Hanging by Meta’s Threads

[NB: check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

If you are very much online in social media, you’ve likely heard the buzz about Threads – the new microblogging platform owned and operated by Facebook’s parent, Meta.

I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of Threads versus its problematic competitor Twitter or ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s problematic alternative, Bluesky Social. You’re perfectly capable of doing the homework on them and other competing microblogging platforms.

Of concern to me: how will Threads eventually interact with the open source federated universe (fediverse) of platforms including Mastodon. Threads is expected to federate eventually and allow easy sharing of communications and content between member platforms in the fediverse.

There has been so much conversation about this topic in Mastodon that I’ve had to filter it out. The discussion has been warranted, but the subject has been polarizing and frankly exhausting.

Some Mastodon users – mostly those who left Twitter and miss it badly – want this new Meta project to integrate seamlessly with Mastodon so that they can encourage former Facebook folks to come over to Mastodon. They’re missing much busier levels of activity in their timelines which was driven by algorithms at Twitter and as well at Facebook. And some simply can’t handle the increased complexity Mastodon poses, from choosing an instance to finding friends old and new, or building a feed.

Some Mastodon users – like me – don’t really care to federate with Meta’s users whether from Facebook or Instagram. In my case my primary concerns are data privacy and remaining ad free. While I feel fairly confident my experience within Mastodon won’t ever involve ads, I can’t say that will be the case once I make contact with someone in Threads just as looking at a tweet on Twitter will likely expose me to advertising. I simply do not want to give my attention without my advance consent to any business advertising in social media.

(Side note: look around here in emptywheel – see any ads? How’s that shape your experience here?)

Because of these concerns I’ve been looking for ways to limit exposure of personal data now that Meta has begun a soft launch of Threads over the last 24 hours.

~ ~ ~

Ahead of a formal launch, Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator, published a statement about the way Threads and Mastodon are supposed to work. This statement was the result of meetings he had with Meta about the way Threads was expected to work once it joined the fediverse.

See https://blog.joinmastodon.org/2023/07/what-to-know-about-threads/

Note this paragraph in particular:

Will Meta get my data or be able to track me?

Mastodon does not broadcast private data like e-mail or IP address outside of the server your account is hosted on. Our software is built on the reasonable assumption that third party servers cannot be trusted. For example, we cache and reprocess images and videos for you to view, so that the originating server cannot get your IP address, browser name, or time of access. A server you are not signed up with and logged into cannot get your private data or track you across the web. What it can get are your public profile and public posts, which are publicly accessible.

There’s still a problem here, if you think back to what researcher Aleksandr Kogan could do with Facebook’s data harvested ~2014. The network of people around those whose data had been obtained could still be deduced.

If some users outside Meta have past usernames in Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp which match; and/or if users have had previous long-term contacts with Meta users, and/or if data from Twitter or other social media platforms can also be acquired and correlated, it wouldn’t be difficult to build out the social network of Threads users who interface with Mastodon or other fediverse platform users.

This gets around the reason why Mastodon in particular has been resistant to integrating search across the fediverse. Search was intentionally limited during Mastodon’s development to prevent swarming and brigading attacks and other forms of harassment targeting individuals, particularly those identified in minority and/or protected classes.

Consider for example the case of a gay person who associates with other gay people who know each other locally but communicate using these tools. It won’t take that much effort especially with the aid of GPT AI to to create the means to identify entire networks of gay persons related one to several degrees apart. Once identified, it wouldn’t take much to begin brigading them if enough other hostile accounts have been established. One could even imagine the reverse identification process applied in order find persons who are violently anti-gay and likely to welcome opportunities to harass gays.

Imagine, too, how this could affect young women contacting others looking for reproductive health care information.

~ ~ ~

There is a temporary saving grace: Threads is not approved in the EU. Not yet.

The server which hosts my Mastodon account is located in the EU and therefore will not yet allow Threads users access through federation.

The same server’s administrator also polled users and asked if they wanted to allow Threads to federate with this server they voted it down.

So I guess I’m okay where I’m at for the moment.

There are fediverse servers out there which will never allow Threads to federate with them. I’ve seen a Mastodon server which has said it will never allow Meta applications to federate because it’s against their server’s terms of use to allow entities which enable genocide and crimes against humanity to do so.

Good for them.

And good for us: PressProgress editor Luke LeBrun collected the app privacy policies for Threads, Bluesky, Twitter and Mastodon for contrast and comparison:

Can’t imagine why I would have any concerns about Threads…ahem.

~ ~ ~

This is all fairly new and unfolding even as I write this. What the fediverse will look like once Threads makes full contact is anybody’s guess.

But there are several things we do know right now, with certainty:

– Meta has been and remains a publicly-held holding company for a collection of for-profit social media businesses. Its business model relies on selling ad space based on targeted markets, and selling data. This will not change short of a natural disaster like a meteor strike taking out all of Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco area, and that may still not be enough to change the inevitable monetization of Threads and all the platform touches.

– Meta has been operating under a consent decree issued by the Federal Trade Commission since 2011 after violating users’ privacy; it violated that agreement resulting in a $5 billion fine which it has fought against paying. Meta’s track record on privacy is not good and includes the non-consensual collection of personal data by academic Aleksandr Kogan. The data was later used by Cambridge Analytica/SCL and may have been involved in influence operations during the 2016 election.

– The EU is light years ahead of the US when it comes to privacy regulations. California as a state comes closest to the EU in its privacy regulations but it shouldn’t matter which state we are in – our privacy concerns are the same across the country, and opt-in should be the standard, period. US state and federal lawmakers have been and will likely continue to be slow to take any effective action unless there is considerable pressure by the public to meet the EU’s efforts.

– Law enforcement in the US have purchased and used without a warrant personal data collected through users’ use of social media. There has been inadequate pressure by the public to make this stop and will put the health and safety of women and minority groups at risk.

Changing the direction in which this is headed requires engagement and action. By now you know the drill: contact your representatives in Congress and demand legislation to protect media users’ privacy. (Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121 or Resist.bot)

That’s no slip: no form of media on the internet should be immune from protecting its users’ privacy.

You should also contact your state’s attorney general and as well as your legislators and demand your state matches California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) when it comes to privacy protections – at a minimum. Meeting the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would be better yet.

67 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    Let’s get this out of the way:

    Yes, bmaz, we know you think Mastodon sucks.

    We ALL know this because you have told us both in comments and in contributor discussions.

    We do not need this repeated multiple times in this thread.

    Moving on.

    • Badger Robert says:

      The suckiness of other social media platforms might be a blessing in disguise. It might make them less addictive.

  2. phred says:

    Thanks so much for this post Rayne. Unlike bmaz, I like Mastodon. The primary reason that I like it so much is no targeted advertising, which means no built-in surveillance that invades my privacy. I don’t have any Meta accounts or Twitter either, for that matter, because of their surveillance.

    Unlike you, I am on a server where the admin is keen on Meta joining the fediverse. And yet for all the bickering on Mastodon about Meta’s intentions, I had yet to see a clear description of how Meta would be able to get around Mastodon’s privacy protections. So thanks for explaining that here.

    I wish the US adopted the EU’s GDPR policies. But until they do, I will look into finding a European Mastodon server (and contacting our reps & state AG)… after our vacation, though ; )

    • -mamake- says:

      Enjoy your vacation, phred. And if you do find a EU Mastodon server, please share here how to do this.
      If you have time, that is. I’m in the midst of a demanding months long project and am not savvy w/ servers.

    • Ravenclaw says:

      This is supposed to be a list of European Mastodon servers:
      I cannot attest to the reliability of the information, but I don’t see any red flags.

      Now, I need to do something about this persistent image in my mind: a French waiter bearing a tray laden with fruits and veggies, trying to keep the wares balanced as the snuffly proboscidean makes their selections.

      • Rayne says:

        Yeah, such a joke that the seventh largest corporation worth over a billion USD in market cap has decided to join the fediverse.

        We get it. Really, we do, bmaz doesn’t like Mastodon or the fediverse to which it belongs. To which this website’s platform also belongs, but that’s neither here nor there, just part of the joke.

          • Rayne says:

            I’m going to treat you like a troll if you continue this. It’s not constructive, a waste of time and thread space.

              • Rayne says:

                Really? My post is flogging Mastodon? or the fediverse? Or is this post about data privacy which is still a concern with Mastodon?

                You’ve lost the plot. Go moderate the other threads, I’ll handle this one — especially since we’ve heard your “Mastodon sucks” opinion repeated frequently since last October.

                • bmaz says:

                  Yes, you relentlessly flog Mastodon. But, hey, I am the “troll”. Lol.

                  [You leave me no choice, you’re done in this thread. I can’t ask others not to troll here when you do so relentlessly. /~Rayne]

                • P J Evans says:

                  Thanks, Rayne.
                  (We have indeed heard the opinions of bmaz on this (and other subjects) enough to know them by heart.)

                  • H.P. Saucecraft says:

                    Missing him already.

                    [Moderator’s note: please confirm by reply below you’ve changed your email address. Thanks. /~Rayne]

                    • H.P. Saucecraft says:

                      I must have, unwittingly caught out after autofill failed to help me remember.

                      [This doesn’t help me whatso ever with regard to your email address. Your previous one began with the letter “e” and this one begins with “b.” Which is the correct one or did you change it? /~Rayne]

  3. Fraud Guy says:

    The company I work for is not an online platform, but has to comply with data privacy standards. One of the bits that is pounded into our heads is that we are to minimize the data to collect to that which is directly pertinent to the offer and the customer, and it is not to be reused for other purposes without an opt-in for the customer. The policies in your picture seem to indicate that twitter and meta give f**kall about that concept, which reiterates that the user is not the customer, but the product. If the user was the customer, all that data would not be needed.

  4. Morris says:

    It would, I agree, be good if the US adopted the EU’s GDPR policies. But I’m not sure privacy is the most useful way to think about how corporations use or misuse data about what we do online. Essentially, our online data is a record of what we do online, a database of our individual and unique personal behavior, which it turns out is extremely valuable to corporations. And corporations have no way to create this data except be recording what each of us does (and doesn’t do) online. Our behavior in the 21st century is analogous to labor in the 19th century. Any one laborer/consumer can be eliminated with no consequence for the corporation, and so it can look like what we do is not worth very much — after all if one individual disappeared it would make no difference to the bottom line of the corporation. Still, our labor/behavior is valuable — indeed without it there would be no profits for the corporations. So, privacy laws are important, but we also need laws to enforce just compensation for the labor we do, which include our behavior (online data) in a consumer society.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. “Morris” is not only too short and too common, it is your second username; you first commented here as “Donald Hindle.” Please pick a site standard compliant username and stick with it. Thanks. /~Rayne]

    • Rayne says:

      Yes, [human attention + engagement + personal data] = fungible commodity, comparable to [human labor]. That fungible commodity is the product sold to advertisers and others like law enforcement.

      In Facebook’s case (and Twitter’s, too, since both are under consent agreements) is that they entered contracts with users to provide a service which allowed Facebook to sell access to [human attention + engagement] but not [personal data]. Breaching that contract allowed Facebook to reach beyond the confines of the service space inside users’ displays and into their homes, their families, their friends, their lives. Completely unacceptable without informed consent up front.

      • bmaz says:

        Are you paid by Mastodon?

        I have NEVER in my life bounced one of your comments or posts. But this is it? You care so much about Mastodon, you will do that?

        I’ll be here, or you can pull this nonsense.

        [I told you I would treat you like a troll if you continued trolling. Leave this thread. You’ve already given your opinion multiple times. /~Rayne]

        • bmaz says:

          Sure. Only YOUR opinion about Mastodon matters. You want to bounce me, have at it. Because Mastodon is the most perfect thing ever. Go run with that.

          • Cheez Whiz says:

            You don’t have an opinion, you have an assertion. And “most perfect thing ever” is worthy of Trump himself. I suppose you can’t help being The Smartest Guy In The Room. Every lawyer I’ve ever known was, even the women.

    • Molly Pitcher says:

      ” Essentially, our online data is a record of what we do online, a database of our individual and unique personal behavior, which it turns out is extremely valuable to corporations. And corporations have no way to create this data except be recording what each of us does (and doesn’t do) online”

      Really ?? Well, tuffskie shitskie for the corporations. If they want to pimp MY personal statistics they can pony up and pay me. A Lot.

      Why would you think anyone should care about the inconvenience any corporation might experience trying to assess the market place ? Are they going to make their product cheaper for me ? Are they seeking to provide exemplary customer service ? They have been pillaging the data for years now and I do not see any of those possibilities have become reality.

      Nor do I see any improvement in the treatment of their employees. But with the hyper-charged development of AI, they won’t have to trouble themselves with employees much longer, so that’s a relief.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      No business is entitled to our personal information. They, especially large American businesses, just take it with disclosures not even up to the standard Donald Trump gives the rubes he targets with his graft-based fundraising stunts. They sometimes deign to say our information is a small price to pay for the services and convenience offer. In reality, the convenience and profits they’re concerned about are their own.

      Only the US has such extreme non-protections for personal information, which is commensurate with its extreme version of capitalism. It’s an outcome entirely manufactured by big business. It’s the only major western economy that does not have a data protection regime. The EU’s GDPR is only the most well-known.

      The reason Meta has not launched Threads in the EU, for example, is because the EU has ruled Meta has intentionally and arrogantly violated EU data protection rules for years, and is still doing it.

  5. Tech Support says:

    Kudos Rayne for the succinct summary of the Threads problematic underpinnings. Especially appreciate the repost of that comparison .gif that is highly useful.

    I do still use Twitter myself, but I pulled the app off my phone (which I was always a little skittish about using) as soon as Elon closed the deal. When I get on Twitter I do so via an installation of Firefox which has been privacy-hardened with various extensions. Not perfect by any means but acceptable for casual use.

    There’s another argument against Threads that made it a non-starter for me even before I had to try and evaluate it’s privacy/security profile: You cannot configure it to force a chronological display, and you cannot limit it to only the people you follow.

    I refuse to be tossed into a content spin cycle regardless of other factors.

  6. drhester says:

    I never forget that when Zuckerberg was at Harvard he called people whose data he collected “dumb fucks”.

    • Rayne says:

      His entire attitude in those early Harvard days about taking persons’ data without consent and publishing it to further his personal agenda encapsulates what he’s done most of his career.

      • Charles Wolf says:

        Yea, he’s a creep but I got a giggle out of his hiring the hoard of techies to build Threads whom Musk had fired in his efficiency purge. Zuk probably got them at a substantial discount too.

        • Rayne says:

          And quite a number of the techies he hired also went to Automattic which owns social media platform Tumblr. It is preparing to join the fediverse as well and is likely to become a magnet for the Twitter users who are drawn to pop culture content. Can’t wait.

          • elcajon64 says:

            There might be something there. Not only is Tumblr somewhat fresh in the minds of the 40+ crowd that finds Twitter to mimic real life (/s. boomers), it displays posts from who you follow in a similar way and lets you to post images/videos. The notes function is similar to comments.

            I don’t think the privacy

    • wetzel-rhymes-with says:

      Maybe the AI divisions across Silicon Valley have figured out how to turn our phones into panoptic Skinner boxes. I think it is like a gold rush between Elon and Zuck. Like phenomenological Godzilla and Guidora. They are building AI’s that will encode the pan-psyche. They tell each other shit like that.

      • Rayne says:

        Catch up. Kogan turned Facebook into a Skinner box back in 2014. Every time you answer a internet-based Yes/No survey or questionnaire, you’ve potentially entered a Skinner box. Every A/B switch-like answer identifies who you are and what content you should be fed to ensure a specific reaction.

        Elon doesn’t have the personnel anymore to pull off AI — that’s the one blessing in his ham-handed purge of Twitter staff. Meta, though…don’t turn your back on it because it’s already collected more than enough data, it just needs more AI to comb through it.

        • wetzel-rhymes-with says:

          But now anti-vax has been a successful test for mainstreaming QAnon style misinformation. Misinformation permitted and public encouragements to paranoia are basically as much as required to make discussion moot. The government is powerless. Oligarchs are turning their heads, especially the ones who are weird maniacs.

          Toggling his crowd control settings at Twitter, Elon turns Biden into a humiliating spectacle. With engagement he lifts up someone like JFK JR. Not even DeSantis is safe at Elon’s Twitter, but Trump is. There is always a conical hierarchy in fascism, so I think Elon is stronger than DeSantis but weaker than Trump.

          I don’t really comment at Twitter. I only comment here at emptywheel. There is no karma or likes. It’s like Skinner’s box of chocolates here at emptywheel. You never know what your going to get.

          • Rayne says:

            “But now anti-vax has been a successful test for mainstreaming QAnon style misinformation.”

            There are still layers after the anti-vaxx A/B switch has been flipped. Like the one which identifies persons most likely to take action, and those most likely to be armed, and those most likely to take armed action.

            Consider the possibility that many of the January 6 perps flipped the A/B switch indicating they’d take action, and some of them were pre-identified as willing to take action because of their group identity. What kind of messaging would be aimed at them compared to the larger body of those who’d merely protest from their desk, or remain on the Washington Mall.

            Now consider how all the switch flipping and messaging has been shaped by a couple fascists willing to spend a few billion buying platforms.

            They’ve moved well past QAnon; they’re already screwing with POTUS candidates without QAnon’s influence op.

            • wetzel-rhymes-with says:

              Musk thinks the most important thing is Mars colonization. He has a special purpose. This is the story where he is a hero like Hari Seldon, preserving the light of consciousness. For my part, Zuckerberg seems like more of a cipher. Both of them run operations that are more sophisticated than the old Soviet ways of propaganda in some ways on shaping human consciousness. Trump judges will set them free of all regulation. But they can’t make the violent spectacle itself like true fascism, and whatever this becomes, though, Musk and Zuckerberg will still be wrong about the world in a lot of ways. They will not know what is important to most people. Individual difference and verifiable truth are lights that always get through. There is no AI or algorithm for that, so these techbro oligarchs and psychological warfare people can only affect our lives that much. Maybe like Putin himself they will turn out not to be so effective because they are wrong about the world.

        • Justlp34 says:

          Thanks, Rayne. I am protective of my privacy as well. I got off Facebook the minute that the 2016 election results were announced. I knew in my bones that they had had a huge influence because I watched it happen even among my friends. I don’t use any of the other Meta apps either. I am making data privacy legislation my second most important issue to be active about after getting out the vote in 2024.

  7. Allagashed says:

    Anthropologically speaking, this thread is fascinating. I’m sitting here in the far-off woods of northern Maine, surrounded by nothing but moose, trees and water. My daily interaction with the mundane, to say nothing of people such as yourselves, comes via Starlink. Reading this thread is like having an out of body experience; I have no idea who you people are. But still, I come here every day to try and learn; I want to learn, I want to understand these things that seem to come so easily to all of you. We may share some cultural traits, but we don’t speak the same language; be patient with me. Carry on…

    • Rayne says:

      And yet while you sit in the remote northern woods reading this delivered to you by Musk’s SpaceX-launched Starlink, they already have a bead on you no matter what language you speak.

    • harpie says:

      LOL! You beat me to this! I learned about it just now
      because Teri Kanefield boosted [?] it…
      I AM learning!

      Also noting that that Toot [?] has screenshots.

      […] Please consider this letter a formal notice that Meta must preserve any documents that could be relevant to a dispute between Twitter, Meta, and/or former Twitter employees who now work for Meta. […]

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Max Kennerly’s assessment of Twitter’s letter to Meta: “comically bad.” I wonder if they hired one of Trump’s lawyers for the task.

      “The letter from Twitter’s lawyer to Meta over Threads is comically bad. There’s no substance, just a vague claim that Twitter employees Elon fired had some sort of dark magic in their brains about how to make a microblogging service.”


      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The letter from Alex Shapiro was addressed to Zuckerberg. I don’t know Shapiro, but he’s at Quinn Emmanuel, a nationally-ranked boutique litigation firm. Perhaps Elmo didn’t give him anything to work with, other than his claim that the former Twitter employees he fired were so exceptional, they had Twitter’s intellectual crown jewels in their pockets/minds, which made their mere hiring by Zuck a wrong in and of itself. Not hardly.

        California takes a dim view of non-disclosure and non-compete clauses that are so tight, they prevent a fired employee from working in their own industry. Having general knowledge of an industry ain’t enough to force them to remain unemployed because Elmo was so stupid, he fired them without thinking about why he needed them in the first place.

        I assume, though, that Quinn Emmanuel was smart enough to get their retainer paid upfront.

    • Critter7 says:

      Twitter fires 3/4 of its employees and then complains because a similar business hires them.

      Good job, Elon.

    • FLwolverine says:

      From the Forbes article: “ Those people chilled by stores’ tracking and profiling them may want to consider going the way of the common criminal — and paying for far more of their purchases in cash.”. But when Target gives you 5% off on everything if you use their credit card, it’s very tempting to shrug off the snooping in return for the discount.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        When check-out staff – a few businesses still employ them – ask me if I want the store credit card or discount offer of the day, I say no, and tell them my data is worth a lot more than that. They invariably look at me as if I’m from Mars.

        • Rayne says:

          Former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie made a point in his book Mindf*ck that Facebook made $30 off each of its then-170 million users. I don’t recall if that was per year — think it was — but you could have been buying a $20 bottle of wine and the store acquiring your data might well make more profit off the sale from your personal data than you paid for the wine.

        • theartistvvv says:

          I get the funny looks from the grocery stores, drugstores and even the auto parts store.

          No, I do not want to register for an alleged 5% discount by giving you my personal info to allow you to advertise at me and give my info to others to do so for your profit model.

          Plus know one needs to know how much liquor and air freshener I buy.

    • Rayne says:

      That story goes back to 2012, before Kogan did his research on Facebook data. The capabilities described in that article discuss what Target could do 2002-2010. It was very similar to the kind of data analysis Karl Rove was using to target campaign messaging for Bush and the GOP based on consumers’ purchasing history. If someone bought hunting and fishing magazines, odds are good they can be appealed to on gun rights, yes?

      Now imagine what Meta can deduce with a full network analysis of all contacts a Facebook account makes including with other sites and URLs outside Facebook — like Mastodon URLs.

  8. P J Evans says:

    Data collected by “Threads”:

    ***Data Collected by Threads: Health and Fitness, Financial Information, Contact Info, User Content, Browsing History, Purchases, Location, Contacts, Search History, Identifiers***

    Which is why I and others will have nothing to do with it.

    • Rayne says:

      This is why I left Facebook +13 years ago, on top of the unending changes to its privacy policy and terms of service I needed to check every damned time I logged in — and you know most users do not do this on the regular unless a hard prompt to do so is right in their face at the time they log in.

      And then the crap Kogan pulled which amounted to human experimentation without informed consent. How fucking creepy that was at the time, and how horrific to learn how it was eventually used. Threads is ripe for that kind of abuse because like the earlier iteration of Facebook the corporation is operating on Zuckerberg’s “Move fast, break things” approach to innovation. He expects stuff can and will break but he’s careless about what can break and who will be affected and how.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        “Careless” might be being kind. He seems to revel in it as a money-making opportunity.

        • Molly Pitcher says:

          As with the rest of the libertarian tech bros, the money is the point, the cruelty, cloaked as collateral damage of the move fast and break things mind set, is just gravy.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A testament to Meta’s unregulated market power and the rather desperate search to find an alternative to Twitter’s rapidly failing service, rather than a testament to the value offered by Meta.

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