Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Thread safely – how to use Twitter’s new rival and maintain good data ethics

by Alistair Dent, Chief Strategy Officer at data science consultancy Profusion

In just 24 hours Threads clocked up over 30 million users. As I write this, the Threads count now stands well over 100 million users. It is the fastest growing online platform in history – surpassing the eye popping growth of ChatGPT earlier in the year. Clearly then, the early indicators suggest that it indeed has the potential to be a viable rival to Twitter. Given recent developments at Twitter, many users may welcome a new rival offering much of the same functionality but others will be rightly concerned about Meta increasing its stranglehold on social media. 

To put it bluntly, Meta does not have the best track record when it comes to data privacy. A quick peek at Threads terms and conditions for personal data use reveals a host of opaque phrases like ‘legitimate use’. This lack of transparency does little to build confidence.  

To drill down into the detail, one of the biggest ethical concerns surrounds Threads capacity to build an unprecedentedly detailed personal picture of users. Already, with Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, Meta is able to use the collective information of users to drive highly personalised advertisements on its platforms. Add the new layer of intel provided by Threads – which collects 14 different types of personal data that can be linked to your identity – and the privacy implications are huge. Manipulation of this information is possible too, creating a hive of new opportunities for scammers.

Equally, it’s important not to forget the lesser anticipated implications of Facebook’s social graph which also includes information from WhatsApp such as who you talk to, how often and when. Take, for example, the following situation: you don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account, but do use WhatsApp. You then start using Threads, and Meta already knows who you talk to and how often via WhatsApp. It knows who your contacts are connected to on Instagram and Facebook, and starts suggesting users and content based on those “friends of friends” connections and followings. It knows who you talk to most often, who you talk with early in the mornings vs on weekends vs occasionally. This is all before you’ve even shared anything with Threads.

The result is a scarily powerful proposition, positioning Threads in a way that no other social network can copy. 

You may argue that because GDPR stipulates that companies shouldn’t use data in a way that the user wouldn’t expect, Meta’s activities would be curtailed. However, that still leaves a lot of unpalatable options and actually enforcing this rule is easier said than done. 

Interestingly too, given that Threads has launched in the UK and not the EU, it’s likely that Meta believes that the UK will implement new data protection rules that will be laxer than the EU. This is potentially bad news for consumers as it showcases how people in the UK may have fewer privacy protections than EU citizens.

Of course, this brings with it a host of considerations for businesses when considering if and how to use Threads. There is, after all, a fine line between hyper personal and uber creepy. We’ve all been there scouring our phone and finding an online ad pop up that is so personal, so relevant, so targeted that you almost feel as if you’re being watched. Far from a good marketing tactic, it can end up making you want to create more of a distance from the said brand. 

It is also important to remember that technology always moves much faster than the law. In this way, the onus is on businesses to go beyond compliance and ensure they go the extra mile to ensure any tech investment is applied and used ethically. In a word, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. 

Ultimately, of course, it’s still very early days and it will take time to see the full impact of Meta’s new addition. However, in the meantime we’d recommend that businesses be extra cautious about their data and exercise all the protection functionality they can.