Can Instagram keep its nose clean?

The photo-sharing app has avoided the scandal that has engulfed its owner, Facebook. But can it stay unscathed?

It has been a rough few weeks for Facebook since the Observer reported the Cambridge Analytica data breach. The scandal revealed how the political consulting firm might have raked up the personal information of at least 87 million Facebook users in order to influence them with tailored political ads, sent the social network’s stocks into a tailspin, triggered the #DeleteFacebook movement – and regaled the planet with the cringefest that was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate. But if Facebook’s reputation has seen better days, one of the company’s most valuable assets has come out of the kerfuffle practically unscathed.

Instagram, the photo-sharing platform Facebook acquired in 2012 for $715m, has not yet come up in the debate over Facebook’s cavalier attitude to user data protection, despite being of a piece with the longer-running social network (and being headquartered just a few blocks from Facebook’s Menlo Park campus in California). Prominent members of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, singer Cher, and Playboy magazine, are still pretty much present and active on Instagram. The app’s apparent immunity to whatever befalls its owner, and the possibility that this might not last, even led a Reuters analyst to recommend that Facebook spin off Instagram as a separate company, to shield it from reputational contagion.

Instagram’s cast-iron popularity confirms its emerging status as Facebook’s crown jewel. The app is gaining users at a breakneck pace: it only took it five months to leap from 700 million users in April 2017 to 800 million in September. It is especially popular with younger people: in March 2018, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans aged 18 to 24 were on Instagram, and that more than half of them visited it daily. And it trounces other platforms at the engagement game: 2017 research by business intelligence firm L2 revealed that Instagram accounted for 92% of interactions taking place on social media, if only Facebook, Twitter and Instagram itself were considered; that dropped to a still whopping 42% if YouTube was also taken into account. According to consumer data firm Statista, this year Instagram is expected to make up almost 28% of Facebook’s net mobile advertising revenue.

“If you measure success through the size of a community and then multiply it for engagement, Instagram gets 10 times the engagement that Facebook gets,” says L2 founder and New York University professor Scott Galloway. “In many ways, it’s currently the most successful platform in the world.”

Part of that success boils down to Instagram’s intrinsic qualities. Its visual-first model may be more appealing than Twitter’s or Facebook’s text-heavy makeup. In the absence of a share function, users only post their own pictures and videos, so there’s no angsty clutter of links and reposts that took the joy out of other social networks.

“The genius of Facebook was the same [as Instagram’s] core habit: seeing other people’s photos,” says Nir Eyal, an angel investor, and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. “On Facebook, that core habit was polluted with all the other junk in our feed. That’s causing a lot of the move to Instagram: people don’t want all the news, debate and politics.”

On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that Instagram lucked out, effectively airbrushing its public image amid Facebook’s whirlwind of scandals. It is worth noting, too, that many people do not know that Instagram belongs to Facebook: according to a recent DuckDuckGo survey, 56.9% of Americans are unaware of the connection. Not that Facebook or Instagram were ever keen on emphasising that connection in their marketing material – a stance that, in retrospect, has paid off.

Yet Instagram shares many of the problems and flaws that have catapulted Facebook into the spotlight. The blight of fake news and foreign interference has marred Instagram at least as much as it has Facebook: according to Facebook’s own testimony before the US Congress, last year, 170 Instagram accounts were found to have spread propaganda from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, compared to only 120 Facebook pages.

“Instagram is as large a component of election propaganda as Facebook, if not larger,” says Jonathan Albright, a data journalist and research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Although Instagram has not cropped up in the Cambridge Analytica affair, the ads appearing on the platform can be tailored for custom audiences directly from Facebook’s advertising dashboard – by leveraging Facebook data.

In the wake of the scandal, Facebook has hastened to make sure that Instagram’s data privacy practices were improved. In early April, Instagram suddenly shut down access to its application programming interface (API), disrupting several third-party apps relying on it to glean user analytics. Days later, Instagram announced it was creating a tool that would enable users to download all the data they have shared on the platform – a move that brought it in line with Facebook (which made data portability possible in 2010) and with the EU’s soon-to-be-implemented General Data Protection Regulation.

In time, Instagram is also likely to come under increased scrutiny for other long-running but unsolved issues, such as its impact on young users’ mental health, and the rise of Instagram influencers – people who make a living by featuring brands and products in their pictures for a fee. The field is unregulated, lacks transparency and is prone to abuse and fraud. But Instagram could be in the process of sorting the issue out, and possibly even making some money along the way.

Instagram’s artsy vibe and relative independence protected it from the flak lobbed at its parent company. But as the photo-sharing service coasts towards a billion users, its shortcomings cannot just be covered with a dreamy filter: the way Instagram handles these challenges will come to define it.

a composite image of instagram posts on mock white smartphone screens
Get the picture (l-r): Elon Musk posts on Instagram despite calling to #DeleteFacebook; Kim Kardashian endorses a fitness shake; a paid partnership post; a repost of rightwing propaganda. Photograph: Instagram

Potential pitfalls for Instagram

Russian roulette
According to Tow Center’s Jonathan Albright, Instagram was one of Russia’s platforms of choice for sharing propaganda memes and videos ahead of the US presidential election in 2016. And while Facebook pegged the number of American Instagram users reached by propaganda at around 20 million, Albright thinks that number could be much higher, as trolls resorted to third-party apps such as Regrann to repost content multiple times. Posts on Instagram might also have been more engaging than those shared on Facebook, possibly because of Instagram’s sleeker interface.

“Instagram had better engagement for these posts versus Facebook,” Albright says. “Facebook gets messy, people post their pictures, embeds, previews, and the comments on the post get really disorganised. Instagram had better engagement for outrage, for people really getting angry and commenting more on-topic.”

While Instagram has removed the 170 profiles thought to be linked to Russia, Albright says that it has not actually got rid of all the propaganda disseminated on the platform.

“The only things that were taken down were the original accounts, so if there’s any kind of screenshot or repost, it’s still around,” he says. “[Instagram] didn’t go back and filter or search anything.” He says that, as of last month, some of the Russian-made memes could still be found lurking on Instagram.

Celebs for sale
The airbrushed world of Instagram has helped bring about a new profession – that of online influencers. Influencers are social media users who, having commanded a high follower count, partner with brands to feature products in their posts, in exchange for freebies or money. While many niche “micro-influencers” ask brands for relatively small amounts, Instagram-famous personalities can make thousands of pounds for every picture, with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian charging up to $500,000 a post.

Influencers’ activity on Instagram increased by 198% between 2016 and 2017, according to online marketing research firm Klear. The irresistible rise of this new category has created a host of new problems. Brands started fretting about “fake influencers”, followed by spurious armies of bots. Advertising authorities in various countries requested that influencers acknowledge that they are paid for promoting products, by adding the hashtag #ad to their posts. Last year, Instagram launched a branded content tool, which allows influencers to tag their partner brands more visibly in their posts. The feature was officially rolled out to enhance transparency, and to provide brands with insights about the performance of influencers’ posts online. But according to Callum McCahon, strategy director at social media firm Born Social, it could end up changing the way the influencer industry works. “Brands could be asked to pay for promoting their influencers’ posts and increasing their reach,” he said. “Instagram could then make money from brands boosting their influencers’ pictures. That’s not officially confirmed as of today, but that’s what Facebook did in the past.”

a teenage girl cries on the sofa reading a text message
Negative impact: academics and others have suggested that Instagram can make young people feel bad about their appearance and lifestyle. Photograph: Aleksandr Davydov/Alamy Stock Photo

Mental health
In May 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on social media’s impact on the mental health of young people. Instagram was labelled as the platform with the worst impact on its young users’ mental wellbeing. Problems ranged from anxiety- and depression-inducing imagery, to bullying, to body image issues. A more recent study from the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Western Australia revealed that young women exposed to the luridly filtered existences of Instagrammers were likely to feel bad about both their appearance and their general lifestyle and career.

Over the past few months, Instagram seems to have taken notice, introducing new tools, such as comment filters and pop-up alerts for problematic hashtags, that could help alleviate some of the mental health problems highlighted by researchers.

Then, in April 2018, during a Bloomberg event, the company announced the launch of a dedicated “wellbeing team” with the goal of making Instagram a “safer place, a place where people feel good”. The group’s strategy is still unclear, but at least it seems that Instagram has acknowledged that with greater power comes greater responsibility.

“It is surprising that Instagram has only recently launched the wellbeing team,” said Dr Becky Inkster, an honorary research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who contributed to the RSPH study. “They need to be far more proactive with how they handle potential negative effect and harm.” Inkster is optimistic, however, about Instagram leading the way to better understanding of how images affect our mental welfare. “Instagram can be a big player, and help in this area,” she says.


Gian Volpicelli

The GuardianTramp

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