National

Instagram's new automatic filter for political content prompts pushback from some users

Some Instagram users are pushing back against the platform’s new default settings that automatically limit the amount of political posts that appear in their feeds.

"This is not okay," Scott Hechinger, a New York-based civil rights attorney, wrote in a post on X, referring to the new Instagram setting as a "censor."

"Instagram quietly introducing a 'political' content preference and turning on 'limit' by default is insane," another Instagram user posted.

Other social media users have taken it upon themselves to share how to reset the filter on Instagram, encouraging followers to update their settings.

Instagram's decision to limit news and political content on its platform comes during an election year and during a time when social media is the go-to source of information for a large population of Americans. A Pew Research Center study found that more American adults get their news from Instagram than TikTok or X.

What’s going on?

Instagram, which is owned by Meta, first announced in February that it "won't proactively recommend content about politics on recommendation surfaces across Instagram and Threads," which is Meta's take on a competitor to X, formerly Twitter.

“This announcement expands on years of work on how we approach and treat political content based on what people have told us they wanted,” a Meta spokesperson recently told Yahoo News. “Now, people are able to control whether they would like to have these types of posts recommended to them.”

However, the announcement doesn’t seem to have been directly communicated to Instagram users, many of whom are now saying they only recently learned of the new default settings from posts on X and TikTok once they’d already been implemented.

"If you're an Instagram user, you most likely may not know that Meta has a new policy blocking recommended political posts and has made this move a default without warning," one X user wrote in March.

Why is Meta trying to separate itself from politics?

Meta, which also owns Facebook, has had a complicated past with politics and news. In the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook tried to pivot to being "the new town hall," as CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors at the time. Facebook sponsored debates and spaces at national political conventions. Its News Feed — which has since been renamed to just "Feed" — was called "one of the world's most influential, controversial and misunderstood algorithms" by Slate. Adam Mosseri, now the head of Instagram, ran Facebook's News Feed until 2018.

Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been blamed for almost everything from foreign election interference to contributing to the rise in extremism online — prompting Meta to try to pull away entirely from politics. During a conference call after the Capitol riot in January 2021, Zuckerberg said the plan was to "turn down the temperature" on political speech across all of Meta's platforms.

It was against this backdrop that, in July, Mosseri told a reporter from the Verge in a conversation on Threads that neither Instagram nor Threads was intended to be a place for hard news and politics.

“Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads - they have on Instagram as well to some extent - but we're not going to do anything to encourage those verticals,” Mosseri wrote.

Mosseri emphasized that Instagram doesn't "want to proactively amplify political content from accounts you don't follow," in another Threads post.

In its February statement, Instagram explained the political-post filter would be limited to spaces like its personalized feed, known as the “Explore” page; its short-form videos, known as Reels; other in-feed recommendations and any suggested accounts to follow — all of which are elements of Instagram that are personalized to the user depending on who they already follow and what posts they interact with.

Meta said that the new approach would not change how users view content posted by the accounts they choose to follow. Meta added that the company’s definition of “political content” will evolve as global issues evolve — with expert input — and as they continue to engage with the people and communities on their platforms.

"If you follow political accounts on Threads of Instagram, we want to avoid getting between you and their content," Mosseri wrote on Feb. 9. "That said, we also don't want to proactively amplify political content from accounts you don't follow."

Why are Instagram users mad about the setting?

Samira Mohyeddin, a journalist based in Canada, told Yahoo News she found out about the news on X and took it upon herself to share how to change the setting with her 56,000 Instagram followers.

For Mohyeddin, the biggest issue with Instagram’s new political filter is how the massive tech company determines which content qualifies as “political” and should therefore not be viewed by users unless they explicitly seek it out.

“Who decides what is political?” Mohyeddin asked. “That’s what Instagram is gonna decide for me — what is political? That’s really dangerous.”

Instagram defines "political posts" as anything that is "likely to mention governments, elections or social topics that affect a group of people and/or society at large." The definition was still too vague for the likes of some of its users — especially news and political creators, many of whom have migrated to Instagram from X following Elon Musk's acquisition in 2022. Once seen as a legitimate source for news, X is now increasingly viewed as a platform for unverified "fringe conspiracy theories."

Mohyeddin said reporters like herself shouldn’t be censoring certain words they’re worried will be flagged as “political” to report the news and reach an audience.

Even if an Instagram user wants to exclusively use the platform to, as Mohyeddin put it, see “photos of rainbows and flowers,” it shouldn’t be up to the corporation to decide what users should and shouldn’t be able to see.

After all, she said, “anything can be political.”