Undress or fail: Instagram’s algorithm strong-arms users into showing skin – EDJ News

Sarah is a food entrepreneur in a large European city (the name was changed). The company she created helps women feel at ease with their food intake and advocates “intuitive eating”. Like many small-business owners, Sarah relies on social media to attract clients. Instagram, Europe’s second-largest social network after Facebook, is a marketing channel she could not do without, she said.

But on Instagram, which is heavily oriented towards photos and videos, she felt that her pictures did not reach many of her 53,000 followers unless she posed in swimwear. Indeed, four of her seven most-liked posts of the last few months showed her in a bikini. Ely Killeuse, a book author with 132,000 followers on Instagram who agreed to speak on the record, said that “almost all” of her most liked pictures showed her in underwear or bathing suits.

It could be the case that their audiences massively prefer to see Sarah and Ely in bathing suits. But since early 2016, Instagram arranges the pictures in a user’s newsfeed so that the photos a user “cares about most will appear towards the top of the feed”. If the other pictures Sarah and Ely post are less popular, it could be that they are not shown to their followers as much.

Which photos are shown and which are not is not just a matter of taste. Entrepreneurs who rely on Instagram to acquire clients must adopt the norms the service encourages to reach their followers. Even if these norms do not reflect the values they built their businesses on, or those of their core audience and clients.

2,400 photos analyzed

To understand what pictures Instagram prioritized, the European Data Journalism Network and AlgorithmWatch asked 26 volunteers to install a browser add-on and follow a selection of professional content creators. We selected 37 professionals from 12 countries (14 of them men) who use Instagram to advertise brands or to acquire new clients for their businesses, mostly in the food, travel, fitness, fashion or beauty sectors. 

The add-on automatically opens the Instagram homepage at regular intervals and notes which posts appear on top of the volunteers’ newsfeeds, providing an overview of what the platforms considers most relevant to each volunteer.

If Instagram were not mingling with the algorithm, the diversity of posts in the newsfeed of users should match the diversity of the posts by the content creators they follow. And if Instagram personalized the newsfeed of each user according to their personal tastes, the diversity of posts in their newsfeeds should be skewed in a different way for each user. This is not what we found.

Between February and May, 1,737 posts published by the content creators we monitor, containing 2,400 photos, were analyzed. Of these posts, 362, or 21%, were recognized by a computer program as containing pictures showing women in bikinis or underwear, or bare chested men. In the newsfeeds of our volunteers, however, posts with such pictures made up 30% of all posts shown from the same accounts (some posts were shown more than once).

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Text & Image Source: EDJNet – The European Data Journalism Network, distribute under CC BY 4.0 International licence.

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