- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Facebook needs to act fast to prevent its Instagram app from being weaponized to spread disinformation during the 2020 U.S. presidential race, a report warned Tuesday.

Published by the New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the report said that Instagram requires the “concerted attention” of its parent company before the image-sharing app plays host to bad actors attempting to interfere in the election.

“Instagram’s image-oriented service makes it an ideal venue for memes, which are photos combined with short, punchy text,” wrote Paul M. Barrett, the center’s deputy director. “Memes, in turn, are a popular vehicle for fake quotes and other disinformation.”

“Instagram, more than its parent, Facebook, will be the vehicle of choice for people who wish to disseminate meme-based disinformation,” his report warned.

Spokespeople for Facebook and Instagram did not immediately answer messages requesting comment.

Launched in 2010, Instagram was purchased by Facebook less than two years later for $1 billion. The image-sharing app’s audience has since swelled to about 1 billion active users, or a little less than half the number who regularly use Facebook’s flagship social network.

Facebook previously acknowledged that both platforms were abused by Russian internet trolls who bought advertisements shown to American users during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and the Department of Justice has since filed related criminal charges against more than a dozen individuals and entities sought responsible.

Yet while discussions surrounding the Russian trolls have largely focused on their activities across Facebook, the Stern Center’s report is hardly the first to raise concerns about the role of Instagram in elections past and future.

A report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee and released late last year found that Instagram outperformed Facebook during the 2016 campaign in terms of generating user engagement, “indicat[ing] its strength as a tool in image-centric memetic warfare.”

“Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis,” the 2018 report found.

More recently, Facebook’s former head of security questioned in an interview released last week if Instagram is ready to avoid being exploited during the 2020 presidential race.

“As you know, the Russian troll factories have professional meme farms. Like they have graphic designers using Illustrator all day to create memes. So, ‘Is Instagram ready?’ is actually a big question,” Alex Stamos said in the interview released last Tuesday.

Facebook has since unveiled new rules for political advertisers across both platforms meant to rein in abuse ahead of 2020.

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