A song to read by: “Bullfight!,” by Aaron Zachary
What I’m reading: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Data deja vu
If your Instagram looks anything like mine does nowadays, it might remind you of what your Facebook looked like in 2016: packed with social justice rhetoric, instructions for civic engagement, grassroots activism and indictments of the state.
Just about everyone I follow has dramatically amped up the number of socially minded stories, posts and videos they share. This phenomenon peaked right after the killing of George Floyd, which created an atmosphere of solemnity throughout the app, as if you were at a funeral. Well-intentioned users mistakenly posted black squares, selfies all but disappeared and social media managers with quotas to fill quaked in their boots.
All was quiet, for about a week.
In the months since, Instagram has lit back up, like those houses of horror in scary movies that leap into motion, whirring with neon lights. But while the amount of content has returned to normal, the type of content has not.
The format has become ubiquitous: a monochromatic square with a thumb-stopping (yes I’m using that phrase now, I’ve given up) snippet of text and the instantly recognizable double-imposed squares in the top right of the image. You hold your thumb to the image; “See Post >” pops up and you click it.
Then the original post, often published by a small advocacy group or an individual. Generally it’s a handful of slides, and they communicate a progressive message about a community fridge, a weekend protest or a list of phrases to add to or remove from your vocabulary.
The same slides will pop up elsewhere on your story that day, having been shared by a different friend. Sometimes, dozens of your followers will share the same slide if it’s made some particularly salient point. The next day, new slides replace the ones from the day previous.
New site, same problems
The key difference in appearance between my 2020 Instagram feed and my 2016 Facebook feed was that my Facebook feed was filled with articles.
Articles, however, have never been Instagram’s style. Photos, of course. Videos, maybe. Articles? No, and probably never.
(A fun fact: Most publishers consider Instagram more important as a brand-builder than a source of page-views, because such a paltry percentage of Instagram users visit news sites from the app.)
The new ubiquity of these multi-pane stories is the answer to that.
Because users won’t leave Instagram, information is being served to them in bite-sized squares. It’s article-sharing without the articles.
So while 2016 Facebook and 2020 Instagram might look different, they are similar versions of one another, where the medium has changed but the messaging hasn’t.
Both exist in a time of political upheaval, which has spurred users into using them as a platform for spreading political messages. Both allow users to post and share just about anything. Both live and breathe user engagement. And both are owned by Facebook.
The story behind the stories
To their credit, the majority of the stories and political posts I’ve seen on my Instagram have been accurate. I have a pretty good nose for misinformation, and I mostly keep my politics on Twitter anyway.
But the same was true in 2016.
Part of the issue is that the real problem is unlikely to show up on my feed, or the feed of anyone reading this newsletter. Misinformation is much more effective on users who lack the internet savvy to sniff it out, as well as those who are looking for alternative answers to questions they feel are being unsatisfying answered.
But the problem will show up. I would imagine many of the slides on my Instagram today are not wholly accurate, but I bet the mistakes are accidental. It takes very little imagination, though, to see a future in which Instagram is riddled with misinformation.
Facebook, the owner of Instagram, has refused to take action in curtailing misinformation. Time and again, they have said they will not point out when politicians are lying or fact-check statements from political leaders.
I was unsure if Instagram followed the exact same content guidelines as Facebook, and no amount of Google searching turned anything up. So, I called my friend and Mother Jones tech and disinformation journalist Ali Breland, who was also unsure as to whether both apps follow the same protocols.
Breland said that if they are not identical, then they are at least similar. And if that’s the case, then Instagram could be susceptible to the same misinformation problems that Facebook suffers from.
Until recently, this has been a non-issue, because Instagram has historically been apolitical. But since March, Instagram has changed; it’s now a hotbed of political messaging.
And despite the goodwill of everyone involved in using the platform to call for social change, 2020 Instagram is destined to suffer the same fate as 2016 Facebook if it fails to anticipate the danger it could be in.
Like father like son
In 2016, Russian operatives created great volumes of false news and used Facebook to spread it like wildfire. Facebook’s algorithm at the time strongly promoted content that evoked user engagement, and nothing stirs engagement like inflammatory, partisan or emotional content.
In the end, Russian fake news reached 126 million Americans, which played a critical role in motivating older voters into supporting Trump.
On its current path, there is very little to stop a similar issue from happening to 2020 Instagram. We are still months away from the elections, and Trump has already begun to call their validity into question.
Far-right activists could easily create content that scares conservatives and moderates into voting against Joe Biden. Trump has long been using inflammatory messaging about antifa to coalesce the right into condemning left-wing protests.
Indeed, the anti-protestor messaging of 2020 could serve the same purpose as the anti-Hillary messaging of 2016. Remember email servers, Benghazi, Podesta and Pizzagate? In 2020, it could be antifa, BLM, Marxism and defund the police.
And, the use of Instagram as a message for sharing quibis of political information shows no signs of stopping.
In fact, I bet right now an entire cottage industry of Instagram creators is making plans to ride this new sharing frenzy into virality. The format generates massive engagement, and if we know anything, it’s that Facebook and Instagram love engagement.
Instagram the ephemeral
According to Breland, misinformation might also be harder to track on Instagram. A number of tools exist for tracking Facebook impressions and reach, such as CrowdTangle. Plus, in-app shares are more visible, and the posts remain on walls or in chats until they are removed.
Instagram stories, however, disappear after 24 hours. “It's so ephemeral that it's very difficult to track, both for Facebook and for reporters,” said Breland. “Something that’s in a story for 24 hours can do a bunch of numbers, inspire a bunch of people and then stop existing.”
Plus, because of the sharing-mechanics of Instagram stories, one user’s content can theoretically reach any other user, which means only following trustworthy sources is not a foolproof defense for avoiding information from suspect accounts.
For reporters trying to track the spread of disinformation, the task is nearly impossible. There is no way to search through old stories, unless they’re posted on the accounts’ feeds.
With theories that have spread through Twitter and Facebook, journalists and analysts can at least follow the trail of false content, meaning they can work to undo it and chronicle its super spreaders. With Instagram, anything that looks convincing enough can reach millions of people before disappearing without a trace.
Engaged to be engaged
It was Alexander Pope who once wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
Even if you ignore all the technical red flags, there is an obvious risk in using Instagram to share political information: the bite-sized nature of the messaging.
Most of the posts contain a few bullet points per slide. In these 300 characters, Instagram activists hope to communicate complex information, most of which is probably novel to its readers.
This format, by its nature, encourages brevity over nuance and eye-catching language over context. That alone is problematic and worrisome.
On top of that, there is often no additional resource for interested users to read further. On Twitter, you may only get 280 characters, but you can include the cited article in your tweet. If someone doesn’t read the full text and draws a false conclusion, that’s on them.
With Instagram stories, there is rarely any further reading. A particularly motivated individual might get off social media, google the issue and do some fact-checking of their own, but that kind of individual is not who is at risk here.
The one good thing about gatekeeping
Many grassroots activists have taken to Instagram stories to spread information because they feel that news publishers and the media at large are insufficiently covering the topics. This is likely true.
The lack of trust that marginalized communities have toward the media as a result of historically unbalanced and dangerous coverage is very valid.
But, for all the media’s ills, you can at least count on the fact that modern newspapers and publishers have strong fact-checking protocols in place. The information you get from a major publisher is susceptible to small errors and the occasional serious oversight, but the information that reaches you is a generally pretty accurate accounting of an event.
On the other hand, Instagram activists and policy posters have no such fact-checking apparatus to hold them accountable to the truth.
Most of the time, for users with good intentions, the worst case scenario is that an issue is misleadingly oversimplified or biased.
In other cases, though, the door is wide open for bad faith actors to use Instagram stories to spread messaging that could incite violence, increase division and dangerously mislead.
What can the media do?
For one, cover this issue. This is not my beat by any stretch, but I think the subject is serious enough to warrant coverage.
There are already some great resources, like this from The Verge, for identifying misinformation on the internet, and a heightened awareness of this potential danger could help stymy it.
They could also meet Instagram users where they are. If these picture-carousel formats are the new watering hole for conspiracy theorists, publishers should try imitating the format and even partnering with prominent accounts to ensure transparency.
His outreach to the local Reddit forums has helped the publisher fight misinformation by providing correct information and strengthening community trust in the newspaper. This could be a blueprint for journalists trying to nip this problem in the bud.
Ideally, normal Instagram users will treat all news-bearing Instagram stories with a healthy skepticism and inquire further if something seems amiss. Counting on the internet literacy of the masses to curtail the spread of misinformation hasn’t worked in the past, though.
The only solution, as has been the case for several years, is for Instagram and Facebook to figure out a better way to verify and fact-check it’s users’ information.
Far be it from me to make a cogent suggestion as to what that looks like, but as the great wordsmith Anonymous Source once wrote, “You got us into this mess, you gotta get us out.”
Some good readin’
— Seriously cannot stop thinking about and sharing this profile of the writer Sarah Schulman. (The Cut)
— My book club has pivoted to a Club That Discusses Its Weird Dietary Fixations. This week: cheese. And so this article about how it goes extinct. (New Yorker)
Cover image: “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo