Far-Right Extremist Groups Are Using Instagram As A Recruiting Ground
Inflammatory far-right rhetoric and racist memes are spreading on Instagram, with experts claiming the platform is not doing enough to take down extremist and offensive content.
(Warning: racist material discussed below)
"The same content is going on Facebook and Instagram, but on Instagram, it's not coming down," Dr Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, told 10 daily.
"Instagram responds when things are reported, but people are not reporting, and Instagram is not working proactively to find it."
Jordan McSwiney, a Sydney PhD researcher who is focused on far-right groups in Australia, said Instagram -- owned by Facebook -- was being used to sway young people into supporting far-right causes, including white nationalism.
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"It’s a means of sharing their ideas and engaging with people who might not have been previously exposed. Part of it is recruitment, part of it is developing a digital presence to show it’s a movement people can join," he told 10 daily.
"They don't use Instagram for organising activities, but it’s about getting racist memes to go viral, getting them in the mainstream."
Rise in anti-Indigenous racism on Instagram
Oboler, a law associate at La Trobe University, monitors racist and far-right content with the OHPI. In a report to be released this week, shared exclusively with 10 daily, the OHPI said Instagram should do more to stamp out racist content, specifically that targeting Indigenous Australians.
Oboler warned there is a growing far-right and racist element on the platform, which researchers were still working to understand.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't more of these hate groups on Instagram, but until recently we haven't been looking at Insta -- and as far as we know, nobody else really is yet either," Oboler said.
Oboler's report illustrates how racist anti-Indigenous memes -- drawing on discriminatory tropes including substance abuse and welfare dependency -- are allowed to proliferate on Instagram.
Racist pages attach mainstream hashtags like #memes, #funny and #tiktok to their offensive posts so they show up in search results when someone scrolls through those hashtags or searches for those terms.
Oboler's report said positive hashtags like #ProudAboriginal are often "polluted" with racist memes using that hashtag.
While hashtags such as #holocaustmemes are currently blocked, the near-identical #holocaustmemesy is permitted, as is #nazimemes, #hitlermemes and many other anti-semitic or racist phrases.
10 daily understands Instagram makes hashtags unsearchable if they are consistently abused.
"We have clear rules against hate speech and do not allow content that attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, or their sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability," an Instagram spokesperson told 10 daily.
"We take this extremely seriously and will remove content that violates these policies as soon as we become aware of it."
Not a small problem
A 2019 eSafety Commission report found one in seven Australians said they had been the target of online hate speech in the last 12 months. Facebook was the most cited, with 58 percent saying they had encountered hate speech there, with Instagram third at 14 percent.
Only 30 percent said they officially reported such content to the platform, however, with 21 percent saying they didn't know what to do.
"This research shows some Australian internet users -- such as those identifying as LGBTQI or as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander — are more than twice as likely to be targeted by online hate speech," eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.
"Platforms such as Instagram have a duty to enforce their own guidelines against content that seeks to attack or vilify anyone based on their race or ethnicity. We believe they can always do more in addressing harmful content such as racism and extremism online, especially to limit exposure of young people to such content."
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The eSafety Commission is working with social media platforms to make reporting tools easier to use.
Instagram's global community team has employees around the world and operates 24/7, both responding to complaints and proactively searching for inappropriate content.
McSwiney said the far-right's "meme culture" -- propagated through message boards like 8chan -- adapted easily to Instagram's visual platform.
McSwiney said some members of Australia's alt-right community migrated to Instagram after being suspended from Facebook around 2017, amid crackdowns on racist content.
Both McSwiney and Oboler said Instagram's moderation techniques are not as effective as Facebook, despite tech companies rallying under 'the Christchurch call' -- following the New Zealand mosque massacre -- to better stamp out racism online.
"They said they're going to crack down but it hasn't really worked. It’s helped disrupt the big players on the networks, they reduced their reach and pushed to some other platforms. But some members in the far-right movements still have profiles with 100,000 followers," McSwiney said.
Where to next?
Oboler and McSwiney said Instagram should look to employ more content moderators well-versed in extremist terminology and memes, to find posts which may use coded messages to share racist content.
"Far-right meme culture evolves quickly, and Instagram has a hard time staying on top of that... it's like playing whack-a-mole," McSwiney said.
On anti-Indigenous racism specifically, Oboler said social media networks should employ local specialists to track specific racist slang from each country.
"This uniquely Australian kind of racism is less likely to be tackled proactively by online platforms and the risk of complaints being wrongly dismissed is increased," Oboler said.
More broadly, he said civil society groups like the Online Hate Prevention Institute were working hard to monitor extremism online, but did so with little funding. The OHPI is currently running an online fundraiser on Facebook, to support its latest campaign.
"The in-depth research and monitoring is best done by civil society, not government. We're part of the public discourse and debate, we're presenting a counter-position to hate," Oboler said.