Instagram has been accused of recommending misinformation to users - how to spot ‘fake news’ online

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 6:03 am
Instagram has been accused of recommending misinformation to users - how to spot ‘fake news’ online (Photo: Shutterstock)

Potentially millions of people are being recommended anti-vaccination and coronavirus on Instagram, a new report has claimed.

Anti-semetic posts and other harmful content, as well as conspiracy theories about Covid-19, are being suggested to users, according to the study from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and charity Restless Development.

‘Millions’ of users recommended misinformation

The CCDH and Restless Development used test accounts created by researchers to study Instagram recommendation features, which deliver content and suggested accounts to users based on their interests.

The accounts simulated the experience new users face when entering the app, telling the app a range of different interests, with some focusing on subjects such as wellness and health, with others followed conspiracy theorists and white supremacist accounts.

The recommendations for all the accounts were then tracked and recorded, with more than 100 recommendations containing misinformation recorded during the study.

CCDH and Restless Development warned that “millions” of Instagram users may be receiving the same recommendations, and are being exposed to harmful misinformation as a result.

The findings exposed the new ‘Explore’ page within Instagram, as well as the ‘Suggested Posts’ feature within the app. The feature was first introduced last year.

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the CCDH, criticised the launch of the feature and accused Instagram of putting profit before the welfare of its users.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Instagram has been contacted for comment.

How to spot misinformation on Instagram?

Misinformation, sometimes known as ‘fake news’, is defined as false or inaccurate information that may be distributed with the intent of deceiving those who read it.

Spotting misinformation on social media is becoming increasingly more challenging, but here are a some tips on identifying whether a post is fake or not:

Always be critical

So much misinformation is written to create shock value, encouraging the reader to have a reaction of fear or anger. While reading a post online, always be critical of whether it's factually correct or not.

Ask yourself, "Why has this story been written? Is it to persuade me of a certain viewpoint? Is it selling me a particular product? Or is it trying to get me to click through to another website? Am I being triggered?"

If you think the story is too good to be true, it probably is.

Double check the facts

If you come across a story or post you’ve never seen before, do some research on your own.

Check the accounts other posts, check for spelling errors, or strange looking links. If it's not a familiar publisher, put the account into a search engine to check its credibility.

If you are unsure about the details of the post, double check the facts to see if the details or misinformation or not. A good way of doing this is to check if a trusted news agency is also carrying the story.

Don’t take images at face value

Editing software has now allowed people to create images that are designed to deceive people. If you have any doubts on the images look for inaccuracies within the picture. For example, are the shadows on the image looking misplaced?

Be wary that images can be accurate, but used in the wrong context. For example, images from 10 years ago being used for a story about a current event.

The Google Reverse Image Search tool is a useful piece of software to check where an image originated from.

Examine the evidence and use your common sense

If a story is credible, it will have the facts to back it up. This could be quotes from experts, a study or official statistics. If the post is lacking any credible details, examine the evidence to decide whether it is spreading misinformation.

Use your common sense and always bear in mind that misinformation is designed to feed your biases.