A report from a social media watchdog claims that Instagram’s recommendation algorithm pushed Covid misinformation to the platform’s users at the peak of the pandemic.
The algorithm also promoted anti-Semitic material and anti-vaccination content to unsuspecting users.
The report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that newer accounts on Instagram were shown significant amounts of misinformation through the mobile app’s recommendation feature.
The questionable content was promoted via the “suggested post” feature - first introduced in 2020 to serve new content to users once they have scrolled through all of their friends’ posts. The “explore” page also recommended substantial amounts of misinformation.
According to the CCDH report, misinformation was most frequently served to newer users who had followed a mix of people on the platform. This included leading wellness influencers and anti-vaccination personalities.
In one example, people who followed accounts with links to anti-vaccination content were subsequently recommended posts espousing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Several posts called on people to “stop wearing your mask” and “stop getting tested” as there was “no pandemic”.
The CCDH’s chief executive, Imran Ahmed, 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.”
Facebook, the owner of Instagram, claimed in a statement that the research was misleading and outdated.
“We share the goal of reducing the spread of misinformation, but this research is five months out of date. It also uses a sample size of just 104 posts, compared to the 12m pieces of harmful misinformation about vaccines and Covid-19 that we’ve removed from Facebook and Instagram since the start of the pandemic,” said a Facebook spokesperson.
“We’ve been focused on connecting people to credible information, which is why we’ve directed more than 10m searches so far related to Covid-19 and vaccines to authoritative health sources such as the NHS and government websites. We’re also working on improvements to Instagram search, to make accounts that discourage vaccines harder to find.”
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