TTP Investigation: Instagram’s Algorithm Fuels Eating Disorder Epidemic
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 8, 2021
Contact: Michael Clauw, email@example.com, 202.780.5750
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), released a report in collaboration with Reset showing that Instagram continues to promote dangerous eating disorder information to vulnerable users including young teenagers, despite promises to remove such content. Researchers found that Instagram recommended accounts full of disturbing images of underweight women to users who showed an interest in getting thin. The platform also made it easy for questionable weight loss “coaches” to contact our test users.
Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said, “With its known negative influence on users’ perceived body image, and its tools enabling and amplifying dangerous behaviors, sadly Instagram is a one-stop shop for the development and pursuit of an eating disorder. The fact that the platform is acutely aware of the effects of this type of content and still fails to invest in the resources necessary to remove it is inexcusable.”
To assess the extent to which Instagram protects users from content that encourages eating disorders, researchers created accounts for a hypothetical 29-year-old and a 14-year-old who showed an interest in getting thin. When the first user started following a verified account popular in the “thinfluencer” community, Instagram’s algorithm recommended a series of pro-ana” (shorthand for anorexia nervosa) accounts—showing how the platform pushes content to users regardless of the dangers.
Another alarming finding: the degree to which Instagram direct messages and unmoderated group chats are used to encourage extreme weight loss. The same test account accepted an invitation to join a group chat called “Supporting starvation,” which featured discussion of schedules and “strategies” for disordered eating. The account also received an unsolicited private message from a weight loss “coach,” who quickly tried to shift the interaction to other platforms such as Snapchat or Telegram, where personal conversations are harder to track.
Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “Similar to past TTP reports, this experiment demonstrates just how dangerous these platforms can be in the hands of unscrupulous individuals preying on vulnerable populations. Over the last few months there has been much abstract discussion about Instagram’s negative effects of the mental health of teen girls, but shocking examples like these may be what it takes for the company’s executives to take the issue seriously. During Instagram chief Adam Mosseri’s Senate testimony today, we hope to hear more concrete solutions and less defense of the indefensible.”
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.