Instagram recommendation algorithms are pushing anti-vaxx and QAnon posts, NGO report says

Instagram app
Instagram’s logo. Photothek/Getty Images
  • Instagram is promoting posts containing misinformation to its users, a report says.
  • The Center for Countering Digital Hate measured what was recommended on 15 test accounts.
  • The “Explore” and “Suggested Posts” features pointed to QAnon and anti-vaxx content, it noted.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Instagram’s algorithms recommend anti-vaxx and QAnon content, according to a report published Tuesday by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

The NGO found that automated features on the platform highlighted posts containing misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines for it, as well as posts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory.

It highlighted the “Explore” and “Suggested Posts” features as the source of the recommendations.

The CCDH, a not-for-profit group in the UK and US, partnered with a youth-development agency called Restless Development to analyze the algorithms.

It asked 15 volunteers to create new accounts and follow accounts of people who disseminate anti-vaccine information, to see whether that would prompt Instagram to recommend more such content.

According to their report, it did.

The volunteers were asked to scroll through their feed and Instagram’s Explore section and “like” random posts from September to November 2020. They then reported whether content was suggested that contained misinformation.

They recorded 104 posts recommended by Instagram contained misinformation, about one per week, the report says.

Half of these posts were misinformation about COVID-19, a fifth about vaccines, and a tenth about the US election, the report states.

Some of the posts reported by the volunteers contained QAnon references and anti-Semitic imagery.

The “Suggested Post” feature was introduced to Instagram in August 2020. It gives users the option to continue scrolling once they’ve reached the end of new content posted by people they follow.

Posts from people that the account holder doesn’t follow are then added into the viewer’s feed.

“This feature was created in the name of profit, to keep people scrolling so more adverts could be served to them,” Imran Ahmed, the CCDH’s CEO, said in a press release.

Ahmed had previously told Insider that anti-vaxx audiences have been growing on Instagram.

Social media giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been fighting misinformation on their platforms.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in February that it was tightening its definition of misinformation, and removed the Instagram account of prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

A spokesman for Facebook told NPR that Facebook has removed 12 million pieces of harmful misinformation related to vaccines and COVID-19 from Facebook and Instagram since the start of the pandemic.

Facebook questioned the study’s methodology and said that the research is out-of-date, NPR reported on Tuesday.

However, the CCDH told Insider that it found that the platform was still recommending posts containing misinformation as of Tuesday morning.

“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,” Ahmed said in a press release.

The NGO has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg calling on him to “fix Instagram’s broken algorithm”.