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Instagram found to be recommending anti-vaxxer and extremist posts to users

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Instagram has been found to be routinely recommending anti-vaccine and Covid misinformation to potentially millions of users.

A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Restless Development found that the content was recommended through Instagram’s ‘Suggested Posts’ and ‘Explore’ features and came from accounts not followed by the users who recorded them.

The accounts, which were followed by test accounts set up for the report, totalled 9.9 million followers, implying that millions of Instagram users could receive the same recommendations.

Some recommended posts were from accounts of well-known anti-vaxxers. A previous report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, published in December 2020, found that anti-vaxx accounts on Instagram had grown their audience by an additional 4.3 million followers during 2020.

Instagram was also found to be recommending other conspiracist and extremist accounts to users, the study found.

As well as health misinformation, the social network promoted accounts spouting antisemitism, election misinformation and promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Examples of posts encountered in the report include claims that both voting machines and mail-in ballots used in the 2020 US Presidential election were fraudulent; posts from far-right activist Tommy Robinson; conspiracy theories that Joe Biden is dead and his clone arrested, and antisemitic memes suggesting that Jews are behind Covid-19 mask requirements and want to establish a New World Order.

The study's findings suggest that Instagram is introducing users interested in one extremist subject to other outlandish theories and that curiosity about Covid and vaccines could act as a gateway to more hateful extremist ideologies.

Rosanne Palmer-White, Restless Development UK director, said: “Misinformation online isn’t hiding in the shadows: Instagram is actively bringing these lies to you. Instagram must not be a gateway platform that pushes users on a journey from anti-vaxx lies to other extremist material.

“We are so close to turning the tide on this nightmare pandemic with vaccine programmes rolling out across the world. We can’t let inaction from social media executives to change their algorithms and remove misinformation hold us back now.”

The research simulated the experience of a variety of users by creating fresh Instagram accounts with differing 'interests'. Some of these were innocuous, such as wellness and health. Others followed conspiracy theorists and white supremacist accounts.

They then tracked and recorded the recommendations which Instagram served to their timelines. More than 100 recommendations containing misinformation were recorded over the course of the study.

Imran Ahmed, CCDH CEO, said: “It is beyond belief that as the pandemic swept the world, Instagram launched a new feature encouraging users to view conspiracy theories and lies about Covid and vaccines. This feature was created in the name of profit, to keep people scrolling so more adverts could be served to them.

“Algorithms that recommend content are the act of a publisher, making choices as to what readers see, not a neutral platform. This has serious legal and regulatory implications for social media companies and shows their liability for damage to individuals and society.

“Instagram’s actions will have created greater distrust in the Covid vaccine, costing lives and prolonging the pandemic for all of us.”

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