Instagram’s text-based social platform Threads last week rolled out its new search function, a crucial step toward the platform’s expansion and one that would give it more parity with X, formerly known as Twitter.
Not even 24 hours later, the company was embroiled in controversy. When users went to Threads to search for content related to “covid” and “long covid,” they were met with a blank screen that showed no search results and a pop-up linking to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meta acknowledged in a statement to The Washington Post that Threads is intentionally blocking the search terms and said that other terms are being blocked, but the company declined to provide a list of them.
A search by The Post discovered that the words “sex,” “nude,” “gore,” “porn,” “coronavirus,” “vaccines” and “vaccination” are also among blocked words.
“The search functionality temporarily doesn’t provide results for keywords that may show potentially sensitive content,” the statement said, adding that the company will add search functionality for terms only “once we are confident in the quality of the results.”
Lucky Tran, director of science communication at Columbia University, discovered this himself when he attempted to use Threads to seek out research related to covid, something he says he does every day. “I was excited by search [on Threads],” he said. “When I typed in covid, I came up with no search results.”
Other public health workers criticized the company’s decision and said its timing was especially poor, given the current coronavirus uptick.
Hospitalizations jumped nearly 16 percent in the United States last week and have been rising steadily since July, according to CDC data, though they remain less than what they were for the comparable week a year ago. Deaths are less than a quarter of what they were year to year, CDC statistics show.
Julia Doubleday, outreach director at the World Health Network, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the coronavirus, said: “Social media is a lifeline for patients, literally.
Long covid patients have died of organ failure, infections, cardiac events and more, and social media is one place they can share information. Cutting off communication between suffering and disabled patients is cruel in the extreme. It’s indefensible.”
“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,” Tran said.
In a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 4 in 10 American adults said social media was an important source of coronavirus vaccine news.
“Censoring searches for covid and long covid will only leave an information gap that will be filled by misinformation from elsewhere,” Tran said. “The best solution is to take proactive steps to elevate multiple trusted sources and address misinformation.”
The incident is the latest indication that Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, of which Threads is a part, is seeking to avoid controversy on Threads. In July, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said that Threads is “not going to do anything to encourage” politics and “hard news,” and that “the goal isn’t to replace Twitter.”