Instagram could become the new breeding ground for disinformation in the lead up to the 2020 election because bad actors are adapting their tactics for the image-driven platform.
According to a new report from New York University, deepfake videos, domestic disinformation, digital voter suppression and Facebook-owned platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram pose the largest threats to the U.S. as the country looks ahead to the 2020 election.
Disinformation is increasingly based on images as opposed to text," Paul Barrett, the author of the report from NYU's Center for Business and Human Rights, told Axios. "Instagram is obviously well-suited for that kind of meme-based activity."
The researchers cite the false claim that the Odessa shooter in Texas was a Beto O'Rourke supporter that first appeared as a tweet from a far-right account. However, that tweet was turned into a screenshot and shared by a bunch of proxy accounts before it was taken down for violating Instagram's rules.
"They’re keeping their main account and brand and being careful not to violate policies or get that account suspended, and using other proxy accounts to share screenshots. They have also the impact but not the accreditation back to the main account, so they’re circumventing the rules," Jonthan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told Axios.
Although Instagram isn't a platform where news is shared in quite the same way as Facebook and Twitter, it attracts a highly engaged younger audience. A poll cited by the report's author claims 50 percent of Americans believe fake or made up news is a "very big problem" in the country.
Social media companies have ramped up their efforts to crack down on fake news amid the backlash, as the report notes, by demoting and labeling false content; crowd-sourcing fact-checks, creating special "war rooms" for major elections and strengthening their political advertising policies. Some of those efforts are paying off: two different studies found that the proportion of Americans consuming or engaging with fake news fell dramatically from 2016 to 2018.
"We know that our adversaries are always changing their techniques so we are constantly working to stay ahead," Instagram said in a statement to the news outlet.
In a note of caution, researchers also said to look for bad actors moving to alternative platforms as the major social networks continue to clamp down on fake news.