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Instagram’s algorithm pushes users towards COVID-19 misinformation, study finds

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Instagram‘s algorithm is recommending COVID-19 and anti-vaccination misinformation to potentially millions of users, according to new research.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) used test accounts to investigate the recommendations on Instagram’s Explore page and new Suggested Post feature.

They found that the tools encourage users to view misinformation and then push those who engage with the posts towards other extremist content:

If a user follows anti-vaxxers, they are fed QAnon conspiracism and antisemitic hate; if they engage with conspiracies, they are fed electoral and anti-vaxx misinformation.

The researchers generated the recommendations by creating 15 Instagram profiles and following different lists of accounts, from health authorities to anti-vaxxers.

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They logged into the Instagram accounts every day and recorded the recommendations they received.

As the Suggested Posts feature doesn’t trigger for new accounts that haven’t interacted with posts, the users scrolled through their feeds and the Explore section, and liked random posts to generate suggested content.

They then screenshot the recommendations they got between 14 September to 16 November 2020.

In total, Instagram recommended 104 posts containing misinformation. More than half of them were about COVID-19, while a fifth were about vaccines, and a tenth about the US election.

Credit: CCDH