At the end of last year, as we made our predictions about what 2019 would bring for social networks, I raised the prospect that it could be a hard year for Instagram. “I won’t guess the specifics,” I wrote, “but I do think 2019 will see some sort of reckoning over Instagram. Its charismatic founders are gone, the press is waking up to some long-simmering issues there, and there’s an increasing sense among a certain elite that looking at the app all the time is bad for you.”
As of today, that reckoning appears to be here. Instagram has faced plenty of criticism before now, particularly around bullying issues on the platform. But lately, the more that journalists explore its dark corners, the more cause they find for concern.
In The Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz explores how conspiracy theories and extremism have taken root on the platform:
The platform is likely where the next great battle against misinformation will be fought, and yet it has largely escaped scrutiny. Part of this is due to its reputation among older users, who generally use it to post personal photos, follow aspirational accounts, and keep in touch with friends. Many teenagers, however, use the platform differently—not only to connect with friends, but to explore their identity, and often to consume information about current events.
Jack, a 16-year-old who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym to protect his identity, has learned a lot about politics through Instagram. In 2020, he’ll be able to vote for the first time, and so he recently started following some new Instagram pages to bone up on issues facing the country. “I try to follow both sides just to see what everyone’s thinking,” he said. While he’s struggled to find many compelling pages on the left, he said he’s learned a lot from following large conservative Instagram meme pages such as @dc_draino and @the_typical_liberal, which has nearly 1 million followers and claims to be “saving GenZ one meme at a time.” Recent posts include a joke about running over protesters in the street, an Infowars video posted to IGTV, and a meme about feminists being ugly. “It’s important to have The Typical Liberal and DC Draino to expose the [media’s] lies, so we can formulate our own opinions,” Jack told me.
And it isn’t just political memes. In a simple test this week of Instagram’s recommendation algorithms, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox set up a fresh account and followed a single anti-vaccination user. You can probably guess what happened next:
On Wednesday, I created a fresh Instagram account, and followed ‘Beware the Needle’, a user with 34,000 followers which posts a steady stream of anti-vaccination content. I also followed the user’s “backup” account mentioned in its bio, the creator clearly aware that Instagram may soon ban them. Instagram’s “Suggested for You” feature then recommended I follow other accounts, including “Vaccines are Genocide” and “Vaccine Truth.” I followed the latter, and checked which accounts Instagram now thought would be a good fit for me: another 24 accounts that were either explicitly against vaccinations in their profile description, or that posted anti-vaccine content.
They included pseudo-scientists claiming that vaccines cause autism; accounts with tens of thousands of followers promising the “truth” around vaccinations through memes and images of misleading statistics, as well as individual mothers spouting the perceived, but false, dangers of vaccinating children against measles, polio, and other diseases.
Two weeks ago, in response to pressure from Congress, Facebook said it would stop recommending anti-vaccination content across its suite of apps, including on Instagram Explore and hashtag pages. Cox’s report indicates that work either hasn’t yet begun, or simply has not been effective. And Lorenz’s report illustrates how much broader Instagram’s problem is than that one public health issue.
Neither of these issues came up in an interview today with Vishal Shah, Instagram’s new head of product, on Cheddar. That isn’t a criticism of the reporters, Alex Heath and Michelle Castillo, who covered a lot of ground. But I was struck, reading Shah’s answers, by his business-as-usual tone. Even as Mark Zuckerberg has signaled he will shift the company toward private messaging — something the reporters do ask him about — Shah focuses on a cheery vision of Instagram as a place to browse and buy products.
I was also struck by his description of Instagram’s product organization:
The product teams are a singular product team. There’s not like a separate business team that doesn’t integrate with the rest of the consumer product team. It’s actually one product organization. And some companies run it pretty differently, where you’ve got like an ads team and then you’ve got the consumer team. And we don’t think about it that way.
The reason is, because at the end of the day, the consumer has a singular experience with Instagram. And so while my primary focus was on ads and business products, I’ve been here for four years and have seen a lot of the decisions that we’ve made around the new formats like Stories. My team was the one that worked on removing the square requirement in Feed because 20% of people were uploading content that wasn’t square. So they were basically telling us that the limitation was not something that they were excited about. Looking at consumer signal and using that as a determination of what we might want to build and where people are hacking the platform is something we’ve been doing across the spectrum for a while. So I’ve had the context on the consumer product for a while.
The second is, as we’ve been growing and scaling, it’s been really important for us to think of what the values of Instagram—the product—are and how decisions that we make really need to continue to reflect those values, even as we grow. So the three that we talked about are being people first, which is every decision that we make should be rooted in a real people problem that we can describe.
A “singular product team” like the one Shah describes, laser-focused on “a singular experience,” can be useful in rallying around a cause. And yet by all accounts, what Instagram is focused on at the moment is shopping. Grandiose talk about “the values of Instagram,” starting with the principle of “being people first,” looks silly given its context — the introduction of in-app checkout. It’s easy to say you’re “people first” — but if your road map prioritizes e-commerce over all else, including misinformation that could lead to a public health crisis, it becomes all too apparent which people you value.
On Twitter, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told me the company has more people working on well-being efforts than it does on shopping. Last year, after taking over, Mosseri introduced a range of anti-bullying tools that signaled a broader commitment to making Instagram feel safe for its user base. More recently, he said, the company has “wound down a number of projects and teams to staff up our well-being efforts and a few other areas where I felt we need to do more.”
Ultimately, though, Instagram is best judged by what we see when we search through those hashtags and Explore pages.
What I find most disconcerting about this story is how familiar it is. A single-minded focus on initiatives to boost engagement and revenue, at the expense of focusing on systemic rot within the platform, is precisely what landed Facebook in its state of perma-crisis to begin with. And for all the times after 2016 that the company told us it learned its lesson, Instagram’s simmering problems offer fresh reason for doubt.
Jared Kushner, for one, is embracing Facebook’s pivot to private messaging:
The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee revealed information on Thursday that he said showed Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner used private messaging services for official White House business in a way that may have violated federal records laws.
The chairman, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, said that a lawyer for Ms. Trump, President Trump’s daughter, and Mr. Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, told the committee late last year that in addition to a private email account, Mr. Kushner uses an unofficial encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, for official White House business, including with foreign contacts.
Facebook will reexamine its approach to live stream moderation in the wake of the New Zealand attack, Hamza Shaban reports, based on a new company blog post:
Last year, Facebook said it applied this expedited review process to recently ended live broadcasts. That meant users who saw a potentially violent or abusive live stream after it aired could alert Facebook moderators with haste. But Facebook said this process covered only videos flagged for suicide. Other dangerous events — including the Friday attack on two mosques that left 50 people dead — were not covered under the expedited review process.
Facebook said this may change.
A number of websites are taking action to draw attention to proposed changes in European copyright law that they warn could cripple their services, James Vincent reports:
Ahead of a final vote on the legislation next Tuesday, March 26th, a number of European Wikipedia sites are going dark for the day, blocking all access and directing users to contact their local EU representative to protest the laws. Other major sites, such as Twitch and PornHub, are showing protest banners on their homepages and social media.
Kevin Roose reports that a little-known political neophyte has attracted early enthusiasm online as he pursues the Democratic presidential nomination:
He has catapulted out of obscurity thanks in part to a devoted internet following known as the “Yang Gang.” His fans have plastered Mr. Yang into memes and produced songs and music videos about his candidacy. They have also created a hashtaggable slogan — #securethebag — out of his signature campaign proposal to give $12,000 a year in no-strings-attached cash to every American adult, as a cushion against the mass unemployment he believes is coming thanks to artificial intelligence and automation.
By conventional standards, Mr. Yang remains a fringe candidate. In national polls, his support among Democrats has registered between 0 and 1 percent. But his viral popularity on social media feels reminiscent of the “meme army” that helped lift President Trump to victory in 2016. WikiLeaks, itself a part of the internet’s political underbelly, recently took note of Mr. Yang’s online momentum, and asked, “Did Trump just lose the 2020 meme war?”
George Joseph explores how IBM collaborated with the Duterte regime in the Philippines:
On June 27, 2012, three years after the devastating Human Rights Watch report, IBM issued a short news release announcing an agreement with Davao to upgrade its police command center in order to “further enhance public safety operations in the city.” IBM’s installation, known as the Intelligent Operations Center, promised to enhance authorities’ ability to monitor residents in real time with cutting-edge video analytics, multichannel communications technology, and GPS-enabled patrol vehicles. Less than two months later, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights published a resolution condemning Davao authorities for fostering a “climate of impunity” with regard to the killings, recommending that the National Bureau of Investigation undertake an impartial investigation into potential obstruction of justice by local police officials.
I’m almost a week late to this good piece from Laura Hazard Owen, but it’s worth noting amid constant whining among some conservatives that platforms are systematically biased against them. According to NewsWhip, Fox News was the most-engaged-with publisher for the first quarter of the year. As usual.
Today’s big Facebook whoopsie is the revelation that the company stored millions of passwords in plain text in various databases throughout the company. Facebook says there is no evidence that employees used the passwords to make mischief, says Brian Krebs, who broke the news. But still:
The Facebook source said the investigation so far indicates between 200 million and 600 million Facebook users may have had their account passwords stored in plain text and searchable by more than 20,000 Facebook employees. The source said Facebook is still trying to determine how many passwords were exposed and for how long, but so far the inquiry has uncovered archives with plain text user passwords in them dating back to 2012.
My Facebook insider said access logs showed some 2,000 engineers or developers made approximately nine million internal queries for data elements that contained plain text user passwords.
Katie Notopoulos has the tale of a man who runs an Instagram bot account featuring other people’s photos of New York and uses it to score free meals. And the advertisers don’t seem to mind:
In the end, Buetti argues, a post from an automated account is worth as much to an advertiser as an endorsement from an account run by, you know, a human. He said several restaurants have followed up, saying customers came in after seeing their food posted on @beautiful.newyorkcity (the sponsored posts are labeled as ads). “I spent a lot of time and effort writing this script and I’m offering them a service and they’re offering me a free meal,” Buetti said.
BuzzFeed News contacted one restaurant owner who gave @beautiful.newyorkcity a $25 dining credit in exchange for a post, and described how Buetti’s automated account works. “I guess in the end we were satisfied because it’s still an ad posted and showing us to their followers,” said the owner, who nonetheless asked to remain anonymous to prevent other would-be influencers from trying to dine for free.
Interesting to see New Zealand’s internet service providers taking strong action to prevent video of the Christchurch shooting from being shared. (The ban spared Facebook and YouTube, Makena Kelly reports.)
According to Bleeping Computer, sites like 4chan, 8chan, LiveLeak, and the file-sharing site Mega have all been pulled by ISPs like Vodafone, Spark, and Vocus. The ISPs appear to be blocking access at the DNS level to sites that do not respond to the takedown requests, but it’s unclear how effective the blocks will be. Like most web-level blocks, the restrictions are easy to circumvent through the use of a VPN or alternative DNS settings.
Robert Peck writes about life as a volunteer moderator for Reddit:
At Reddit, all of the volunteers, certainly in the thousands, are trusted with freedom to do as we like with our sections of the site. We appreciate this. I appreciate this. But that isn’t why I spend 20 hours a week arguing with people on the internet and banning trolls. I do that because it’s satisfying to chase and destroy the zombies, and to do it alongside people I trust. It’s fulfilling to be needed and to be skilled. We don’t own the site, but we consider its spaces ours.
I wrote about Houseparty CEO Ben Rubin handing the reins over to his cofounder Sima Sistani. As part of the news, the company announced that it will soon launch a trivia game and screen sharing features:
On April 1st, Houseparty plans to introduce a new trivia game as part of its investment in entertainment. It will also begin to let users share their screens with one another, so they can chat about whatever they’re doing on their phones. (An app called Squad launched earlier this year with similar social screen-sharing features; but Houseparty says screen sharing has been on its road map from the beginning.)
“When people are hanging out on Houseparty, they’re already engaging in these companion experiences,” Sistani said. “They’re watching Netflix, they’re shopping, they’re doing homework.” Screen sharing will make all of those activities easier, she said.
Brian X. Chen reflects on life five months after quitting Facebook:
There were some differences, though — including some strange experiences with online ads. Facebook has long used information that it collects on its users to target people with the most relevant ads. So after a few months of deleting the social network, I began seeing random ads pop up on sites like Instagram (which Facebook owns). Among them: promotions for women’s shaving products, purses and bathing suits.
Instagram might have started thinking I was female, but my wallet thanked me. I realized I was spending considerably less money on my usual guilty pleasure of buying clothing and cooking gadgets online because I was no longer seeing the relevant Facebook ads that egged me on to splurge. Over the past five months, my online shopping purchases dropped about 43 percent.
And finally …
Stealing a meme is morally wrong. But should it also cost you many thousands of dollars? Probably, in this case! Colin Lecher reports:
The suit, filed this week in federal court, alleges that the company violated copyright law by taking an image and using it to promote its tequila brand, JAJA Tequila. The suit names FJERRY, LLC, the parent company of Jerry Media, as well as founder Elliot Tebele. Law360 reported on the suit yesterday.
According to the suit, a Nigeria-based social media personality owned the image, which included a text message conversation about drinking. One person in the conversation messages the other, “don’t worry i called an uber,” as the other person responds, “we drank at your place.” @fuckjerry’s post appended the caption, “Me after my 6th glass of @JAJA.”
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