Instagram is recommending anti-vaccination and coronavirus misinformation to potentially millions of users, according to a new report.
A study by the Center to Combat Digital Hate (CCDH) and the Restless Development charity found that the social media platform is suggesting content to users that includes conspiracy theories about Covid-19, as well as anti-Semitic and other harmful content.
It has been alleged that in addition to health misinformation and anti-Semitic content, conspiracy theories related to QAnon and false claims about the US presidential election were promoted by Instagram’s algorithms.
The report said posts and accounts were recommended to test researcher-created accounts to examine Instagram’s recommendation capabilities, which users use to serve content and accounts based on their interests.
CCDH and Restless Development warned that “millions” of Instagram users may receive the same recommendations and as a result may be exposed to harmful misinformation.
Instagram said it had previously taken steps to slow the spread of the types of misinformation the report addressed, adding the research was “five months out of date”.
Social media platforms – including Facebook, which owns Instagram – are committed to curbing misinformation and other harmful content spread across their networks after repeated criticism of the issue.
However, the report states that the reviews were recommended posts, made false claims like Covid-19, and that vaccines were unsafe – some posts came from the reports of popular conspiracy theorists.
The results were achieved by creating new Instagram accounts that simulate the experience of new users by indicating different interests for each, with some focusing on topics like wellness and health, while others following conspiracy theorists and white supremacist accounts.
The recommendations for all accounts were then tracked and recorded, with more than 100 recommendations containing misinformation recorded throughout the study.
Last September, a previous report by the CCDH accused social media platforms of not responding to misinformation about vaccines related to coronavirus, even when reported to them.
95% of the 900+ anti-vaccine sites on various platforms could not be removed even after being reported to the companies involved. This showed that the technology companies had not followed their own guidelines.
The latest study examined the content recommended on Instagram’s Explore page and the “Suggested Posts” feature, which was first introduced last year.
Imran Ahmed, managing director of the CCDH, criticized the launch of the feature and accused Instagram of putting profit before the well-being of its users.
“It’s hard to believe that in the wake of the pandemic, Instagram introduced a new feature that encourages users to read conspiracy theories and lies about Covid and vaccines,” he said.
“This feature was developed in the name of profit, to get people to scroll so they could get more ads.
“Algorithms that recommend content are the act of an editor making decisions about what readers see, not a neutral platform. This has serious legal and regulatory implications for social media companies, demonstrating their liability for harm to individuals and society.
“Instagram’s actions have led to greater distrust of the Covid vaccine, cost lives and prolonged the pandemic for all of us.
“2020 proved that lying online costs money in real life. Instagram must stop using suggested posts until it is ensured that it does not encourage misinformation, hatred, and lies. They also need to remove the material quickly – much of it was against their community standards. “
Rosanne Palmer-White, UK director of Restless Development, added: “Misinformation on the Internet is not hiding in the shadows – Instagram is actively telling you these lies.
“It’s an outrage, and in the meantime, Youth Against Misinformation volunteers continue to track down this harmful anti-Vax misinformation and prevent it from spreading.”
“Instagram cannot be a gateway platform that drives users on a journey from anti-Vax lies to other extremist material.
“We’re so close to turning the tide on this nightmare pandemic as vaccination programs are being rolled out around the world. We cannot allow the inaction of executives on social media to change their algorithms and remove misinformation to hold us back now. “
In response, a Facebook company spokesperson said, “We share the goal of reducing the spread of misinformation, but this research is five months out of date and uses an extremely small sample size of just 104 posts.
“This is in stark contrast to the 12 million harmful vaccine and Covid-19 misinformation we have removed from Facebook and Instagram since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We focused on connecting people with credible information. When people search our apps for content related to Covid-19 and vaccines, we redirect it to relevant health organizations and have now redirected it to the NHS and government websites more than 10 million times.
“We’re also working on improvements to Instagram search to make vaccine-deterring accounts harder to find.”