Instagram and the new wave of viral disinformation

Despite Instagram’s effort to minimize the spread of misinformation on their platform, conspiracy theories and fake news about the vaccine continue to thrive on the user’s newsfeed.

Unfortunately, the problem escalated during the coronavirus pandemic has paved way for a new surge of viral disinformation – most of which has been promoted by the advocates of anti-vaccination. At the same time, Facebook’s moderators have been unable to combat the situation and review the ‘rule-breaking’ content in an effective manner. Much of the disinformation has also been fueled by Instagram’s recommendation algorithms.

However, Instagram claims that it doesn’t ban anti-vaccine content. But, yes, it does try to make it less visible on the platform – similar to its flagship social media channel, Facebook. According to Instagram, they block a few specific hashtags and tries to make anti-vaccine content harder to find in public areas of the app, like Explore.

Yet, such inaccurate information – specifically those related to the COVID-19 vaccine continues to dominate the app’s search results.

For example, when one searches the word ‘vaccine’ on Instagram, several recommendations of anti-vaccine account in top results. These include accounts with names like ‘vaccines_revealed,’ ‘vaccinesaregenocide,’ ‘vaccines_kill,’ ‘and ‘say_no_to_bill_gates_vaccine.’

Most of these accounts have nearly 100,000 followers, while there are a few with a couple hundred. Nevertheless, Instagram’s algorithm continues to recommend them, even though not one of them is related to a verified health organization.

Most of these accounts are enhancing fear and anxiety – specifically, parents who are targeted through bogus claims like ‘vaccines are causing autism rates to increase. ‘

Bill Gates and his efforts to contain the pandemic are also targeted by the bad actors who are posting conspiracy theories about his philanthropy.

Vice also published a similar report last year where they claimed that Instagram’s follow suggestions can easily lure the users down an anti-vax rabbit hole.

Following their allegation, Instagram had said that they will look into the matter – but seems like not much has changed in the company’s operations. Not only do the suggestions continue to appear, but the recommendations are also now pushing the users toward another set of conspiracies.

Coda also issued a report last year where they noted that anti-vaccine advocates often use cedilla character instead of a ‘c’ to evade detection. They also said that searching for #vaccine may give CDC’s website in the first result. However, unfiltered results such as #vaccineinjuryadvocate and #vaççineskillandinjure appear next in the social media’s hashtag search recommendations – leading to an increase in conspiracy theories.

According to tech experts, posts on Instagram are filled with memes and imagery. This potentially makes it challenging for Instagram’s system to detect false news and even more difficult for human reviewers to analyze. And although Instagram continues to build new and innovative systems to counterfeit such issues, images prove to be an effective medium for the bad actors to utilize.

It has also been long established that humans digest visual material more easily, rather than text. And this phenomenon is making the spread of misinformation on Instagram more scattering.

Instagram has also been much slower to deal with the misinformation problem. The photo-sharing app didn’t implement any fact-checking efforts until last May and only recently started debunking posts less visible in the user’s feed.

In the company’s response, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that they are prioritizing the review of these types of content – especially those that aim to spread misinformation about COVID-19. However, it is noted that the company doesn’t bar anti-vaccination content but makes the posts less visible for its users.

They often resort to adding a ‘false information’ label on such posts, especially those that have been debunked by fact-checkers.

Of course, none of this is sufficient in these testing times, and experts of health departments strongly urge social media channels like Instagram to boost their efforts to curb misinformation.

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