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Op Eds

Instagram Bad

By Shanivi Srikonda, Crimson Opinion Writer

Like so much of what runs rampant on Instagram (and other social media platforms), this title is clickbait. It doesn’t capture the complexity of the discourse surrounding social media platforms — it can’t! — but the blunt overconfidence of the simple statement “Instagram bad” is enough to get a click and generate interest in what seems to be such a bold or bad take.

Our busy lives necessitate that we cannot consume all the content we want ad infinitum. After all, in a world full of so much (and ever increasing) content and data, but limited time, we have to decide what to consume based on some kind of metric. Clickbait capitalizes on our natural tendencies to interact with the eye-catching. But in the process, nuance can be lost, and important, multifaceted issues can be stripped of their sensitivity. This can lead to misinformation, which, especially amid a pandemic, can be fatal.

Despite the attempts of social media platforms to curb misinformation — Instagram notably tags stories and posts related to the pandemic with a Covid-19 disclaimer — it can still be difficult to differentiate truth from fiction. Yes, you can usually evaluate whether information comes from a reputable source by checking its publishing credentials, but when you’re just tapping through Instagram stories, looking at screenshots of screenshots, this can once again be difficult.

Sharing the sources of information — say through hyperlinks — can, however, help. Instagram recently began rolling out the feature for anyone to add clickable hyperlinks to their stories. But this feature being rolled out en masse comes after years of only accounts with at least 10,000 followers (or those verified) being able to add a swipe-up hyperlink to their stories. Did this follower threshold exist as a means of combating misinformation under the assumption that large accounts must have their followings for good reason? What was stopping large accounts from not only sharing misinformation, but also amplifying it to at least 10,000 people?

The original and continued draw of Instagram is its emphasis on visual communication, through the sharing of pictures and videos as posts and stories. Though posts have captions, these captions are typically not the focus; the post itself is usually centered, and captions are currently capped at 2,200 characters. Prioritizing visual images over written text can cause many to instead share information in posts of infographics or digital posters, but the inability to add hyperlinks to posts themselves or have URLs in captions be clickable hyperlinks is another barrier to easier fact-checking and citing sources as a means of mitigating misinformation. Though there is no guarantee that users will always cite their sources, having the ability to cite them in the first place via clickable hyperlinks in posts or captions can at least prompt viewers to wonder why sources are not cited upon viewing their next post.

Although this might seem overly fastidious, even small barriers that prevent information from being better cited and sourced can cause issues on a much larger scale. Instagram (which was acquired by Facebook, now Meta, in 2012) had more than two billion monthly users as of December 2021. That’s at least 150 times more than the number of vehicles that crossed the Golden Gate Bridge last year. Even if this barrier to well-sourced information only impacted a miniscule 0.05 percent of Instagram users, that’s still around a million people.

If it was easier for users to directly share links to topics that they’re posting about, combating misinformation might be easier for both moderators and individuals. People might still post unscrupulous hyperlinks or direct others to malicious websites, but this can be mitigated by better moderation from the side of Instagram itself. This exemplifies a much-needed two-pronged approach to controlling misinformation on Instagram: the ability for users to hyperlink and cite sources better, while at the same time Instagram’s own content moderators ensuring that those links are not harmful.

Especially amid the Omicron subvariant of Covid-19, BA.2, which appears to be spreading in America, Instagram — and all social media platforms — must do more to combat misinformation about vaccines, masking, and other public health measures. As students at many colleges, including Harvard, return to campus after spring break, more data about cases, testing, and positivity rates will likely be available. However, with a new variant and new data, there is always room for misinformation. Although Instagram puts a disclaimer on Covid-related posts, the platform itself can do so much more to combat pandemic misinformation.

Hopefully, with more robust sourcing of posts, clickbait (like the title of this piece) can be regarded with more reflection. If you’re able to link your sources on Instagram, do so. Even if you can’t, consider content with a closer look. In a semester filled with so much uncertainty, accurate information is all the more important. Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but those words should be accurate, not a facade.

Shanivi Srikonda ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Quincy House.

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