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An earthquake, an aircraft fire and why Threads failed

Friday, January 05, 2024

Graphic showing a screenshot from an NHK breaking story on the plane fire at Haneda Airport overlaid over irrelevant photos of other aircraft, Tokyo and so on

When the earthquake struck my thoughts turned to social media. It was an instinctive reaction as I knew I was safe and Kobe hadn't been hit that hard. Yet my appetite for information needed sating.

A year or more ago I would have turned to Twitter. It's where I turned when the last house-shaking earthquake hit in the early hours of one Sunday morning. The few of us awake shared our "no, everything looks fine" stories, took solace in the knowledge we were OK, and went back to sleep. That Twitter, or X as we must now call it, has fallen from grace is long documented, and my own account sits gathering dust, rarely to be touched.

And so I turned to Threads. Billed by some as an alternative to Twitter, I have been playing with it recently. Some of those I followed on X have fled there, as have several journalists and organizations I am interested in. While Tumblr satisfies my need for creativity and art, I'd hoped Threads would do the same for my more cerebral needs.

But Threads isn't Twitter. Threads is Instagram with words, and it plays by the same, algorithm powered rules. The linear progression of events as people post and react is masked by opaque calculations buried in code I doubt its creators understand. Hashtags that were a confused mess of time skipping - a post from 2 hours ago followed by one from 17 minutes, 3 hours, 2 weeks, 17 days and so on. It was impossible to track down what was happening.

Barely 24 hours later the same thing happened as a flight into Haneda airport caught fire. Again the algorithm hid the unfolding flow of events as people reacted to what was happening.

Within a few hours of these tragedies, the Japanese Government was issuing warnings about false information being spread on social media. I saw a video from the 2011 Tsunami being shared as if it was happening "now" on the other side of Japan. "Eyewitness" claims the aircraft was evacuated in 90 seconds sailed past. All were given priority by the algorithm as more important than whatever was being posted NOW.

This experience prompted an unusual reaction in me. I turned on the TV and tuned into NHK news. I needed to break the algorithm's hold over what I saw and turn to a more reliable source. A broadcaster with the resources not only to put people in the heart of the event but also the expertise and clout to filter the barrage of information, extract fact from fiction, and find the right experts to offer an informed opinion.

My brief conversations over the past few days have suggested I am not alone in this frustration. The fallout from Twitter's failure has sparked rising concern about the hold algorithms and unfiltered opinion has over our perception of current affairs. I wonder if this will push us away from the grip of "citizen journalists" and into the welcoming arms of a reinvigorated mass media.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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