A Tale of Three Cities: Part I – Instagram as Pandemic Archive

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Image: Huffington Post

In a new three-part series for our blog, UC Berkeley undergraduate and MGP contributor Jezell Lee reflects on a personal experience of quarantine caught between the gravitational pull of the United States, Germany, and Taiwan, heavily mediated through social media and the particularity of each locale. In the first installment, Jezell thinks through the role of Instagram as an archive of the pandemic experience, anchored in her hometown of Los Angeles, California.

Introduction

Like any start to a new year, the initial hours of a young 2020 were saturated with positive potential, resolution and optimism, as countdowns commenced and clocks struck midnight to hopeful crowds around the world. Social media, on a global scale, was an explosion of picturesque fireworks and encouraging messages spread with wide-eyed hope, from which I was not exempt. January 2020 was a month of excitement for my first solo trip to my mother’s city of Taipei and quiet yearning for February, when I was slated to leave my hometown of Los Angeles for my long anticipated study abroad semester in Berlin.

But as COVID-19 took the world by storm, halting possibilities of international travel and ultimately cancelling my study abroad program in early March, I was faced with the choice of either withdrawing from the university for a semester and retreating back to Los Angeles in bitter disappointment for the rest of the spring semester and the upcoming summer, or staying in Berlin to complete the semester online. So I stayed. As the world shifted its focus to the online digital space, channels of information and news were forged out of this delicate time of minimized physical contact and social distancing.

Zooming forward to the year’s end, social media, especially Instagram and Telegram, depicts a vastly different picture of ordinary life than the one envisioned by January 2020, one fraught with social tension and an avalanche of information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the viral vaccine’s state of affairs. But what exactly is special about how news travels on social media, Instagram and Telegram in particular? How does it become searchable as an “infodemic” archive, and how does information travel transculturally and translinguistically?

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES

Instagram as a Multilingual Pandemic Archive

The year of the novel coronavirus was also the year of “viral” news proliferation via Instagram, and as the world entered various stages of government-imposed lockdowns, more and more people turned their attention to the online world in a time when the outside world was rendered inaccessible to them. Instagram alone saw a sharp 22.9% increase in users, as well as surges in screen time and overall digital media consumption. While this allowed for increased accessibility and visibility of necessary news and information in unprecedented ways, social media platforms such as Instagram were also used to usher in a new era of what could be rationalized as the social media “infodemic,” in conjunction with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many users susceptible to rumors and misinformation.

Instagram makes it very easy to share and swipe through information and posts that have already been published. Individual users can simply tap the icon in the shape of a paper airplane underneath a posted picture, adjacent to the heart and speech bubble icons meant to represent likes and comments, respectively. This allows users to share the post to their entire following by posting it onto their story, where it can be seen for 24 hours before it is automatically archived, or send the post to other friends and users privately, where it would reside in their private messages and theoretically provoke conversations surrounding the posted material. Accounts with large followings of over one million, such as @impact, @soyouwanttotalkabout, @shityoushouldcareabout, and @feminist, based around the themes of popular activism and sociopolitical awareness, became the dealers of social change in taking up the responsibility of starting conversations and using their large Instagram platforms to quickly reach millions of people.

However, it is worthy to note that these accounts, though seemingly bolstered by their massive followings, are not without their skeptics. Following the 1,200+ comment threads of a swipe-through carousel post with 75,000+ likes about the vaccine by @impact, users have left comments such as “inform yourself with the cdc not instagram, smh” and anti-vaxxers have pushed against the very idea of the vaccine by claiming “there is no point in getting it in the first place.” Why are so many people apt to trust information and news posted or circulated by these large accounts on Instagram? Why are they not turning to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), World Health Organization (WHO) or their own medical doctors for information? Does this actually dissuade people from getting the vaccine?

To first understand how information is presented across different communities and social media circles, I browsed the following archives of relevant hashtags surrounding the coronavirus and its vaccines in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, in line with the three cities I was in over the course of 2020 and their respective languages, of which I am fortunate enough to be able to read and understand. I began with English, the language of my Angeleno roots:

United States (English): 

#covid19vaccine→ 45.2k posts

#covidvaccine → 349k 

#vaccine → 560k 

#pfizer → 227k 

#astrazeneca →111k

#moderna → 976k

#antivax → 108k

#covid_19 → 22.4m

Posts that tend to circulate through English speaking digital spaces, particularly amongst people in the 13-17 and 18-24 year old age ranges, tend to focus more on listicle type “how to’s” as well as an appeal to individual responsibility and ethics, urging people to get tested and not gather in large groups, mostly likely in response to those who deny the existence or extent of the novel coronavirus’ severity and continue to live their lives in a state of pre-pandemic normalcy. Though these infographic type posts are benign in nature, they attest to the easy frivolity that masks the prolific spread of such information in an aesthetic format at the swipe of a thumb. The presentation of these posts underlies the idea that swiping through visually digestible information instead of reading full-length articles or reports is potentially becoming more commonplace within certain demographics, and it calls into question the validity of interacting with aesthetically condensed but serious information in a manner that seems cursory and frivolous, akin to mindlessly swiping through profiles on Tinder.

How Information Spreads on Instagram

In order to further understand the spread of visual information on Instagram, I borrow the term “Instagramism” from Dr. Lev Manovich, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). Instagramism is essentially an allusion to other modern art movements such as cubism, futurism and surrealism. Much like these earlier –isms, Instagramism offers its own vision of the world and visually aesthetic language. But unlike modernist art movements, Instagramism is created and sustained by its millions of users connected and participating in its own network as well as those of other social media platforms.

As a platform used by artists and visual creatives, Instagram fosters the ideal environment for generating its aesthetic in the form of the modern day infographic as part of its appeal. This in turn contributes to Manovich’s concept of the “aesthetic worker” and the rise of the “aesthetic society” that produces beautiful content, allowing social media tribes of mutuals (people of a similar niche who follow each other and interact frequently on social media) to share and sustain themselves through similar aesthetic choices that elevate social and lifestyle functions in a distinctive, visually appealing form, such as the Instagram infographic.

Instagram also takes into account of its users’ preferences and attitudes, and its ever changing algorithms mediate and encourage the promotion of content in accordance to what they “think” each individual user wants to see. Feed rankings and sorting are powered by machine learning (ML), which is essentially constantly adapting to new patterns in data, taking into account of user-to-user interaction relationships, timeliness of posts, frequency of use, following numbers, and overall Instagram session time. This can facilitate the viral information spread at unprecedented speeds and causes the shift away from traditional news sources while implementing new social perceptions and influencing public debate and policy making, proliferating particularly fast amongst Gen Z users, as older demographics may turn to other news sources outside of Instagram for information.

A simple Google search with the keyword “infographic” or “how to make an infographic” spawns over 263 million results in the span of just half a second. The barrier to entry to creating such content is presumably extremely low for those with intention, internet connection and an Instagram account. With the rise of the infographic as a supposedly infallible news source amongst younger populations, important information can be cherrypicked to elicit a specific emotional response or present an easy truth in a visually digestible format for many. The way the most popular infographic posts on Instagram are dressed up suggests that the information presented stems from verified data that is taken from a credible source and can therefore be taken to be “real” guidance.

The overall form and visual aesthetic of such posts contribute to their welcome reception and easy shareability within specific social media tribes (as indicated by Manovich), but also detracts from the unclarity that should arise from questioning their source and the credentials of those who compiled it. The urge to share information (or potential misinformation) by way of deliberately designed Instagram infographics manifests in the modern day “viral” infodemic, a disease of our time that disavows critical reading and analysis, by grounding itself on the idea that news nowadays has to be presented in an easily digestible manner in order to appeal to a younger audience with the vague desire to be more educated on certain topics without doing the actual research themselves. Now more than ever, digital media has allowed for information to be shared almost instantaneously and arguably thoughtlessly by and to anyone with an internet connection, a stark contrast to the past days of radio, television, paper, and unedited word of mouth. 


At a quick glance: The writer is a freshman at UCLA. The designer is a student at MassArt. The information displayed here does not truly “explain” what is happening, nor does it cover the scope of its topic. The intention is not to denounce the fresh young voices of the future, but to implore individuals to search beyond Instagram for news.

This is also not to say that any and all posts created by individuals with micro and macro level followings are necessarily without their sources entirely. In times of high skepticism and general public distrust, the push to “prove” the credibility of the author as well as the validity of the information being handled has led more infographic creators to cite the sources they consult.

In a recent COVID-19 vaccine update carousel post (a type of post that allows Instagram users to easily swipe through up to ten slides of images) created and uploaded by @shityoushouldcareabout, the New York Times is cited as the one and only source for the information compiled and shared to a following of 2.8 million, without mentioning the actual NYT article itself. Though the credibility of the New York Times as an established news source is undoubtedly unquestioned, information on the vaccines should really be examined from the companies that produce them and the commission, namely, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that oversees their authorization for clinical use for the public. A quiet perusal of the comment section reveals the questions of those who are skeptical about the vaccines’ varying efficacies, turning to unknown strangers on Instagram for answers.

These worried ruminations about the vaccines, their “surprising speed” at which they were produced, and their emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA can be comfortably palliated by reading the information publicly available on the FDA website, which goes in depth to outline various scenarios, reasons for and the potential processes of obtaining an EUA. But instead, the easy accessibility of throwing one’s questions into the digital media void at the rapid, frivolous tap of thumbs, paired with the desire to have a barrage of available information distilled and simplified, culminates in the proliferation of younger users who increasingly turn to social media platforms such as Instagram to ingest readily available information by way of eye-catching visuals and font family choices. As Instagram provides direct access to an ever-growing abundance of digital content, its significance lies in the notion that the information spread is capable of strongly influencing human behavior and has the potential to alter the overall effectiveness of any measures put in place by governments, by amplifying rumors and any questionable information. 

How Misinformation Spreads on Instagram

The gradual shift from the traditional news paradigm deeply impacts the construct of social perception as well as the framing of narratives, as social media users have the tendency to obtain information adhering to their worldviews and ignore dissenting opinions, resulting in the formation of highly polarized circles centered around agreed upon common narratives. Higher levels of polarization in social groups may be more prone to experiencing higher levels of circulated misinformation. A 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center reports that more than one-third of Americans using Instagram get their news from there, and a 2018 study conducted by MIT’s Media Lab on the spread of false and true news online points out that inaccurate information may actually spread faster and wider than fact-based news.

As discussed earlier, Instagram’s algorithms are always predicting and curating feeds and accounts to show users what they want to see. For instance, if a user is interested in young adult novels and fiction, their feed will be inundated with photos of books and accounts run by authors, reviewers, and publishing houses. However, these algorithms do not always have such innocent mechanisms of action. They also encourage the formation of a dangerously polarizing effect amid the ongoing global health crisis spurred on by the pandemic, given that once a user follows an anti-vaccination account or interacts with content bearing misinformation, many more similar accounts are immediately suggested for the user to follow.

By actively recommending content with misleading information such as the (nonexistent) initiative jointly led by the CDC, WHO, and big pharmaceutical companies to conceal the (also nonexistent) autism-vaccine link, Instagram is directly contributing to the resurgence of the anti-vaxx community, sowing seeds of scientific doubt and potentially damaging and reshaping the public opinion of the younger demographic that uses the platform. As a measure to combat the spread of misinformation, Instagram has made an effort to flag posts with tags such as “Informationen zu Impfstoffen findest du hier: who.int” (You can find information on vaccines at who.int) in order to direct its users toward the correct information resources regarding the coronavirus and its vaccines. 

More recently, Instagram has also made efforts to remove accounts consistently posting misinformation and restricting the use of hashtags such as #VaccinesKill and #VaccinesCauseAutism. Interestingly enough, Instagram still allows the use of the hashtags #AntiVax and #AntiVaxx, though users are prompted to visit the CDC and WHO websites before viewing the hashtagged archive. According to a Huffington Post article written by Jesselyn Cook, Instagram’s rationale for not blocking the hashtags #AntiVax and #AntiVaxx is because “they do not meet a certain threshold of verifiably false vaccine-related information.”

The screenshots above are taken from the aforementioned HuffPost article on Instagram’s nightmarish public search results for vaccines before posts with similar vaccine misinformation were regularly moderated and removed. The article was published in February 2020, at a time when there were whispers of a virus originating from Wuhan abound and the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/Oxford, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were not yet available. Though the usernames of the accounts depicted are purposely blurred out, I went back to search for them via keywords in their bios (the grey text underneath the blurred out usernames on the first screenshot on the far right) on Instagram in April 2021 and discovered that they were no longer available as a result of Instagram moderation as well as the deployment of hashtag and content deranking to clean up misinformation, after Instagram faced public backlash for allowing false information to proliferate.

However, by doing so, Instagram goes against the very essence of traditional archives, in which information is documented, collected, preserved and made available to trace, follow and connect. In this instance, the accounts and misinformation flagged by Cook were taken down and rendered unavailable for later access, contributing to the creation of an online archive that is partially unreadable. The ultimate ephemerality of information on Instagram ensures that no form of content published on the platform can be considered wholly stable and searchable in the long-term, as information can be presented one day and removed in the next, echoing the confusing and ever-changing rules and restrictions that have become a pandemic hallmark in Germany and the United States. 

About Kumars Salehi

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture.
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