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The Politics of Instagram: How the Social Networking App Perpetuates Dangerous Societal Structures

February 12, 2020


Instagram is an immensely popular and widespread social networking app that was created in October 2010; with over one billion monthly active users and over 500 million daily active users, Instagram has proven to be a highly prevalent component of daily life within our current society. According to Instagram’s website, it is a free media sharing app on which people “can upload photos or videos and share them with their followers or with a select group of friends… [and] can also view, comment, and like posts shared by their friends”. Its complex, deliberately crafted structure is interlaced with countless political devices and signals, all manipulating the ways in which we interact with each other and ourselves. The app has become increasingly riddled with hidden politics, especially and most notably since its implementation of a highly calculated timeline algorithm, ordering posts not chronologically but based on other specific traits and characteristics. Given the highly structured, marginalized society in which we live – both specifically in the United States and across the Earth as a whole – we must consider the ways through and the extent to which social platforms like Instagram bolster our pre-existing social structure.


A heavy indicator of the platform’s complex political structure is the verification of public figures and brands through verified badges. A verified badge is a blue checkmark that appears next to a verified account’s name, both in search and on the account profile, that serves to “help people more easily find the public figures, celebrities, and brands they want to follow”. In order to be considered to receive a verified badge, an account must meet a few specific criteria set and outlined by the moderators of the app, and must apply directly through a page linked in the account settings tab. These criteria include: authentic – the account must represent a real person, registered business, or entity, unique – the account must be the single, unique presence of the person or business, complete – the account must be public and have a profile photo and at least one post, and notable – the person, business, or entity must be well-known and highly searched for. The operators of Instagram directly outlining ‘notable’ as one of the main criteria for accounts to be considered for a verified badge in itself assigns the owners and moderators of the platform the power to dictate which individuals and brands should and should not be considered valuable in the public eye. The ability to define what is notable, valuable, and popular in the eye of the consumer is one of the main characteristics of a technology with political workings and implications.


These verified badges further perpetuate an already hierarchical societal structure characterized by the idolization of popular figures based on appearance and economic status. Many of the accounts verified by the moderators of the platform are brands, large companies, and other media outlets such as news networks, as well as widely popular musicians and actors, all who gained recognition and significance prior to and without the aid of the platform. The sudden and swift uprise, however, in ‘influencer’ culture has led to many users making names for themselves as ‘Instagram models’ or ‘Instagram bloggers’ and creating a following as a result of the existence and prevalence of the app. Influencer culture has deep political implications in itself – ascribing a level of authority and expertise to individuals with the largest public followings – and is a significant departure from the message of individuality and self-expression originally instilled by the existence of the app.


I think that a way to significantly shift the culture of our digital society and re-work the political intricacies of the platform would be to further restrict the criteria necessary to receive a verified badge. Narrowing the categories that accounts would need to fit into to be verified could potentially improve the social culture of the app by basing verification less on subjective popularity and ‘value’; in attempting to create a more unified, equitable social landscape on the app, restricting the approval of verified badges solely to companies, brands, and the figureheads of those companies and brands could lead to the decline in the toxic, problematic influencer culture that so widely sets the rules and norms for society; not to suggest that influencer culture should and would, through this model, be eradicated, but it is definitely characterized by many toxic undertones that I believe could be improved through both societal and technological adjustments and modifications.


The success of such a goal is not something that is measurable through objective, hard numbers and statistics alone. First-hand, real world experience within our culture and society would ultimately be the telling factor. We can, however, attempt to grasp a baseline level of the model’s success through engagement with these so-called ‘influencer’ accounts. The authority and relevance of these influencers’ accounts is commonly called into question within the comment section of their posts; Instagram ‘trolls’ – users that post offensive, divisive, or argumentative remarks on other accounts – often leave comments questioning why a ‘random’ person who was not widely known prior to their following on the platform and has not made any relevant or useful contributions to society outside of the platform or worked to aggregate the popularity that they have received has been awarded a verified badge by the moderators of the app, calling into question the false sense of authority that these moderators grant such individuals. Given the suggested model, where individuals [aside from successful business officials and entrepreneurs] are not able to receive verification from the moderators of the app, I would expect a dramatic decrease in these types of disruptive, negative comments, as the role of the app itself in instilling this artificial sense of superiority in these individuals, as well as those that follow or engage with their accounts, would no longer be a relevant grievance. In order to measure and monitor the presence of these comments, moderators of the app could filter through comments and search for any mention of the term verified, as the term itself is typically used within such comments. Moderators of the app could also monitor the tools of measurement made available to business accounts such as impressions [the total number of times a post has been seen], reach [the number of unique accounts that have seen a post], shares, and saves in order to measure the level of engagement with and, in turn, the level of influence of these accounts. In my eyes, a decline specifically in the shares and saves of posts from these accounts may indicate a decrease in their influence on the public, as well as in their perceived level of authority.


Another key indicator of the political workings of the app is the existence of the ‘close friends’ list and corresponding story. With the close friends list, a user can select a specific, reduced subset of their followers with which to share content. Users can tell if they are on another account’s close friends list when that account posts a close friends story, but those not on the account’s close friends list cannot tell that they are not unless they are made aware by another user that the account’s close friends story exists. This concept creates a certain sense of security, and gives the user a more refined outlet with which to share content that they may be hesitant about sharing publicly; it is, to an extent, an officially implemented iteration of a ‘finsta’ – a separate ‘fake’ account catered to a more specific, trusted audience on which a user can post content that they would not share to their public/main account. The close friends list, as well as the ‘finsta’, perpetuate an existing societal desire to categorize content into what is and is not acceptable to share publicly, and allow people to distinguish between users they do and do not deem worthy of viewing their more private, personal moments.


Yet another aspect of the workings of Instagram that exemplifies the deep politics within the app and has continuously been called into question is the blatant difference in the censorship of the male and female bodies. The viral ‘free the nipple’ movement brought to light how the moderators of the app are consistently hypercritical of the naked female body being displayed, taking down any post that displays the female nipple in any capacity, while allowing often highly sexualized images of men wearing very little clothing to remain. This stark contrast in censorship between images of men and women exemplifies and perpetuates the gross cultural norm of hyper-sexualizing and objectifying the female body, an issue that has been at the forefront of cultural protest for a significant period of time. Additionally, it assigns the app’s male users a higher level of agency than its female users, as they have more freedom to share the content that they please and need not worry about the critique or potential removal of their posts. It also reinforces the idea of female sexuality as taboo, and signals to women that their sexual freedom is socially unacceptable, which, in turn, perpetuates the misogynistic concept and practice of ‘slut shaming’ that is so unfortunately abundant within our society.


Instagram, in theory, is a platform on which individuals should feel free to engage in self-expression and experience a unique level of agency over both their public perception and self-perception; due to its inescapable political mechanisms and undertones, however, it has become a greater bolster to the rigid hierarchical structure of our society and has, to an extent, become a burden to the messages of equality, individuality, and self-acceptance that it is often used to disseminate. The company’s role in perpetuating this hierarchical structure is born out of mechanisms such as verification, selective privacy, and selective censorship and represents the potentially problematic level of influence that major technological companies and platforms self-ascribe through their ubiquity. The toxicity of our cultural climate lies heavily in the hands of the owners and operators of such companies and platforms, and might be drastically mitigated through the deconstruction of the rampant political mechanisms incorporated into their products’ designs – a movement toward the neutrality and objectivity of these companies and platforms. While social networking platforms such as Instagram are not the sole creators of societal divide and marginalization, they play an intricate role in reinforcing such structures and hierarchical ideals and in the eyes of many, have driven our social climate to a level of toxicity that may never be purified.


[USC COMM 309, Ananny]

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