Instagram’s algorithms continue promoting content pushing weight loss -- including restrictive diets and potentially dangerous supplements -- despite awareness of the harm it can cause users.
According to a recent installment in The Wall Street Journal’s "Facebook Files" series, the parent company of Instagram is aware “that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful.” The Journal reported that the company acknowledged: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
The platform's guidelines state that “we try to avoid recommending” content that contains “sensitive or low-quality” information about health, including “content attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims, such as promoting a supplement to help a person lose weight.”
But after demonstrating interest in health and wellness on Instagram by following a series of health-related accounts, Media Matters found an increase in suggested posts and reels on the “Explore” page sharing bogus wellness and weight loss tips. Some of these accounts are also selling weight loss plans and products, which they promote through these posts.
Several of the posts suggested through the Explore page are from accounts that sell “The Smoothie Diet,” a “revolutionary new life-transformation system that not only guarantees to help you lose weight and feel better than you have in years, it also promises to eliminate more body fat - faster than anything you’ve tried before.” The multiple accounts that link to The Smoothie Diet post content with dubious diet tips, outlandish claims about weight loss results from smoothies, and/or information about restrictive diet programs. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that these types of diet products can be unhealthy and dangerous to consumers.
Several other posts suggested through the Explore page contained messaging or imagery that otherwise promotes weight loss. And many of those accounts are also selling a product related to weight loss, like the Smoothie Diet.
For instance, this post promoting “Sarah’s discovery” linked in the caption to @sarahskinny.xo, a page that claims to be run by Sarah Johnson. A link in the bio brings users to an article about her supposed journey as a Stanford graduate student who discovered a fast and easy way to lose weight. The article, which is on a fake health news website, hyperlinks numerous times to a dietary supplement claiming to be the “easiest way to burn fat.”
This long-running scam is another example of content that clearly contains “low-quality” information about health and is “attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims, such as promoting a supplement to help a person lose weight” — in other words, the type of content that Instagram says it tries to not recommend. The language used in Instagram’s recommendation guidelines is vague, though, which makes it difficult to actually gauge the level of effort Instagram puts into trying to not recommend this type of content.