Why you should care about Instagram restricting the political content you see

The social media platform has automatically limited political news on all profiles. This impacts young people’s ability to engage in informed dialogue

A wall graffiti featuring a person with their mouth taped metaphoric for the lack of free speech
A wall graffiti featuring a person with their mouth taped metaphoric for the lack of free speech

The social media platform has automatically limited political news on all profiles. This impacts young people’s ability to engage in informed dialogue

By Darshita Goyal26 Mar 2024

You know when you’re on a terrifying rollercoaster and it’s hard to keep your eyes open, because if you can’t see how high up you are, the danger almost doesn’t exist? Well, that’s basically what Instagram is trying to do with its audience, except there are real-world consequences like democracy, social justice and equality at stake here. Let us break it down: the Meta-owned social media platform has automatically limited political content on all its Instagram and Threads accounts in the hopes to make it a “great experience for everyone”.

In case you choose to keep this feature turned on – or hadn’t realised any change had taken place – no political information will show up on your feed, Reels, Explore page or suggested users, unless you already follow a news account. Meta’s definition of ‘political content’ is also vast and vague: any content that “is likely to mention governments, elections or social topics that affect a group of people and/or society at large” is dubbed political. While the company announced this update in a minor blog post on February 9, most Instagram users only discovered this over the past week as outcry over the feature took social media by storm.

Critics are rightly wary that restricting political dialogue in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and election year for the world’s largest democracies (such as India, US and within Europe) could have deeply damaging consequences. Meta’s remit of political content will likely impact minority communities the hardest. As make-up artist and culture critic Matt Bernstein asked in a post, “are trans bodies more political than cis ones? Are Palestinians political? Who makes these decisions? Who benefits and who faces the consequences?”

A Human Rights Watch report from December 2023 also stated that Meta’s content moderation policies have “silenced voices in support of Palestine” on Instagram and Facebook. This has been widely felt across the platforms as creators experienced shadowbans for sharing information about the sufferings and genocide in Gaza. Social media is an undeniably essential platform for people to raise their voice against abuse and injustice, and to call out systems misusing their power.

By challenging this, Instagram threatens to erase the documentation and awareness of widespread subjugation on a global scale. But this move – although controversial – aligns with Meta’s goals; on an earnings call in January 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our platforms”. His statement seems to be more about protecting the company’s interests than focusing on consumer demands. In the last few years, Meta has been criticised for amplifying misinformation and hate speech while shadowbanning the suffering and demands of marginalised communities.

Back in January 2021, following the US Capitol attack, the platform was severely disparaged for its lack of content moderation. Instead of finding a way to facilitate unhateful, free speech that moves away from algorithmic bias, the company is choosing to censor all political content in an attempt to dust its hands off any responsibility. This lack of dialogue will directly impact the way young people consume information; according to Ofcom’s 2023 report, 71 per cent of UK-based 18 to 24-year-olds consume their news through social media.

In fact, Instagram’s update announcement is a real-time example of what a news-obfuscated future holds. Although the company’s political limitation feature was covered by global press including Washington Post and Mashable, the news only reached young people when it was delivered through social media. Many Gen Z and Millennials don’t follow news outlets online, they rely on stumbling upon information and on creators making memes that package news into easily digestible content slices.

But as per Instagram’s new update, even non-political accounts that share political messaging, are likely to be limited. This will surely discourage creators from spreading relevant information about social justice and politics. Although the response to the update has been largely negative, some people were relieved that they no longer have to be exposed to endless streams of “heavy” or “bad” news.

At first glance this may sound fair – big chunks of such content are often stressful and bleak.However this risks eliminating healthy, political conversation, which is essential for running conscious, just and informed democratic governments. It’s also noteworthy that Instagram didn’t ask its users if they wanted to opt out of receiving political news. The company opted you out automatically, and now gives you the chance to opt into news if you feel like it. Surely, this should be the other way around? Some vulnerable segments of the population may require a limited exposure to politics but for vast majorities this access is a constitutional right.

If you want to undo Instagram’s update and opt in to receive political content on the platform, here’s how you can:

  1. Click on the three bars at the top right corner of your profile
  2. Then click on settings and scroll down to ‘suggested content’
  3. Here you’ll see a political content option, click on that and switch from “limit political content from the people you don’t follow” to “don’t limit political content from the people you don’t follow
  4. Now you can get back to being informed and engaged x