TTP Investigation: Instagram’s Selective Hashtag Blocking Favored Trump, Hurt Biden
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 5, 2020
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 revealing unequal treatment of Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Instagram. Until early August, when a user searched for a hashtag on Instagram and clicked on it, the platform recommended “related hashtags” that users may find relevant. But TTP’s investigation found that Instagram disabled the related hashtag feature for key Trump-related terms, while allowing parallel Biden terms to get hijacked by disinformation and smears. After being questioned about the unequal treatment by a reporter, Instagram claimed that the discrepancy was the result of a bug, and would be suspending the related hashtags feature until they can investigate the issue.
Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said, “The platform is the problem. It is increasingly looking like the platform is the bug. It should not be up to users, reporters and watchdogs to constantly police the platform. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the richest men on the planet – this is a choice about allocation of resources.”
On July 16, TTP examined related hashtags for 20 popular terms associated with the Trump and Biden campaigns on Instagram and found starkly different treatment of the two candidates. Instagram blocked the display of related hashtags on all 10 of the Trump hashtags reviewed, including #donaldtrump, #trump and #trump2020. That means users were not directed to other content, including anything negative or critical about the president. But for all 10 similar Biden hashtags, Instagram did display related hashtags, which at times steered users to insults and disinformation about the former vice president, with phrases like #creepyjoebiden, #joebidenpedophile and #joebidenisaracist.
The disabling of the related hashtags appeared to be a selective feature applied only to certain political figures and celebrities. One interesting example is Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager. On June 23, when Parscale was still serving as campaign manager, TTP observed that related hashtags were turned off for #bradparscale. But in another search on July 21, after Parscale’s demotion, TTP found that related hashtags had begun appearing on #bradparscale.
Any differing treatment of Trump and Biden content on Instagram would create a troubling dynamic and raise new questions about the Facebook-owned platform’s role in spreading election disinformation.
Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “Especially with young voters, Instagram is an increasingly vital tool for candidates to get their message across, and hashtags are an important factor in how people discover information. This was yet another failure by Facebook and Instagram to deliver that information responsibly.”
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.