An Instagram feature that recommends accounts for users is pushing them down the misinformation rabbit hole.
A Media Matters analysis found that Instagram’s “similar account suggestions” feature, a drop-down widget that appears on users’ profiles and suggests accounts to follow, reliably shepherds users who show an interest in anti-vaccine misinformation and other harmful content (some of which the platform claims to ban) toward similar types of content.
Like other algorithm-driven features designed by Facebook, which owns Instagram, the feature steers users toward content they’re likely to interact with — thus keeping them on the platform longer. If a user follows NBA superstar Lebron James, for instance, the feature will suggest following other basketball stars like Stephen Curry or entertainers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or rapper Cardi B.
Benign, right? Not so much.
In order to test how Instagram’s “similar account suggestions” works when users click on pages with less savory content, Media Matters created a new Instagram account and navigated to the pages of several well-known bad actors and scrutinized Instagram’s suggested follows. These bad actors included members of the “Disinformation Dozen,” influencers identified in a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as the originators of an estimated 65% of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter.
The result: The platform’s algorithm repeatedly urged us to follow accounts spreading dangerous misinformation, including content that seems to violate Instagram’s stated policies against vaccine misinformation. It also led us to content it doesn't ban but supposedly does not promote, such as posts featuring exaggerated health claims.
For instance, when we demonstrated interest in anti-vaccine accounts by clicking on pages known to feature such content, Instagram suggested pages containing more anti-vaccine propaganda, including posts that the platform itself labeled as false. The same was true of pages hawking weight loss products and “natural cures for every disease.”
Instagram is recommending anti-vaccine accounts to its users
Despite Instagram chief Adam Mosseri’s claims that the company removes anti-vax content — “we just take it off the platform entirely,” he said in a July interview — Instagram remains awash in anti-vaccine misinformation.
Anti-vaccine merchandise is widely available via Instagram Shopping. Influencers spreading health misinformation boast hundreds of thousands of followers. And when the platform does take action against these accounts, they usually return within days.
What’s more, Instagram is not only allowing anti-vaccine content to remain on the platform, but also actively promoting it.
Take, for instance, the account of osteopathic physician and anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny, who has been removed from Instagram several times for spreading vaccine misinformation and hawking other dangerous ideas. In just the past few weeks, she’s promoted the debunked conspiracy theory that Microsoft founder Bill Gates once proposed deadly vaccines as a way to reduce the global population. Tenpenny has also recently been fearmongering about toddlers dying from the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine — although the Pfizer vaccine isn't approved for children under 16.
When we followed her, the top recommended account was an anti-vaccine account that promotes any number of false claims about COVID-19 vaccines, including the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips at Gates’ behest.
Earlier this summer, Media Matters documented Instagram’s suggestions when we followed accounts associated with seven members of the “Disinformation Dozen.” The top three most-recommended accounts included an anti-vaccine influencer who’s been removed from the platform several times and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s organization, Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine activist organization that is now banned on Instagram.
The “similar accounts suggestions” feature is also enabling local chapters of global anti-vaccine activist organizations to recruit members and fundraise via Instagram. For example, if a user follows the page for Freedom Keepers United, a popular anti-vaccine organization that has planned rallies against mask and vaccine mandates, Instagram guides them to dozens of local chapters of the organization. Many of these chapters use link-curating services like Linktree to sell merchandise and organize against vaccine mandates and other state-level policies.
“Similar account suggestions” feature is leading users to diet and weight loss gimmicks
In addition to promoting anti-vaccine pages, the “similar account suggestions” feature is also leading users to diet and health misinformation.
While most health misinformation isn’t explicitly banned from Instagram, the platform claims that it tries “to avoid recommending” “sensitive or low-quality content about Health or Finance.” This includes “content containing exaggerated health claims, such as ‘miracle cures’” and “content attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims, such as promoting a supplement to help a person lose weight.”
Media Matters has previously shown that the platform recommends weight loss gimmicks through the “Explore” page. When we followed accounts that fit Instagram’s description of pages publishing low-quality health content, the platform recommended several pages selling “natural cures for every disease.”
Compared to other features on Facebook platforms, it’s easy to fix Instagram’s suggestions feature: Just get rid of it. In fact, users can already opt out of the feature in the app’s settings, which makes it clear that suggesting similar accounts isn't an essential function of the platform. But as The Wall Street Journal’s reporting has shown, the company will always choose profits over curbing misinformation.