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Instagram Is Still A Hotbed Of Anti-Vax Advocacy
COVID-19

Instagram Is Still A Hotbed Of Anti-Vax Advocacy


One post warned that getting vaccinated against the coronavirus makes your body magnetic. Another, citing the "World Hoax Organization," claimed the COVID-19 vaccines had gone through "fuck all tests for safety and efficacy." A third claimed Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci tried to "kill everyone with a Plandemic."

I came across each of these myths while scrolling through Instagram over the last few days; they weren't shared by accounts I follow; they all appeared in my Explore feed, Instagram's algorithmically curated collection of public content that it serves to its users.

Though it's disturbing to think that a stream of anti-vax propaganda has been tailored specifically for me, it's not entirely surprising: as a reporter covering online disinformation, I spend a lot of time looking at conspiratorial content. However, Facebook-owned Instagram has long claimed that it's working to reduce the spread of anti-vaccine falsehoods across its platform — regardless of t

“We will not show or recommend content that contains misinformation about vaccinations on Instagram Explore or hashtag pages,” the company promised back in March 2019. It repeated its promise to crack down on such content several times in the weeks and months following the policy announcement, when media outlets noted that nothing had changed, and it did so again a year later, when I reported that nothing had changed.

According to new Morning Consult polling, nearly a third of Americans are unwilling or uncertain about getting immunized against COVID-19. As public health experts warn that staggering rates of vaccine hesitancy threaten to derail the nation's pandemic recovery, pressure has mounted on social media behemoths to combat the spread of anti-vax misinformation across their platforms.

While it is now much more difficult — if not impossible — to find such content on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Instagram is still promoting anti-vaccine misinformation, pushing it to the screens of users who may not even be looking for it and, in particularly dangerous cases, ushering them into an echo chamber of extremist anti-vax conspiracy theories.

In other words, when it comes to the spread of vaccine-related paranoia, Instagram is actively fanning the flames.

Finding anti-vaccine falsehoods on Instagram is as simple as typing “vaccines” into the search bar, which I did from multiple accounts, including newly created ones. Each time, explicitly anti-vax accounts with blatant disinformation were among the highest-ranked results, blatantly undermining Instagram’s pop-up notice directing users to the CDC website for “reliable, up-to-date information.”

One such account, @vaccinesaredumb, has only 152 followers; its most recent post, from 2019, is an ad for essential oils that falsely claims the oils are “100% more effective at preventing and treating disease than those toxic vaccines.” Another top-ranked account, @vaccinessuck, has only 204 followers and also churned out a flood of vaccine-related conspiracy theories until 2019, when it stopped.

Each of these accounts is obscure, inactive, and rife with anti-vaccine misinformation, which Instagram claims to be suppressing; therefore, why does it feature them so prominently?

“Facebook is a business. You have to look at everything through the lens of, ‘How does this impact their bottom line?’” said a former Facebook engineer who worked on the Instagram algorithm and requested anonymity to speak freely about his former employer.

“When your business is a conduit for the attention economy, you’re going to do everything you can to keep people engaged on the platform for a long time so you can show them ads,” he explained, noting that sensational, polarizing content, such as anti-vaccine propaganda, can drive significant engagement.

“It’s not designed for your optimal experience; it’s designed for profit maximization,” he added.

According to a Facebook spokesperson, Instagram "removed the [sic] all the violating posts shared with us, and disabled an account for repeatedly breaking our rules," adding, "We continue to strengthen our systems and detection, so that we can remove COVID-19 misinformation more quickly."

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation.

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation..It is well aware that its “vaccines” search results are a public-health nightmare.

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation..It is well aware that its “vaccines” search results are a public-health nightmare..After I pointed out on Twitter that the pages @moms_against_vaccines_fb and @the_other_side_of_vaccines were two of Instagram's most prominently featured search results for "vaccines," CNN aired a segment on the subject last month.

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation..It is well aware that its “vaccines” search results are a public-health nightmare..After I pointed out on Twitter that the pages @moms_against_vaccines_fb and @the_other_side_of_vaccines were two of Instagram's most prominently featured search results for "vaccines," CNN aired a segment on the subject last month..In response, Instagram tweeted that the accounts in question had been removed “for violating our rules,” adding that they “should not have been searchable” in the first place.

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation..It is well aware that its “vaccines” search results are a public-health nightmare..After I pointed out on Twitter that the pages @moms_against_vaccines_fb and @the_other_side_of_vaccines were two of Instagram's most prominently featured search results for "vaccines," CNN aired a segment on the subject last month..In response, Instagram tweeted that the accounts in question had been removed “for violating our rules,” adding that they “should not have been searchable” in the first place..However, when I searched for “vaccines” on Instagram a few moments later, a new account openly advocating against vaccinations had already surpassed them in the top search results.

The company made no mention of its continued dissemination of anti-vax misinformation..It is well aware that its “vaccines” search results are a public-health nightmare..After I pointed out on Twitter that the pages @moms_against_vaccines_fb and @the_other_side_of_vaccines were two of Instagram's most prominently featured search results for "vaccines," CNN aired a segment on the subject last month..In response, Instagram tweeted that the accounts in question had been removed “for violating our rules,” adding that they “should not have been searchable” in the first place..However, when I searched for “vaccines” on Instagram a few moments later, a new account openly advocating against vaccinations had already surpassed them in the top search results..

Searching for #vaccines on Instagram's algorithmically curated hashtag page is equally troubling; for more than a week, the top featured results have included anti-vax posts, including one that claims, "The only thing vaccines eradicated were healthy children," and includes the hashtags #antivaccine, #antivaxx, and #bewaretheneedle in addition to #vaccines.

Instagram is legitimizing and even encouraging distrust in vaccines by promoting anti-vaccine misinformation. According to Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of Americans who use the app on a regular basis get their news there and rely on it to stay informed.

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Facebook and Instagram have taken several steps to support vaccine distribution efforts, such as connecting users with local vaccination sites; however, Instagram's aggressive promotion of anti-vax misinformation undermines these efforts — and is entirely preventable.

Instagram is capable of moderating its Explore feed, search results, and hashtag pages to exclude specific types of content. It has spent years quietly removing sex workers from its platform, as well as deranking and removing their posts, which critics accuse of being a sly effort to appease advertisers. However, as the former employee points out, Instagram continues to treat images of female nipples as a grudge.

“It’s all business,” he explained, “and they could fix it, but they won’t.”

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