites from posting links if Facebook is forced to share revenue. Repeating that would indeed be bad. What Mosseri is saying, though, is clear: the algorithm will make it very difficult for politics to take hold on the app. Whether they can keep it off is another question, but don’t underestimate the power of the algorithm.
“Politics and hard news are important, I don't want to imply otherwise,” Mosseri went on. “But my take is, from a platform's perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue they might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let's be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them. There are more than enough amazing communities – sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment, etc – to make a vibrant platform without needing to get into politics or hard news.”
But news distribution is essential to democracy, as Thomas Jefferson famously suggested when he said he’d rather have a newspaper and no government rather than a government and no newspapers. But today we have no newspapers. Print is done. Broadcast news is fading. There’s cable, but they stick only to what rates and look more for things to fight about than issues to discuss or news to report. Old Twitter is gone and the new one is filled people with blue checks writing “BREAKING” before some news they may or many not have completely made up. There’s TikTok, but that can’t possibly be the answer. What’s left? There’s still the email newsletter, thankfully, and that can at least be a bridge to what’s next, but it’s no way to keep a full citizenry informed and in conversation.
As somebody who also does journalism on YouTube, it’s at least nice to hear the rationale said out loud from a major platform executive. I have always gotten the sense that YouTube really wishes there was no politics content on its platform at all for the precise reasons Mosseri articulates. The platforms want our data and want to serve us advertising, but they want none of the responsibility that comes with citizenry. It’s bread and circus, though we’re responsible for producing our own happy circus, while they get the bread.
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Cluster Bomb Fight
The White House is preparing to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, in defiance of the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which is signed by more than 100 countries, but not by the United States, Russia, or China. The munitions planned for Ukraine are reported to have a dud rate of 6 percent; at the scale we would be providing them, that means hundreds of thousands of unexploded ordinances would be resting in Ukrainian territory, waiting for somebody to come along and get maimed or killed by one years later.
Rep. Sara Jacobs, who has quietly become one of the most impressive foreign policy voices in the House, has introduced an amendment with Rep. Ilhan Omar to ban the transfer of those cluster bombs. One of the strongest moral claims Ukraine and the United States have in the conflict relates to Russia’s flagrant violation of what we like to refer to as the “rules-based international order.” Sending cluster bombs into battle undermines our claim to that mantle. This evening, 19 Democrats came out in support of her amendment, led by CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal.
Jacobs’ amendment is attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, and the major question is whether it will get a vote. For that, a Republican co-sponsor would help; in 2016, 40 Republicans voted to bar the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. This is an issue where readers of this newsletter are probably divided, with some reasoning that if Ukraine believes it’s worth it to use cluster munitions, then it’s up to us to support their decision. But it’s also worth considering that our continued and escalating material support is no longer contributing to territorial gains by Ukraine, and more likely merely extending the war. Doing so while also laying waste to the breadbasket of the world and killing Ukrainians for years to come is unjustified, as far as I see it.
The Jacobs amendment could be the first significant pushback from Democrats in Congress against the White House when it comes to Ukraine, but we’ll know more next week as it unfolds. For more on the horrific potential of cluster munitions, read my colleague Maz Hussain on a new Human Rights Watch investigation.
3.6% Unemployment! Inflation Falling!
Life is hard financially for many (actually, far more than most) people in this country. That’s just a fact — and it’s structural problem. But within the economy we have, things have barely ever been better. The economy keeps adding jobs, though at a slightly lower pace this month; inflation is plummeting; manufacturing is booming, particularly in the clean energy sector; wages for most people are outpacing inflation. Even as the world seems to be falling apart, things are getting better for many people. That’s not how mainstream economists predicted things would go after the Biden administration’s spending binge in 2021 and 2022. But politicians should take note: it worked, and it didn’t produce endemic inflation.
At the very end of 2021, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Isabella Weber published a short oped in the Guardian that surprised her and everybody else by going viral in a very bad way. The leading lights in her field annihilated her for it. Paul Krugman called her “truly stupid” and lesser known figures called her much worse. Her crime had been to strike at the heart of free market economic orthodoxy. Weber suggested policy makers should learn from the past and do something directly about soaring prices, rather than trying roundabout solutions like slowing down the entire economy and engineering layoffs. But the idea that the government could ever have any direct say in setting prices raises profound questions about the nature of the economy, and whether it falls properly within the sphere of democratic control or whether it lives outside of it, like some other worldly force that we can only communicate with indirectly.
Yet that’s not how it really works. So When Weber raised the example of American policy in the 1940s, which was guided by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, she had to be ridiculed rather than treated seriously. During the Roosevelt administration, Galbraith was a top official at the office of price administration which was in charge, yes, of setting prices. The idea Weber put forward was anything but radical:
Today economists are divided into two camps on the inflation question: team Transitory argues we ought not to worry about inflation since it will soon go away. Team Stagflation urges for fiscal restraint and a raise in interest rates. But there is a third option: the government could target the specific prices that drive inflation instead of moving to austerity which risks a recession.
To use a metaphor: if your house is on fire, you would not want to wait until the fire eventually dies out. Neither do you wish to destroy the house by flooding it. A skillful firefighter extinguishes the fire where it is burning to prevent contagion and save the house. History teaches us that such a targeted approach is also possible for price increases.
It’s been quite a journey for Weber since that pile on. Much of what she argued has proven to be correct, and two years later she’s now a sought-after adviser by major industrial economies. She was recently the subject of a profile by reporter Zach Carter in the New Yorker. And her critics have been made to look foolish. (Zach, my former HuffPost chum, wrote a terrific book on Keynes; you would think it would be impossible to write a page-turner on the history of economic thought, but he pulled it off.)
Larry Summers, for instance, has consistently attacked the Biden administration for too much spending, which he said caused the inflation we saw, arguing that the Fed needed to heavily raise interest rates in order to get unemployment up to something like 6%.
It just so happens that his guess at what the unemployment rate needed to be was wildly too high of a number – but that’s ok for big corporations, who benefit from higher unemployment because they can then pay lower wages, hire more easily, and break unions. So what he framed as an academic dispute is in reality class war.
The unemployment rate announced today is just 3.6% yet inflation is falling fast. Summers couldn’t have been more wrong. One economist who did defend Weber at the time was the son of John Kenneth Galbraith, economist Jamie Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin. I first met Jamie back when he was advising House Democrats on how to respond to the great financial crisis in 2008. They didn’t take his advice, and we all paid the price.
As some of you already know, during the pandemic, when they closed DC schools, we moved our family up to southern Vermont, where public schools were still open in person. It was the best decision we could have made, and coincidentally it turned out that Jamie was, by Vermont standards, one of our neighbors. We came back up for a visit recently, and I recorded an episode of Deconstructed on the porch at the home he grew up in and where his dad wrote some of the most influential economic works of the mid 20th century. That episode posted today, and you can find it wherever you get podcasts.
Also today, I published a look at a battle going on in Boston between the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and one of its two elected officials, whom they’re trying to expel from DSA. Here’s a list of the charges and his responses to them.