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Threads is giving Taiwanese users a safe space to talk about politics

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Like most reporters, I have accounts on every social media platform you can think of. But for the longest time, I was not on Threads, the rival to X (formerly Twitter) released by Meta last year. The way it has to be tied to your Instagram account didn’t sit well with me, and as its popularity dwindled, I felt maybe it was not necessary to use it.

But I finally joined Threads last week after I discovered that the app has unexpectedly blown up among Taiwanese users. For months, Threads has been the most downloaded app in Taiwan, as users flock to the platform to talk about politics and more. I talked to academics and Taiwanese Threads users about why the Meta-owned platform got a redemption arc in Taiwan this year. You can read what I discovered here.

I first noticed the trend on Instagram, which occasionally shows you a few trending Threads posts to try to entice you to join. After seeing them a few times, I realized there was a pattern: most of these were written by Taiwanese people talking about Taiwan.

That was a rare experience for me, since I come from China and write primarily about China. Social media algorithms have always shown me accounts similar to mine. Although people from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all write in Chinese, the characters we use and the expressions we choose are quite different, making it easy to spot your own people. And on most platforms that are truly global, the conversations in Chinese are mostly dominated by people in or from mainland China, since its population far outnumbers the rest. 

As I dug into the phenomenon, it soon turned out that Threads’ popularity has been surging at an unparalleled pace in Taiwan. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, publicly acknowledged that Threads has been doing “exceptionally well in Taiwan, of all places.” Data from Sensor Tower, a market intelligence firm, shows that Threads has been the most downloaded social network app on iPhone and Android in Taiwan almost every single day of 2024. On the platform itself, Taiwanese users are also belatedly realizing their influence when they see that comments under popular accounts, like a K-pop group, come mostly from fellow Taiwanese users. 

But why did Threads succeed in Taiwan when it has failed in so many other places? My interviews with users and scholars revealed a few reasons.

First, Taiwanese people never really adopted Twitter. Only 1% to 5% of them regularly use the platform, now called X, estimates Austin Wang, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The mainstream population uses Facebook and Instagram, but still yearns for a platform for short text posts. The global launch of Threads basically gave these users a good reason to try out a Twitter-like product.

But more important, Taiwan’s presidential election earlier this year means there was a lot to talk, debate, and commiserate about. Starting in November, many supporters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “gathered to Threads and used it as a mobilization tool,” Wang says. “Even DPP presidential candidate Lai received more interaction on Threads than Instagram and Facebook.” 

It turns out that even though Meta has tried to position Threads as a less political version of X, what actually underpinned its success in Taiwan was still the universal desire to talk about politics.

“Taiwanese people gather on Threads because of the freedom to talk about politics [here],” Liu, a designer in Taipei who joined in January because of the elections, tells me. “For Threads to depoliticize would be shooting itself in the foot.” 

The fact that there are an exceptionally large number of Taiwanese users on Threads also makes it a better place to talk about internal politics, she says, because it won’t easily be overshadowed or hijacked by people outside Taiwan. The more established platforms like Facebook and X are rife with bots, disinformation campaigns, and controversial content moderation policies. On Threads there’s minimal interference with what the Taiwanese users are saying. That feels like a fresh breeze to Liu.

But I can’t help feeling that Threads’ popularity in Taiwan could easily go awry. Meta’s decision to keep Threads distanced from political content is one factor that could derail Taiwanese users’ experience; an influx of non-Taiwanese users, if the platform actually manages to become more successful and popular in other parts of the world, could also introduce heated disagreements and all the additional reasons why other platforms have deteriorated. 

These are some tough questions to answer for Meta, because users will simply flow to the next trendy, experimental platform if Threads doesn’t feel right anymore. Its success in Taiwan so far is a rare win for the company, but preserving that success and replicating it elsewhere will require a lot more work.

Do you believe Threads stands a chance of rivaling X (Twitter) in places other than Taiwan? Let me know your thoughts at [email protected].

Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. Morris Chang, who founded the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company at the age of 55, is an outlier in today’s tech industry, where startup founders usually start in their 20s. (Wall Street Journal $)

2. A group of Chinese researchers used the technology behind hypersonic missiles to make high-speed trains safer. (South China Morning Post $)

3. The US government is considering cutting the so-called de minimis exemption from import duties, which makes it cheap for Temu and Shein to send packages to the US. But lots of US companies also benefit from the exemption now. (The Information $)

4. The Chinese commerce minister will visit Europe soon to plead his country’s case amid the European Commission’s investigation into Chinese electric vehicles. (Reuters $)

5. After three years of unsuccessful competition with WhatsApp, ByteDance’s messaging app designed for the African market finally shut down last month. (Rest of World)

6. The rapid progress of AI makes it seem less necessary to learn a foreign language. But there are still things AI loses in translation. (The Atlantic $)

7. This is the incredible story of a Chinese man who takes his piano to play outdoors at places of public grief: in front of the covid quarantine barriers in Wuhan, at the epicenter of an earthquake, on a river that submerged villages. And he plays the same song—the only song he knows, composed by the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. (NPR)

Lost in translation

With Netflix’s March release of The Three Body Problem, a series adapted from the global hit sci-fi novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin, Western audiences are also learning about a movie-like real-life drama behind the adaptation. In 2021, the Chinese publication Caixin first investigated the mysterious death of Lin Qi, a successful businessman who bought the movie rights to the book. In 2017, he hired Xu Yao, a prominent attorney, to work on legal affairs and government relations.

In December 2020, Lin died after he was poisoned by a mysterious mix of toxins. According to Caixin, Xu is a fan of the TV series Breaking Bad and had his own plant in Shanghai where he made poisons. He would order hundreds of different toxins through the dark web, mix them, and use them on pets to experiment. A week before Lin’s death, Xu gave him a bottle of pills that were supposedly prebiotics, but he had replaced them with poison. 

Xu was arrested soon after Lin died, and he was sentenced to death on March 22 this year.

One more thing

Taobao, China’s leading e-commerce platform, announced it’s experimenting with delivering packages by rockets. Yes, rockets. Made by a Chinese startup, Taobao’s pilot rockets will be able to deliver something as big as a car or a truck, and the rockets can be reused for the next delivery. To be honest, I still can’t believe this wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

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