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Is Instagram’s Political Content Limitation a Recipe for Silence or Progress?

April 23, 2024

Is Instagram’s Political Content Limitation a Recipe for Silence or Progress?

Ask students: Do you believe Instagram’s decision to limit political content is a step forward or a restriction on free speech? Why?

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Instagram’s recent introduction of a feature limiting political content on its social media platform reflects a broader shift away from actively recommending such content. In a statement, parent company Meta said, “If you decide to follow accounts that post political content, we don’t want to get between you and their posts, but we also don’t want to proactively recommend political content from accounts you don’t follow.”1

Users now must manually adjust their settings to view political posts from accounts they do not follow, aligning with Instagram’s aim to offer a more personalized experience. However, concerns have arisen regarding potential biases and the impact on political discourse.

Defining “Political” Content

Some users initially welcomed the decision to limit political content on the social media platform, seeing its potential for curbing the spread of misleading or divisive content by algorithms and mitigating the risk of users being led into harmful online echo chambers. However, the lack of parameters from Meta quickly raised alarms among other users who questioned both the extent and reasoning behind it, particularly in the lead-up to a presidential election.

“Meta seems unable to define ‘political’ content,” said The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel. “To be fair, it’s a tough ask, especially in an election year because politics is not some neatly confineable element of life—it is intertwined with culture, pop culture, and news about everything from tech to business to health and science.”2

It is also important to note that, according to the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz and Naomi Nix who spoke to Meta about the policy last month, the limitation will apply to “accounts” rather than individual posts.3 Therefore, if content creators frequently share politically oriented content, it is suggested the new update will impose account-level restrictions. So, even sporadic political postings could result in reduced reach for affected accounts.

By defaulting to limiting political content, Instagram can empower users to engage in political discussions willingly.

Battling Social Media Misinformation and Compulsive Content

Experts who favor the update have supported it as a means to reduce algorithmic bias to provide a neutral platform for all users. “Facebook has overhauled how it promotes political and health-related content. With surveys showing users were tired of strife, the platform began favoring posts that users considered worth their time over ones that merely riled them up,” recalled the Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey.4 By defaulting to limiting political content, Instagram can empower users to engage in political discussions willingly.

Other proponents see the update as a tool to combat social media misinformation spread through political content. Prioritizing personal connections over politics is seen as a way to create a more positive environment. Additionally, the update aims to enhance the user experience by decluttering feeds and reducing stress associated with constant exposure to political debates.

The limitation or removal of entire accounts that post political content could potentially exacerbate the issue of echo chambers, where users are exposed only to viewpoints that align with their own.

Harming the First Amendment

Critics’ main objection to the update is that Meta’s definition of “political” content appears overly broad, encompassing a range of topics such as laws, elections, and social issues. 2 This is evidenced in a report by The Markup: “Our investigation found that Instagram heavily demoted nongraphic images of war, deleted captions, and hid comments without notification, suppressed hashtags, and limited users’ ability to appeal moderation decisions.”5 This broad categorization included discussions of LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, COVID-19, and more.

Keith Edwards, a Democratic political strategist and content creator, has suggested that the limitation or removal of entire accounts that post political content could potentially exacerbate the issue of echo chambers, where users are exposed only to viewpoints that align with their own. By restricting certain accounts from sharing political posts, social media platforms risk further isolating users within their ideological bubbles and hindering the discovery of diverse perspectives.

“The whole value-add for social media, for political people, is that you can reach normal people who might not otherwise hear a message that they need to hear, like, abortion is on the ballot in Florida, or voting is happening today,” Edwards told the Washington Post.6

Striking a Balance

While aiming to personalize experiences and combat social media misinformation, concerns linger about stifling dialogue and the broad definition of “political” content. Balancing user preferences, platform integrity, and freedom of expression requires ongoing dialogue and scrutiny. As Instagram refines its approach, stakeholders must monitor its impact on diverse perspectives and democratic engagement. Striking a balance between mitigating harm and preserving rights will shape the future of online discourse.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe Instagram’s decision to limit political content is a step forward or a restriction on free speech? Why?
  2. Think about those who disagree with you. What do you think is the most compelling argument on the other side? Why?
  3. What would you define as “political” content?
  4. Do you believe Instagram’s update will reduce misinformation and divisive content? Why or why not?
  5. How might Instagram’s limitation on political content affect your engagement with the platform?
  6. In your opinion, what could Instagram do differently to address concerns about biased content moderation while still promoting healthy discourse?

Media and Digital Literacy Resources

Foster digital literacy and safety online and explore the algorithmic biases that can cause direct harm to young people online.

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