22% of millennials and 37% of Gen Z are turning to social media to learn about socio-political issues. But is the rise of Instagram infographics a good thing?
A few months ago, as tensions and violence in the Israel-Palestine region escalated, the Israel Defence Forces shared an infographic in which they gave their perspective on the conflict, responding to a similar infographic from a pro-Palestinian account that has since gained over 350,000 likes.
One might be forgiven for thinking it strange that a nation’s military would feel the need to create such a post in order to try and win back public favour.
Indeed, many argued that there was something quite sinister about the IDF’s use of pastel colours, pretty fonts and playful illustrations when justifying a deadly conflict. Nonetheless, the IDF’s decision proved two things: infographics are everywhere, and they are effective.
The popularity of accounts such as shityoushouldcareabout (3 million followers), Jameela Jamil’s iweigh (1.3 million followers) and The Depression Project (1.5 million followers) shows how the 10-image carousel feature, first introduced to Instagram in 2017, has now been repurposed as a way of informing and educating the masses.
These miniature PowerPoint presentations are an ideal way of distilling complex issues into a concise, colourful and accessible format, and their highly shareable, meme-like formats are revolutionising the way in which we consume news.
According to a study by FutureLearn, almost a quarter of millennials (22%) and nearly two in five Gen-Zs (37%) are turning to social media platforms to self-educate on matters such as the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ rights and the gender pay gap.
It’s not entirely clear when Instagram went from being the land of bottomless brunch selfies to burning social justice issues, but the pandemic has clearly played a vital part.
Matt Navarra, a social media consultant with over 90,000 Twitter followers and 15 years’ experience analysing online trends, says that “people’s online behaviour has changed a lot over Covid. People are spending more time online than ever before.” During lockdown, the average screen time for adults in the UK surged to 45 hours a week. “We live in an attention economy: brands have to find a way to grab our focus,” explains Navarra.
While usage of social media always adapts and evolves according to the tools at our disposal – Reels and IGTV, for example, have moved the focus away from still images – Navarra believes that infographics have accelerated this process for two reasons.
“Firstly, infographics perform incredibly well with Instagram’s algorithm and so it becomes a virtuous circle where engagement drives more engagement.
“Secondly, different government bodies have started to use these sorts of techniques and tactics to share information with the general public, and so we have become used to consuming information in a more visual way.”
The political urgency of the current moment may also explain why infographics play such a crucial role in social media activism, but do they also risk pushing polarisation?
Jess* from So You Want To Talk About, an infographic account with almost 3 million followers, says that “all my posts about Trump were controversial, but one post, The Psychology of Trump Supporters, was widely shared enough to the point that a pro-Republican website felt the need to write a think piece about it”.
“While this actually drove the point of the post home, there’s no doubt that simplifying large or complicated issues can be tricky.”
While both Matt and Jess agreed that these bite-sized snapshots can easily lead to the spread of misinformation, they also stressed that infographics can be used as a way of countering misinformation as long as they use reliable sources.
She says, “Nutrition and health are rife with misinformation. I am constantly seeing posts like 5 Foods To Eat To Boost Your Fertility and other such oversimplifications. We need sources to hold people accountable; it’s very easy for infographics to look legitimate as literally anyone can make them using apps like Canva.”
When designing her posts, Dr Wallace tries to react to common misconceptions that may be circulating on social media; for example, her latest infographic explores the link between Covid vaccines and disturbances to women’s menstrual cycles.
However, she says that she wants them to be a “springboard that links out to a longer article rather than a self-contained snapshot.”
She also said that there are also lots of features users should look out for when judging the reliability of a post: “Users should check if the posts cite sources or references, and look carefully at who’s posting. Are they qualified in their field? Is this an original infographic, or are they re-posting from somewhere else? I would also say avoid language that is very absolute or extreme; posts that contain more ambiguity and nuance are more likely to be considering both sides of an argument.”
However, being scrupulous with our digital literacy is easier said than done.
Social media gives influence towards those with the largest followers rather than the best credentials, and research shows that “even if the source of the content is unknown, endorsements from others can overcome people’s initial skepticism about that source.”
Furthermore, even if a post does disclose a source, without a direct link many are vague to the point of meaninglessness; for example, a post may cite the New York Times but provide no other context, and given that the New York Times publishes 150 articles a day, this makes it incredibly difficult for a user to fact-check.
It’s also important to remember that motives of brands and influencers may not be genuine; many might be using infographics as part of a ‘wokewashing’ strategy to increase likes and followers off the back of progressive moments.
Others may argue that sharing an infographic is another form of ‘slacktivism’ – a knee-jerk reaction where ‘liking’ a hot-take is easier than engaging in an actual discussion.
It’s also easy to be cynical about the efficacy of social media activism; for example, last summer the hashtag #BoycottBoohoo circulated after an investigation found that the fashion giant’s workers were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour, but despite the campaign gaining traction the company still saw record sales over the last year.
However, isn’t it better that these digital conversations are happening than not at all? Infographics may have their limitations, but they also provide an excellent opportunity for accidental exposure and a chance to learn about social issues or gain a new perspective on a story.
For example, Dean Stott, founder of DLC Anxiety, a virtual community and platform that helps support people living with anxiety and panic disorders, says that infographics can help battle the stigma around mental illness.
Stott believes that “sharing real people’s experiences with symptoms, thoughts and feelings can help people feel less alone. Anxiety can be very isolating and so it’s important to create a safe space on social media where people can share their road to recovery.
All our posts are vetted by a psychotherapist beforehand and we always encourage people to seek the advice of a medical professional rather than self-diagnose.”
Clearly some posts will be made with more sensitivity and better intentions than others, but there’s still the question of whether Instagram could be doing more.
Jess believes that “Instagram seems to be attempting to tackle this issue by adding the fact check feature, but their processes when it comes to reporting posts are quite complicated and don’t generally involve human beings.”
Matt Navarra also agrees that Instagram could include more features to stop the spread of misinformation: “For example, Twitter and Facebook now prompt users to read an article before they retweet or reshare it, and Instagram could introduce something similar to help encourage people to include sources or check their sources, especially if they are posting about a particularly sensitive topic”.
Navarra believes it is a balancing act though: “How far do the platforms need to go? How much is too much? If Instagram requires too many reminders, requests and nudges every time you post something, this might be off-putting and cumbersome and drive down engagement. A prioritisation exercise is needed.”
A spokesperson from Instagram said, “Instagram is committed to reducing the spread of false information,” and that “they are currently working with 80 fact-checkers across the globe to review content. Instagram already makes false information harder to find by reducing their visibility; uses image matching technology to track and identify misleading content; and labels posts with false information warnings which include links to credible sources that debunk the claim(s) made in the post.”
Infographics have clearly created a new intersection between art, politics and social media, and whether you view them as shallow, aestheticised examples of virtue-signalling or brilliant, bitesize drivers of social and behavioural change, it’s clear that, for better or worse, infographics have fundamentally changed the way we use Instagram for good.