While Facebook, Twitter and Google have been taken to task over the spread of Russian disinformation, Instagram is hosting worse.
“Instagram is a major distributor and redistributor of I.R.A. propaganda that’s at the very least on par with Twitter,” according to a report published last month by Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
A Facebook spokesman said the company was committed to tackling the problem on Instagram.
“We take this issue very seriously and continue to fight efforts to stop foreign interference,” the spokesman, Tom Reynolds, said. “As part of our investigation, we found and removed around 170 I.R.A. accounts on Instagram that were responsible for approximately 120,000 posts.”
He added, “Our review of this activity is ongoing, and we continue to monitor for and remove fake accounts.”
Mr. Albright’s research documented how the photo-friendly service was widely used by Russian trolls, and how it continues to be a hub for those images to be shared and shared again. He analyzed 28 of the 170 accounts that Instagram removed from its platform after discovering that they had been created by the I.R.A., which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Using publicly available information on sites that archive social media posts, Mr. Albright found 2.5 million recorded interactions with posts from the accounts, as well as 145 million likely interactions with people who had passively viewed them.
Mr. Albright said that those figures were not the complete picture — he was not able to account for how many people had shared images on Instagram by taking screen grabs or through a variety of third-party apps that allow for reposting of images.
The image of a woman in the hijab was originally posted by an account called Merican Fury. According to evidence presented during a congressional hearing in October, that account was part of a coordinated disinformation campaign run by the Internet Research Agency.
This month, it was shared to a popular Instagram account called Republican's, which says it represents “the Republicans and Conservatives of Instagram.” It has more than 100,000 followers.
An administrator of Republican's declined to answer why the account had shared the image, or if the person running the account was aware of the image’s Russian origin. When reached on Instagram, which allows users to send a message to any account they follow, the administrator said he or she had only recently taken over the account.
The person responding to messages refused to answer any other questions about who he or she is or who previously controlled the account and managed its posts. No information was provided on the Instagram account other than a brief description.
Mr. Albright said it was not unusual for accounts to share images without checking their source.
“Instagram has all the social aspects of Facebook, but it is more powerful for visual messaging than Facebook,” he said. “It’s all about sharing images from many different sources with a community. It’s more focused on the conversations sparked by those images, on the controversy around them.”
Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” said Instagram was expressly designed to make images quick and easy to share.
“Instagram is a much more intimate place than Facebook and Twitter,” Mr. Eyal said. “People on Instagram have a more targeted list of people they follow. It’s a tight network of people who share images with each other.”
Within Instagram, users often share one another’s posts, a process known as “regramming,” or copy and post images they have spotted from other social media platforms. That makes it difficult to entirely eliminate an image from the site, or guarantee that once it is eliminated from one person’s account, it does not resurface somewhere else on the service.
The images created by the Russian accounts were designed to draw both interest and anger on divisive issues. In one image, a father and son hold guns, and the text asks whether all fathers wouldn’t choose to protect their families, given the chance. In another, a young child, presumably a Syrian refugee, holds a jagged knife. The text around his head suggests that Americans are being killed for “political correctness.”
In comments below the images, thousands weighed in on whether the United States should allow refugees from Syria to enter the United States. Mr. Albright said it was a typical example of how Instagram had become more than just a site for sharing images — and had become a hub for debate.
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