Instagram”s algorithm pushes users towards content containing dangerous conspiracy theories, according to a new study.
The report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) – a group that tracks online misinformation – found that Instagram is promoting dangerous falsehoods about COVID-19, anti-vax narratives, white supremacist content and misinformation about the 2020 US presidential election.
The study claimed users were being directed to this content through the Suggested Posts and Explore features if they appeared interested in related topics.
Instagram has dismissed the study, saying it was outdated and used a very small sample size.
Alongside a UK-based advocacy group, Restless Development, CCDH set up 15 profiles on Instagram to follow a range of trends, pages, and hashtags.
The report states that recommended 104 posts containing misinformation to these profiles in a two-month period from September to November 2020.
“If you follow health authorities, you never see the recommendation giving you the bad stuff, but if you are looking at wellness or trends that are about health more generally, it starts feeding you anti-vax content,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH.
The study focused on a new algorithm launched by Instagram in August 2020, which recommended new content and topics to users in the search bar, to keep them scrolling on the platform.
CCDH says that once users had interacted with content about dubious claims, Instagram would suggest more misinformation and extremist content.
“Once you are hooked on the anti-vax content … they were being fed QAnon, white supremacy, election misinformation in the US, really serious stuff,” Ahmed told Euronews.
In a statement to Euronews, Instagram owners Facebook said the CCDH study was not representative.
“We share the goal of reducing the spread of misinformation, but this research is five months out of date and uses an extremely small sample size of just 104 posts,” said a Facebook company spokesperson
“This is in stark contrast to the 12 million pieces of harmful misinformation related to vaccines and COVID-19 we’ve removed from Facebook and Instagram since the start of the pandemic.
“We’ve been focused on connecting people to credible information, which is why, when people search for content related to COVID-19 and vaccines on our apps, we direct them to authoritative health organisations.”
Instagram said the methodology behind the CCDH’s study was flawed and did not take into account that the platform had proactively identified prohibited content using artificial intelligence.
Between September and November, the company says they removed 1.17 million posts from Facebook and Instagram for violating their harmful misinformation policies.
Last year, the company has also accelerated its action on hate speech content that attacks people based on religion, and posts related to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
“We’re also working on improvements to Instagram Search, to make accounts that discourage vaccines harder to find,” the Facebook company spokesperson added.
But Imran Ahmed rejected Instagram’s statement and reiterated the report’s concerns about the new automated system launched in August
“When they launched an algorithm in the middle of the pandemic, which fed misinformation about vaccines,” Ahmed told Euronews.
“That is an extraordinary failure,” he added.
The CCDH says that the 15 Instagram accounts they set up are still being recommended misinformation on a variety of topics in 2021.