Human-centric AI news and analysis

This article was published on March 9, 2021


Instagram’s algorithm pushes users towards COVID-19 misinformation, study finds

Researchers found the platform also recommends posts about QAnon and antisemitic content

Instagram’s algorithm pushes users towards COVID-19 misinformation, study finds


Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

Instagram‘s algorithm is recommending COVID-19 and anti-vaccination misinformation to potentially millions of users, according to new research.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) used test accounts to investigate the recommendations on Instagram’s Explore page and new Suggested Post feature.

They found that the tools encourage users to view misinformation and then push those who engage with the posts towards other extremist content:

If a user follows anti-vaxxers, they are fed QAnon conspiracism and antisemitic hate; if they engage with conspiracies, they are fed electoral and anti-vaxx misinformation.

The researchers generated the recommendations by creating 15 Instagram profiles and following different lists of accounts, from health authorities to anti-vaxxers.

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They logged into the Instagram accounts every day and recorded the recommendations they received.

As the Suggested Posts feature doesn’t trigger for new accounts that haven’t interacted with posts, the users scrolled through their feeds and the Explore section, and liked random posts to generate suggested content.

They then screenshot the recommendations they got between 14 September to 16 November 2020.

In total, Instagram recommended 104 posts containing misinformation. More than half of them were about COVID-19, while a fifth were about vaccines, and a tenth about the US election.

elections that Instagram had flagged as election-related posts.
Credit: CCDH
Followers of anti-vaxxers were recommended misinformation about
elections that Instagram had flagged as election-related posts.

Users also received recommendations for posts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory and antisemitic content. The only profiles that weren’t recommended misinformation exclusively followed recognized health authorities.

Imran Ahmed, the CEO of CCDH, said that Instagram is purposefully promoting extremist misinformation:

Previous research shows that misinformation is shared and gets more engagement than truths on social media. Worse still, high engagement numbers increases the likelihood neutral observers engage with the content. For Instagram and its algorithms, a click is a win, no matter the content.

CCDH has published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, which owns Instagram, urging him to disable and fix the “broken algorithm.”

In response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said the research was five months out of date and based on “an extremely small sample size” of 104 posts.

However, Instagram users have pointed out that Instagram is still recommending misinformation today.

You can read the CCDH report here.

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