By now, you’ve probably heard about that ridiculous, nearly decade-old privacy hoax that went viral on Instagram thanks to a bunch of clueless celebrities.
And while it’s easy to laugh at, it has some pretty serious implications for the company’s billion plus users.
That the hoax, which has been repeatedly debunked over the years, was able to spread like virtual wildfire across Instagram is concerning to say the least. It shows just how easily conspiracy theories and propaganda can spread, with Instagram doing little to stop it.
While there’s plenty to criticize about Facebook’s misinformation-fighting, the company will at least debunk conspiracy theories and attempt to push them out of sight in its News Feed. The process has been criticized for moving too slowly at times, but there are signs it’s been effective at reducing the spread of fake news.
Instagram, on the other hand, has only just begun to work with third-party fact checkers. Moreover, when a post is debunked by fact checkers, Instagram will only remove it from public-facing areas of the app, like Explore and hashtag pages. The same posts can still be freely shared in users’ feeds and Stories, and Instagram will make no attempt to make them less visible.
And, as we’ve learned, all it takes is a handful of ignorant celebs for a baseless conspiracy theory to spread to millions in just a few hours. In this case, the conspiracy theory was relatively benign, but that might not always be the case.
If nothing else, this Instagram hoax proves that the platform is particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories, and that the company will do little to stop blatantly wrong information from going viral. Whether it’s “inappropriate content” or anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, the company has repeatedly shown that it will only address misinformation in public sections of the app, not in users’ feeds.
The ironic twist here is that Instagram is likely reluctant to mess with feed posts at least in part because of a whole other conspiracy theory: shadow banning, the idea that some cabal of Instagram employees decides to reduce the visibility of some accounts for real or perceived infractions. Instagram has repeatedly denied that it does this.
But fears of further angering Instagram influencers is a poor excuse for failing to act. Facebook buries fake news and conspiracy theories in News Feed, so why won’t Instagram do the same?