Last spring, as part of its campaign to encourage users to get vaccinated, Instagram debuted a new line of stickers featuring pro-vaccine messages like “Let's Get Vaccinated,” “I Got Vaccinated,”" or “Vaccines Save Lives,” that users could put in their Stories. While the stickers were meant to empower users to “show their support and share accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine,” a Media Matters review has found dozens of users using these stickers for anti-vaccine content or other unrelated posts, claiming that it helps them evade content moderation and boost engagement.
Independent researchers can't confirm what impact, if any, the stickers have on engagement or content moderation, which gestures to a larger problem with the platform: Instagram's chronic lack of transparency has long frustrated both researchers and lawmakers, who say the platform's secretive behavior prevents anyone outside the company from regulating its increasingly impactful and harmful behavior.
Among accounts posting anti-vaccine content or coronavirus misinformation on Instagram, several users claim that using these stickers allows them to post what they want without being flagged with the COVID-19 information banner, having their posts removed, or having their accounts penalized.
Media Matters has identified numerous instances in which posts that include the “Let’s Get Vaccinated” sticker appear to violate Instagram’s COVID-19 policies, but they have not been taken down or flagged with a COVID-19 resource banner.
Anti-vaccine users also periodically use these stickers when they claim their accounts have been “shadowbanned,” suggesting the sticker usage will help them get back in the good graces of the platform.
These posts are often accompanied with sarcastic statements such as “I love Joe Biden” and pro-vaccine stickers, which are juxtaposed with comments urging followers to “recognize the propaganda being fed to us.” The language in these posts reinforces the false narrative among medical misinformers that their accounts are often penalized because they are bravely sharing dissenting truths about COVID-19, rather than the reality that they are violating the platform's policies by spreading harmful medical misinformation.
Users also put language on the stickers to show they disagree with the intended message or are mocking it.
In some instances, these users have reported that they have lost access to the stickers and then regained access again later, without explanation. While Media Matters cannot confirm why users occasionally lose access to these stickers, Instagram has more broadly stated that it will remove other features for users who “repeatedly share things like hate speech and misinformation, or other content that violates our Community Guidelines.”
Other users who are not posting anti-vaccine content have also picked up on the trend. On Reddit and Twitter, Instagram users have claimed that using the “Let’s Get Vaccinated” sticker increases their content visibility.
Regardless of whether the sticker usage boosts engagement with Instagram Stories, the variety of people trying to use them for this purpose points to a larger problem around the platform’s transparency.
While researchers have worked to develop an understanding of how users interact with and are impacted by the platform -- and subsequently inform policy decisions made by those in government around platform regulation -- Instagram has continued to change its algorithms and make decisions about new features behind closed doors, prioritizing its bottom line. Instagram has recently announced efforts to be more transparent around how its platform works, seemingly in an attempt to win back some of the content creators it has lost and to counter backlash from The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files and testimony from Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen.
In the case of the “Lets Get Vaccinated” stickers, only Meta can confirm whether using them has any real impact on Story engagement. What is clear, however, is that many users believe it does, and Instagram’s algorithms also have a history of being flawed. If anti-vaccine accounts have successfully found a way to manipulate this feature, which was specifically designed to increase the spread of helpful and accurate information about COVID-19, it would not be the first time Instagram had developed a feature without accounting for the ways it could possibly be misused, this time to the detriment of public health.