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An investigation by an advocacy group that monitors the effects of algorithms says that Instagram prioritises images that feature “scantily-clad” men and women. However, Facebook has denied the allegation.
Non-profit AlgorithmWatch, in partnership with the European Data Journalism Network, conducted the investigation.
“An exclusive investigation reveals that Instagram prioritises photos of scantily-clad men and women, shaping the behavior of content creators and the worldview of 140 million Europeans in what remains a blind spot of EU regulations,” the advocacy group said on their website.
Study analyses sample from volunteers
The study analysed 2400 photos that appeared on the feeds of 26 volunteers. Volunteers followed a group of 37 creators from 12 countries who post about food, travel, fitness, fashion, and beauty.
A browser add-on installed by volunteers would regularly and automatically open the Instagram homepage, nothing which posts appeared at the top of newsfeeds. The researchers used a computer program to analyse how many of these photos contained partial nudity.
“If Instagram were not meddling 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,” the study notes.
“And if Instagram personalised 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.”
However, results didn’t show these trends. The researchers noted that their sample is limited in size. But they added that they believe the findings represent how the algorithm generally operates.
Findings: Partially nude photos appear disproportionately on Instagram
The investigation looked at how many times posts with barechested men or women in bikinis/underwear appeared in the feeds. This data was then compared with how many of the total posts by the creators actually included partial nudity.
Researchers found that 17.6% of the posts created by the women creators featured women in underwear or bikinis. Yet, 28.4% of the content encountered on volunteers’ newsfeeds had women in bikinis or underwear.
Meanwhile, male content creators posted bare-chested men in 26.9% of their posts. But 36.9% of posts on the volunteers’ newsfeeds featured bare-chested men.
“Posts that contained pictures of women in undergarment or bikini were 54% more likely to appear in the newsfeed of our volunteers,” the researchers said.
“Posts containing pictures of bare-chested men were 28% more likely to be shown. By contrast, posts showing pictures of food or landscape were about 60% less likely to be shown in the newsfeed.”
AlgorithmWatch worries that this pressures content creators to pose in underwear or swimwear to be successful on the platform. Interviewees echoed these concerns — saying they experienced this pressure when creating Instagram content.
Instagram algorithm patent mentions “state of undress”
So what does Instagram’s patent filing for its algorithm’s image-recognition and scoring say?
The patent notes that the algorithm can extract information from images to calculate the probability that users will engage with it. This includes the probability of specific users as well as all users on the platform.
Instagram’s AI then uses this engagement metric to decide whether a post should appear in followers’ feeds.
The type of information the algorithm can extract from images covers a range of objects. This includes logos from brands, faces, cars, background objects, and more. The algorithm can also detect the gender of people in photos.
The patent also outlines that”in particular embodiments, API 160 may estimate the state of undress of the people”.
This means that Instagram’s algorithm can detect levels of nudity. Therefore, “state of undress” could end up as one of the algorithm’s considerations for engagement.
Facebook denies investigation findings
AlgorithmWatch contacted Facebook with the findings from their investigation. The group says that while Facebook did not answer specific questions about the findings, the company sent a statement in response.
“This research is flawed in a number of ways and shows a misunderstanding of how Instagram works. We rank posts in your feed based on content and accounts you have shown an interest in, not on arbitrary factors like the presence of swimwear,” the company said in its statement to AlgorithmWatch.
Instagram bans full nudity. However, the platform does allow partial nudity.
AlgorithmWatch says that as more volunteers join the study, they will update their findings accordingly.
Feature image: Kate Torline on Unsplash