Chris Stokel-Walker, The Independent
Cristiano Ronaldo and Selena Gomez
For those waking up and scrolling through a repetitive feed of lockdown sourdough starters, quarantine craft projects and kids scribbling their latest artwork, the news that a quarter of Brits aged between 18 and 24 used the Instagram as a main source of coronavirus news in April may come as a shock. The social media platform is now poised to overtake Twitter as a primary news source.
At first the finding, part of a broader report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, seems rather unusual. Instagram is the ship that launched a thousand Z-list celebrities – the queen of whom, Kylie Jenner, is alleged to have overinflated the value of her digital presence. Instagram is where you to find out where the Love Island stars partied at the weekend, or to ogle at your favourite yoga influencer’s picture-perfect life.
But as with many elements of social media, the way we use apps, and the type of content we encounter on them, is stratified. Personalised algorithms pick out content tailored to our demands. The sheer scale of these platforms – Instagram now has more than a billion users – means that there is a small country’s worth of accounts for every personal interest.
In the popular imagination, Instagram is still a lifestyle destination – and that type of content still dominates the platform. The list of users with the most followers reads like a particularly glitzy Hollywood party: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande, Dwayne Johnson, Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez round out the top five. The few journalism accounts that come anywhere near a critical mass on (National Geographic, 12th in the rankings with 138 million followers, and Vogue, 138th with 27.4 million fans) are there because of the stunning photography they post on the platform rather than the hard-hitting journalism they produce.
However, just because older millennials use Instagram for comparing lockdown loaves and, in the pre-coronavirus era, holiday snaps, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a politically-engaged undercurrent looking to be informed on the app.
Rather than the assumption that news is being watered down for the Instagram audience, smart journalism is happening on platform – and, more importantly, it’s reaching users where they want to engage with content, rather than sticking with business models that have shown themselves to be unsuitable to new audiences for almost two decades.
You only need look at AJ+ (469,000 followers) or NowThis (2.4 million followers) to see how good journalism on Instagram works. You won’t, as you might expect, find stories about bin collections or court cases. And the news is generally liberal, focused on issues of justice, telling stories about ordinary people rather than politicians and those in power. The short videos and images are caption-heavy, and content is often culled from video taken from social media by other users.
But that doesn’t mean these stories are of lesser value. They communicate complicated issues in 30 second bites, in an easy to understand format. Wade into the comments section of the posts, and you’ll find nuanced debates between users about issues of civil and social justice.
That’s just the efforts made by major news organisations to move into this new world of reporting online. Delve deeper and you’ll find numerous independent news accounts run by young users, meticulously covering the world as they see it.
The way news is reported on Instagram is shaping the next generation – the way they think about society, and the type of news they feel is important.
It’s too easy and simplistic to dismiss Instagram as a vapid place, home to preening teens seeking likes and vain influencers desperate to secure their next freebie in return for a “honest” (as long as it’s positive) review.
Now this new research is exposing how it is also plays host to a conscientious and dedicated young audience concerned about the world, and keen to do something about it. The question is, who will choose to serve them there?