As a seasoned internet person who’s constantly on this thing due to poor impulse control, I like to believe I’ve formed some pretty rock solid stereotypes of social media platforms that will absolutely hold up under scrutiny. (They won’t.)
Those stereotypes are as follows: Facebook is a goddamn wasteland that’s been overrun by Fox News-loving olds, Twitter is an Extremely Online shitshow where the cool kids share 8,000 word hit pieces like something out of a dystopian Mean Girls parody, and YouTube is an infinite void of awful where you never know what kind of nightmare is going to pop up next. Is it suicide instructions in children’s videos, or an actual pedophile ring hanging right out in the open? Play Next and find out!
As for Instagram, I honestly just assumed it’s populated by people who hate reading and “influencers” who fart out meticulously curated lifestyle photos to sell home decor to gullible rubes. (Were you amazed that neither one of those links were about Gwyneth Paltrow? Me too!)
So imagine my surprise when The Atlantic informed me that Instagram is the preeminent portal for converting teens into rabid QAnon believers. If you’re not familiar with QAnon, it’s basically every conspiracy theory ever all rolled into one. The Deep State, Pizzagate, false flags, you f*cking name it. I’m talking these nutbars literally claim that the Clintons feed baby blood to George Soros.
And the kids are falling right for it!
When Alex, now a high-school senior, saw an Instagram account he followed post about something called QAnon back in 2017, he’d never heard of the viral conspiracy theory before. But the post piqued his interest, and he wanted to know more. So he did what your average teenager would do: He followed several accounts related to it on Instagram, searched for information on YouTube, and read up on it on forums.
“I was just noticing a lack in younger people being interested in QAnon, so I figured I would put it out there that there was at least one young person in the movement,” he told me via Instagram direct message. He hopes to “expose the truth about everything corrupt governments and organizations have lied about.” Among those truths: that certain cosmetics and foods contain aborted fetal cells, that the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash was a hoax, and that the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings were staged.
And that’s just the opening example out of way too many. Turns out, while we’re all dicking around on Twitter or trying to explain to our elderly parents that a Facebook page called Jesus Guns For Trump isn’t a legitimate news source, Instagram is over here becoming the number one source for pouring straight horseshit into the next generation’s mouth in the most effective and untraceable ways possible.
In December, Wired reported that Instagram had become the “go-to” social network for the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm notorious for meddling in U.S. elections. A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee declared that “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency” to spread misinformation. “Instagram has the power of Twitter to broadcast out, but the infrastructure of Facebook supporting it,” says Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia University who directs a center on digital forensics. “It has the best of all platforms.”
And its mechanisms are more inscrutable. Last year, the company restricted API access—the service that processes requests for Facebook data from remote applications—following several Facebook data-breach scandals. According to Albright, this has stunted research efforts focused on the spread of misinformation and extremism. Just last fall, Albright’s research revealed that anti-Semitism on the platform was rising. He says he would be unable to carry out similar research today due to the recent API restrictions. “The ability for me to do a network analysis or look at how accounts are connected has basically gone away,” he says.
Can a whippersnapper put this into people words, please?
CJ Pearson, a 16-year-old conservative activist who is not affiliated with any extremist groups, says that “the role [Instagram] will play in 2020 is being slept on right now. The right has an advantage in that they’ve organized a huge network of meme accounts on the platform that reach millions of young people across the web who will be casting their first vote come 2020.”
Wait. So all of this is happening because people are giant suckers for memes? That’s the key to radicalization? I never would’ve guessed that.
(Image via Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash)
Header Image Source: Getty