The growing criticism over Instagram’s algorithm bias

Are certain social media accounts being targeted by Instagram's algorithm? Faiza Amin reports on why some critics say the current system is rigged.

By Faiza Amin

UPDATE: After CityNews contacted Instagram and following the publication of this story, Sarah Taylor’s Instagram account has been reinstated as of April 15.

A Facebook company spokesperson provided the following statement:

“We want our policies to be inclusive and reflect all identities, and we are constantly iterating to see how we can improve. We remove content that violates our policies, and we train artificial intelligence to proactively find potential violations. This technology is not trained to remove content based on a person’s size, it is trained to look for violating elements – such as visible genitalia or text containing hate speech. The technology is not perfect and sometimes makes mistakes, as it did in this case – we apologize for any harm caused.” 

What started out as an exciting Instagram post about a pregnancy announcement for one Toronto woman, ended with her account being deactivated due to what she fears is a biased algorithm that is facing increased scrutiny.

Sarah Taylor, a plus-size model and personal trainer, posted a photo of three running shoes beside a onesie and her baby’s sonogram. Soon after, she said she received an alert from Instagram, telling her that there was suspicious activity on her account and would therefore need to go through a verification process to authenticate her page. Despite doing so, she was told her account was being disabled for 24 hours.

“My page was gone, there was nothing there and it looked like I didn’t exist,” said Taylor. “I wasn’t given a reason, I had never had any community violations. To be shutdown with no warning at all and no previous faults against my account, made no sense at all.”

The soon-to-be mom lost over 8,000 followers, over 90 per cent of whom were women. She depends on her social media page for her livelihood, keeping her Toronto business – a fitness studio that was forced to shut down during the pandemic – running virtually.

After taking numerous steps to get her page back and following up with the social media app to appeal the removal of her account, she was told via email that her account was deactivated due to community guidelines being violated. An allegation she disputes.

“I had no hate speech, no bullying, I am not nude on my photos and mostly in fitness gear,” said Taylor. “All of my posts are all about empowering women, it’s my life’s work to help women advocate for themselves.”

More than two weeks later, Taylor still doesn’t know why her account was deactivated, adding that she is unaware of whether or not she was reported by someone else and if Instagram investigated prior to removing her page.

“The fact that no one got back to me with details is really disheartening as an influencer, as a business owner, and somebody who owns a small business and is trying to survive during COVID,” Taylor said. “I want them to give me actual reasons as to why it was shut down in the first place because there was no cause for it. I want to see change in the long run in algorithms. Stop filtering different groups if they aren’t the typical beauty standard.”

CityNews reached out to Instagram last week to ask why Taylor’s account was removed but a response has not yet been provided.

The algorithm dilemma

Taylor took to her other Instagram page to bring attention to her experiences and found that her story was just one of many that highlighted issues surrounding Instagram’s algorithm, a set of computerized rules and instructions used by the social media site.

“I discovered there were a couple other accounts that I know off who talk about very similar topics as me that have been shut down, or have had community violations, and have been shadow banned,” said Taylor. “There are so many other things that have happened when it comes to silencing the voices who are in marginalized bodies.”

For years now, a community of social media users have criticized Instagram’s algorithms for being biased towards plus-size account holders, and especially those from racialized communities.

Yuan Stevens, Policy Lead on Technology, Cybersecurity & Democracy at Ryerson University, said a computer’s system rule, in this case algorithms, can discriminate against persons.

One of the issues identified by Stevens is that algorithms are assumed to be neutral and math-based, but the technology isn’t impartial, and it’s made with “biases of their creators”. The biases built into algorithms and automated technology are also reflective of their databases and can therefore favour people who hold similar values as the creators.

Stevens said that has significant implications for plus-sized people on social media.

“I’m not surprised that plus-sized models could be targeted on social media apps like Instagram,” she said. “We know that automated decision making algorithms like face recognition technologies can be extremely inaccurate.”

Just recently, over 50 content creators who are plus-size signed up to participate in the ‘Don’t Delete My Body’ project, calling on Instagram to ‘stop censoring fat bodies’ and that Queer and BIPOC account holders are targeted at higher rates. The influencers, who are from diverse backgrounds, posted photos with the caption “Why does Instagram censor my body but not thin bodies?”

“There’s a bot in the algorithm and it measures the amount of clothing to skin ratio and if there’s anything above 60 per cent, it’s considered sexually explicit,” said Kayla Logan, one of the creators of the project. “So if you’re fat and you’re in a bathing suit, compared to your thin counterpart, that’s going to be sexually explicit. It’s inherently fat phobic and discriminatory towards fat people.”

Logan, who is a body positive and mental health content creator, adds that this issue has persisted for years. That’s why dozens participated in the project, taking photos of themselves in swimwear, lingerie, and some posed semi-nude while covering parts of their bodies. Logan said the photos taken for this project, are similar to what Instagram has allowed other account holders to post without penalty.

“Instagram is doing everything they possibly can to silence you. They will delete posts, they will flag your stories and remove them,” Logan said. “Everyone shared their experience of censorship, especially on Instagram. It’s not an isolated incident being fat and being silenced on Instagram or losing your platform.”

Logan describes herself as a body-positive fat liberation activist who has posted photos in lingerie posing next to iconic places around the world. These algorithms have also impacted her account, locking her out without any notice numerous times for posting content that’s similar to non plus-sized accounts.

“I’m all about showing your body in very artistic, beautiful, non sexualized ways. But on Instagram, fat bodies are considered sexualized.”

Logan, claims she’s also been shadow-banned for years now, which is the practice of restricting content and limiting an account’s reach where photos and videos don’t appear on the explorer page. For social media users who depend on these apps for business, that may mean losing customers and opportunities. Logan also adds that her story views have decreased by half and her branded content feature was removed, which impacts her ability to do business with companies.

“I did have that confirmed by one of the largest companies in Canada, when their IT department looked into it for me,” said Logan. “A company wanted to put money in to a sponsored post we were doing and I didn’t have that feature. I felt really embarrassed and ashamed and I had to tell them that I believe I’m shadow-banned.”

“It’s like this hush thing in the community where us plus-size influencers talk about it a lot but Instagram denies that it exists,” Logan added.

Both Taylor and Logan have said that contacting Instagram has been one of the biggest challenges, and there’s been a lack of transparency and accountability, especially when they’re accused of violating community rules and their content is repeatedly removed.

“There’s no human entity to speak with so we’re shouting into this void,” said Logan. “They’re losing their community and their livelihood, and even they can’t get a hold of Instagram. These are people that have half-a-million viewership and they can’t have this conversation with Instagram.”

“Start hiring people to actually look at things,” Taylor added. “If I submit an appeal to my account, someone should be looking at it and give me an actual answer rather than just a link with no details. It’s unfair and something has to change. That’s my hope in speaking up.”

Criticism over Instagram’s algorithms started long before Taylor’s account was removed.

Last June, when the world saw mass protests, highlighting the death of Black people by police officers and calling on governments and institutions to address systemic racism, the head of Instagram made a post standing in solidarity with the Black community.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri wrote then that the company will be doing a better job at serving underrepresented groups on four areas, including addressing algorithmic bias.

CityNews reached out to Facebook, which owns Instagram, to ask about the issue of algorithm biases, shadow-banning, and how the company investigates flagged accounts prior to removing them. A response has not been yet been provided.

“This is a greater conversation, it’s not just about you shutting my business page with no reason,” Taylor said. “I’m wondering if it’s a bigger conversation about censorship. If that’s the case, I will continue to be loud because that’s not okay.”

The algorithm debate

Algorithms used by social media sites have sparked big debates on not only censorship, but the responsibility companies have in addressing issues such as online hate, white supremacy, harassment and misogyny.

“It is worse for those who are Black, Indigenous and Asian because they do get targeted even more and that’s not okay,” Taylor said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Stevens said technology works in favour of some people and against others because of its bias and potential for discrimination, adding that Instagram’s algorithms aren’t perfect.

“Automated decision making technology is important because it speeds up human decision making processes and allows decisions to be made at a significant scale,” she explained. “Whereas Facebook is removing content, historically it would have relied on a person to make that decisions, automation would speed that process up and allow content to be removed at an incredible scale and speed.”

Stevens is part of a team at Ryerson Labs, looking at face recognition technology and how algorithms work. She cites the work of Shoshana Zuboff, a scholar and leader in the field of “surveillance capitalism,” saying algorithms play a role for social media companies who are collecting data.

“These companies are in the business of understanding how we think and work and nudging us in certain directions, and that’s really significant,” said Stevens. “We expect to know how technology works but algorithmic technology sometimes, it teaches itself because we feed it data.”

Stevens and her team are hoping to highlight the work of Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist and digital activist who founded the Algorithmic Justice League, focusing on creating equitable and accountable technology.

As explained by Stevens, the organization has identified how face recognition algorithms, which are being used by social media companies, can often be inaccurate. Recently AGL analyzed 189 face algorithms submitted by developers around the world and found concerning results.

“What they found was that the algorithms were 10 to 100 times more likely to inaccurately identify a photograph of a Black or East Asian person compared to a white person,” said Stevens. “What this means is that if you are in a data base and you are being chosen for something or if they wanted to remove content or for some reason target you in some way, the chances of you being misidentified are so much greater if you’re East Asian or Black.”

Stevens adds that there needs to be more research in Canada that looks at the use of algorithms and how decisions are made, not only on social media, but also when it comes to policing.

Most of the research cited comes from the U.S., where there have been instances of people being wrongly accused of committing a crime as police services have also been known to use facial recognition technology.

“There needs to be solutions,” argued Stevens. “Social media companies are increasingly using algorithms and AI to make decisions. Our work uncovered that in 2020 Facebook’s Community Standards Enforcement report demonstrated that they’re continuously expanding their use of algorithms to make content removal decisions.”

Attention has also turned to Canada’s privacy laws when it comes to facial recognition technology. Stevens said it’s important that our government’s laws advance to prevent what she calls “wrongful takedowns” and instead, require social media companies to be more transparent about how they make their decisions.

“People should understand how decisions are made. Right now companies aren’t required to make these decisions transparent,” Stevens said. “It’s incredibly important that companies are required by the Canadian government to be open about how they decide how content is removed. Right now, we don’t have that transparency.”

Unfairly targeted 

Not having access to her account has resulted in a loss of business for Taylor, who was crowned Miss Plus Canada 2014.

Since the pandemic closed down her physical gym, she’s moved her operations online and Instagram has become a key component to growing her community.

The expectant mother also depends on social media as she works with big brands like Nike, Lululemon and Penningtons. She’s created a community with people from all around the world, which is why she’s hoping Instagram will give her her page back.

“It wasn’t just a page, it was a community,” she said. “To lose that makes me really sad, and it’s also disheartening that it happened after announcing my pregnancy. I’ve definitely lost opportunities. It’s basically slowed to a halt.”

Logan, who has nearly 38,000 followers on Instagram, adds that she and others who have been unfairly targeted by algorithms have had to create backup accounts just in case their pages are removed.

“I don’t know any thin bloggers who have a backup account in case they lose their page,” Logan said. “Almost all of my friends I know, we have backup accounts because we are terrified every single day that our accounts will be gone. So just in case, we have that second platform.”

It’s been said for decades now, that society needs to do a better job of being representative and inclusive of communities who haven’t always had a platform for representation. The same can be said about social media. Centering empowerment of other women who haven’t always seen themselves reflected has been central for both Taylor and Logan.

“I grew up as a big kid, I was a size 12 and I was bullied heavily, not just verbally. I was beat up by the guys in grade school,” Taylor said. “It became my infernal dialogue and I grew up hating myself. It affected all the decisions I made and led me to marry a man who was abusive.”

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