When my girlfriend caught me looking at a picture of a naked woman covered with only a skateboard and the words "TAXATION IS THEFT," I had a good excuse: I was just scrolling through my Instagram's Explore tab. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Instagram (correctly) thought I might be interested in such a photo: I can't stop clicking on the glut of conspiracy theory-related images that permeate a dark corner of the app.
Chances are, you clicked on this article from one of your social media feeds. The practice of typing a homepage address into the URL bar is dying, and 60 percent of Americans now get their news from social media sites. Facebook is the juggernaut here, far and away the biggest source of traffic. The quintessential Facebook news post is something designed to be shared, whether a positive, Upworthy-type story, or an outrage-baiting partisan blog post on a fly-by-night political site. On Twitter, where all 300 million active users seem to at least moonlight as media critics, insider accounts of the day's top news thrive. Snapchat, meanwhile, has partnered with publications, allowing them to share millennial-centric stories in its Discover section. Of the major social networks, only Instagram lacks a real value proposition for news organizations (though that may be changing soon).
A big reason Instagram stands out is the insular nature of the app. Whereas one can easily click from Twitter to an article on a news site, head back to Twitter, and share that article, Instagram doesn't allow for hyperlinking, except in your bio and to other Instagram accounts and hashtags. This means the social network can't really drive any meaningful traffic, outside of paid ads. (Instagram is currently testing out a function that lets users post links in the new Stories feature, but this is currently limited to verified users, and hasn't yet affected the way ordinary people use the app.) You can't even copy text in the app. Without being able to link to outside sources, citing information on Instagram is a difficult task that no one really bothers with.
This lack of accountability and context has been the status quo for the app for a while, as evidenced in everything from the "
" in which Hillary Clinton promised she would "Create 10.4 million jobs" and Donald Trump will "Lose almost 3.5 million jobs," to this truther account posting a meme about " you find out it's legal to use aborted fetal cells for flavoring." Instagram is built for easily digestible information, not fact-checking. It even lacks a top comment feature, so one user's informative reply is quickly covered up by another user's comment that, "." Disinformation that would quickly be debunked on other networks thrives on Instagram, especially since it hasn't been worth mainstream media organizations' effort to devote significant time or money to the platform until recently. (Remember, Instagram has traditionally sent very few people to websites, compared to Facebook or Twitter, and minimal traffic means minimal ad revenue). Consequently, many passionate people fill this news void by posting pictures that don't necessarily adhere to conventional definitions of truth. In short: conspiracy theory memes, like the aforementioned naked skateboarder with the anti-tax screed.
I first discovered conspiracy Instagram through the "Explore" feature, where users can find photos and videos that are similar to those posted by the people they already follow, often from friends of friends. Explore is designed to make spending hours researching the lives of acquaintances' acquaintances seem like a totally normal thing to do. Thanks to the election, my tab had become increasingly political, and once Bernie Sanders's campaign was over (and friends stopped the once-omnipresent Bernie memes), the political posts in my feed took a turn toward the fringe.
Over time, Explore learns what you click on, and uses this to decide what to show you in the future. It's also endless (limited only by the number of photos posted to Instagram by all users), and consequently resembles the world of conspiracy theories: an inexhaustible source of new-but-related information that builds upon what you've previously been shown. I quickly found myself down the rabbit hole: Fringe-left politics led me toward political conspiracy memes, which were in turn only a quick jump away from "skeptical third world child" image macros about Zika being a conspiracy and "inside job" starter packs (note the "demolition squids" and "termite cut beams"). If there are two things I can't not click on, it's conspiracy theories and niche memes; consequently, my Instagram was soon dominated by grainy images of Rothschild bankers and the World Trade Center.
In general, images shared by any one truther wouldn't be out of place on any other truther account (and if you follow multiple accounts, you'll notice that they often share the same memes.) Spend enough time browsing, though, and a few distinct varieties emerge. To name a few, there are people concerned with GMOs and chemtrails, who believe environmental changes are intentionally created by big business, for profits, and by the government, which uses global warming as an excuse to pass new regulations. There are anti-Semitic conspiracists who slap the Star of David on images of politicians and post gross caricatures like "The Simpsteins" ("Dohy Vey!!!!"). There's also all the people with Anonymous mask avatars who post lots of screenshots from RT, Russia's English-language propaganda site. Sometimes I wonder if these accounts are being run by a Russian troll farm, but then I worry that maybe I've spent a bit too long on conspiracy theory Instagram.
What all these accounts seem to have in common is a belief that we're being lied to. In many cases they're right, or at least not completely wrong. Sometimes their posts address very real problems—environmental degradation, unfair drug laws, economic inequality—that mainstream politicians too often ignore. Other times—like when they suggest deserts were actually caused by ancient mining—their posts are baffling, offensive, or just obviously false.
Sometimes I wonder if these accounts are being run by a Russian troll farm, but then I worry that maybe I've spent a bit too long on conspiracy theory Instagram.
Curious about their motivation, I sent direct messages to several accounts. Most ignored my request for an interview, but one, @connecting_consciousness, was willing to talk. The account, which boasts nearly 50,000 followers, is run by Shayne, a 21-year-old Canadian who says his goal is simply "raising awareness about the problems and solutions we all face."
The account is an environmentally-focused one, but ultimately he describes all of the things he posts about—chemtrails, GMOs, the global banking system, vaccines—as part of one interconnected conspiracy. It's slightly complicated to explain, as these things tend to be, but essentially @connecting_consciousness believes the "Rothschilds and Rockefellers own every central bank in every NATO country," and they have done so since 1913, when the US government signed over all power to the Federal Reserve (which is neither federal nor has any reserves and is actually a private incorporated business owned by the 13 families who own the media that you'll be potentially posting this on)." How chemtrails play into this is that, "weather has an impact on every single global financial market, so there's a lot of money you can make by having an edge on the weather," according to him.
Consequently, Shayne doesn't place himself on the left-right political spectrum. "Since 1913 [when the Federal Reserve Act passed] every election has been a complete and utter fraud," he says. "Rothschild and Rockefeller are president and vice president every single year." This echoed what I'd noticed on other conspiracy accounts, a tendency to reject the political system and see voting as part of the grand scam.
Might this online rejection of the political system have a real-world outcome? I asked Kevin Munger, an NYU politics Ph.D. candidate who researches how social media interactions affect behavior, for his thoughts. He told me that while studies relating social media exposure to political participation have had mixed results, "I do think that memes were genuinely politically important among young people this election cycle." Of course, these conspiracy theory memes are only a small part of the larger political meme phenomenon, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. With millions of followers combined, these accounts could feasibly influence huge numbers of young people to believe in falsehoods and lies, and to stay disengaged from the real politics that affect their lives.
In recent months, much has been made about the power that dubious right-wing Facebook pages have over the American electorate. Many critics have even argued that Donald Trump owes his victory to the power of fake news on Facebook. If Facebook played a role in convincing older Americans to vote Trump, Instagram—which Facebook owns—may very well have convinced some people not to vote at all. After all, Instagram is especially popular amongst young people, the demographic that's hardest to get to the polls. Following an election in which roughly 40 percent of adults didn't vote, and in which crucial swing states were won by only tens of thousands of votes, I can't help but wonder if these accounts played a role, however minor.
What's clear is that social media has allowed the angry and disaffected—whether legitimate political activists, conspiracy theorists, or ethno-nationalists—to find each other, spread their message, and bypass the gatekeepers of mainstream media in a way that was previously unimaginable outside of Reddit and 4Chan. While guessing how the app and its uses will evolve in the future is a fool's errand, the current protocols and functionality of Instagram have turned the platform into the perfect breeding ground for these types of internet users.
Consider, for example, that these Instagram accounts and Donald Trump both frequently warn of "globalism," a term that the Anti-Defamation League describes as a "dog-whistle" for attracting anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. As Ian Bremmer, president of global risk assessment firm the Eurasia Group told the New York Times, "Through this new technology, people are now empowered to express their grievances and to follow people they see as echoing their grievances. If it wasn't for social media, I don't see Trump winning."
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