Anti-vaccine and Covid misinformation being recommended to millions

A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Restless Development finds Instagram is recommending anti-vaccine and Covid misinformation to potentially millions of users.

The new study found Instagram’s recommendations features promoting health misinformation, as well as antisemitism, election misinformation, and QAnon.

The content, recommended through Instagram’s ‘Suggested Posts’ and ‘Explore’ features, are from accounts not followed by the users who recorded them. Instagram is also recommending conspiracist and extremist accounts to users, the study found.

The findings for the study were collected by Youth Against Misinformation, a group of young volunteers trained by Restless Development and CCDH who have been fighting misinformation online since the start of the pandemic.

It’s very concerning that social media companies still continue to prioritise profit over people’s lives. It makes research like this all the more important. This report we’re publishing highlights realistic measures that can be put in place to prevent the spread of dangerous misinformation – there’s no room for more excuses, we hope that this is a wake-up call to take action.

Sara*, Youth Against Misinformation volunteer


How Instagram’s algorithm publishes misinformation and hate to millions during the pandemic.
PDF / 4.30 MB

Posts which Instagram is promoting to users contained claims including:

  • Covid isn’t real
  • Masks don’t stop the spread of Covid
  • Vaccines are unsafe
  • Vaccines kill children
  • Coronavirus isn’t dangerous
  • 5G conspiracy theories
  • The pandemic is faked to give the government greater control over the population
  • Vaccines contain aborted fetus
  • The Government will use the pandemic to kidnap children
  • Discouraging users from Covid testing

The accounts followed by the test accounts totalled 9.9 million followers, suggesting that millions of Instagram users are likely to be receiving the same recommendations. Some recommended posts were from accounts of well-known anti-vaxxers. A previous report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, published in December, found that anti-vaxx accounts on Instagram grew their audience by an additional 4.3 million followers in 2020.

In addition to health misinformation, the report finds that QAnon, misinformation about the US election, and antisemitism are also being promoted by Instagram’s algorithms. This finding suggests that Instagram is introducing users interested in one extremist subject to others as well, and that curiosity about Covid and vaccines could act as a gateway to more hateful extremist ideologies.

Extremist misinformation recommended by Instagram include:

  • That voting machines used in the 2020 Presidential election were fraudulent
  • Mail-in ballots were fraudulently cast during the 2020 Presidential election
  • Tommy Robinson’s posts
  • The conspiracy theory that Joe Biden is dead and his clone arrested
  • Conspiracy theories about child trafficking
  • Antisemitic memes suggesting Jews are behind masks and a New World Order

Rosanne Palmer-White, UK Director, at Restless Development, said:

“Misinformation online isn’t hiding in the shadows – Instagram is actively bringing these lies to you. It’s an outrage, and in the meantime volunteers from Youth Against Misinformation continue to track down this harmful anti-vaxx misinformation and stop it spreading.

“Instagram must not be a gateway platform that pushes users on a journey from anti-vaxx lies to other extremist material. We are so close to  turning the tide on this nightmare pandemic with vaccine programmes rolling out across the world. We can’t let inaction from social media executives to change their algorithms and remove misinformation hold us back now.”

The research simulated the experience of a variety of users by creating fresh Instagram accounts with differing “interests”. Some of these were innocuous such as wellness and health. Others followed conspiracy theorists and white supremacist accounts. They then tracked and recorded the recommendations Instagram published to their timelines. More than 100 recommendations containing misinformation were recorded over the course of the study.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said:

It is beyond belief that as the pandemic swept the world, Instagram launched a new feature encouraging users to view conspiracy theories and lies about Covid and vaccines. This feature was created in the name of profit, to keep people scrolling so more adverts could be served to them.

Algorithms that recommend content are the act of a publisher, making choices as to what readers see, not a neutral platform. This has serious legal and regulatory implications for social media companies and shows their liability for damage to individuals and society. 

Instagram’s actions will have created greater distrust in the Covid vaccine, costing lives and prolonging the pandemic for all of us.

2020 proved that online lies have a cost paid in real lives. Instagram must suspend its suggested posts feature until it can be sure it is not promoting misinformation, hate and lies. They also need to rapidly remove the material – much of which contravened their community standards.

Young people tackling misinformation.

Youth Against Misinformation is formed of 31 young volunteers. It has two aims: to monitor and root out dangerous COVID-19 misinformation online; and build the skill-set and agency of young people to understand how misinformation is spread online, identify fake news and develop strategies to tackle it. Volunteers receive comprehensive training from Restless Development and CCDH on how to identify, report and respond to harmful misinformation online.

Why Restless Development is committed to tackling misinformation.

  • Misinformation is dangerous and causing harm. When people follow incorrect guidance about COVID-19, it can put their lives at risk and hamper our collective efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
  • Misinformation is spreading fast online because it can be difficult to track the source of the information and can easily be multiplied. 
  • By reporting how and where misinformation is spread, we can keep the pressure on social media companies to remove misinformation.
  • Some misinformation about COVID-19 has led to xenophobia and racism.
  • Having correct information can empower individuals and communities to take the right action to protect themselves and others. Stopping the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak and the progress made to reduce rates of HIV have both relied on communities being equipped with the knowledge to make informed decisions and protect themselves.

*name changed to protect the identity of the volunteer.

More news from Youth Against Misinformation.