As two vaccines for the coronavirus reach the U.S. market and are being prepared for widespread distribution, Instagram announced on Thursday that it will direct its users to “information from credible health authorities” when they search for terms related to vaccines on the platform.
But instead, it is actively steering many toward explicitly anti-vaccine content and misinformation amid a global pandemic.
Entering the term “vaccine” into the search bar on Instagram’s mobile app does lead to a notice linking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website with the prompt, “Looking for Vaccine Info?” But for many users, prominently featured in the results beneath that is a lineup of anti-vaccine accounts like @vaccines_kill_, @anti.vaccines and @say_no_to_bill_gates_vaccine.
The reason such pages are ranked among the top search results is not because they’re especially popular or have lots of followers; the third listed above has fewer than 1,000. Rather, Instagram’s recommendation algorithm has placed them there. The algorithm is designed to maximize user engagement, and by extension, advertising revenue.
Vaccines go through rigorous testing and evaluation and have been ruled safe by a long list of independent studies. Yet the anti-vaccine minority pushing falsehoods and conspiracy theories is still thriving on Instagram, where it has an outsized influence and its content is not only hosted but amplified. By rewarding such disinformation with promotion, Instagram incentivizes users to produce more of it.
And if a user follows even one of those accounts after a simple “vaccine” search, the platform sucks them in even further. After HuffPost created a new Instagram account and followed a single one of the top-featured anti-vaccine pages, Instagram’s algorithm immediately suggested a slew of others just like it — including several that have repeatedly posted false and misleading information about vaccines.
One argued in a post that vaccines are “not about a cure but about money and power …” Another suggested in a video that vaccines cause autism, a myth that medical authorities have debunked repeatedly. Others claimed that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates will secretly use vaccines to microchip people, along with other far-right conspiracy theories.
Facebook-owned Instagram vowed back in March 2019 to reduce the spread of vaccine-related misinformation on its platform. Now, close to two years later — at a time when the U.S. is racing to immunize people from a disease that has killed more than 311,000 Americans in less than a year — the platform’s continued promotion of anti-vaccune content demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to rein in its algorithm.
Earlier this month, Facebook and Instagram were widely lauded for announcing a new policy to remove posts spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. However, that policy does not apply to misinformation about vaccines in general, Facebook confirmed to HuffPost. In theory, a post that falsely claims “the coronavirus vaccine causes autism” would be taken down, whereas a post falsely claiming “vaccines cause autism” would not.
The average daily time Americans spend on Instagram has surged this year, and soon, more people will get news from Instagram than from Twitter. It’s easy to see how users seeking information about vaccines on Instagram could stumble down a rabbit hole of false and fear-mongering anti-vaccine content, pulled along by the recommendation engine.
Company officials did not dispute that anti-vaccine accounts would show up in search bars, as HuffPost observed.
“In the past few months, we’ve adjusted search typeahead to improve the accounts and hashtags that appear to favor high quality accounts, and we will continue investing in this space. We’ve made improvements to search, to help protect our community from content that could be harmful, but our work is not done,” a Facebook spokesperson told HuffPost in an emailed statement.
“The order of terms which appear in search is the result of many factors, including what people engaged with, what is most likely to be relevant to that person’s search, or the person’s past behavior for example,” the statement continued. “This also applies to recommendations, however if an account has continually broken our rules or posted content that is misinformation, they may no longer appear in recommendations across Feed and Explore as well.”
Conspiratorial narratives about the supposedly nefarious interests of key figures and institutions surrounding vaccines are now causing just as much vaccine skepticism as safety concerns are, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation.
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have been turbocharged in recent months by QAnon, which has been quietly seeping into anti-vaccine communities across Instagram and other platforms. A growing number of social media users now believe that vaccines are part of a “deep state” agenda to brainwash and control humanity.
On Friday afternoon, HuffPost searched the hashtag #vaccines on Instagram. The fourth-ranked result beneath the CDC notice was a week-old post from a notorious anti-vaxxer and QAnon supporter encouraging people not to wear face masks or get vaccinated.