The Reductive Pseudoscience of Instagraphic Slide Shows

Beware the ‘Facebookification of Instagram.’ 

By Alex Dew

Unless you live under a rock or you’re one of those “above social media” snobs, you’ve probably seen them, and you may have even shared them: complex information distilled into a few “slides,” or graphics with bullet-point information contained on them. The content can be anything from tips for avoiding Covid-19 to explaining the nature of ableist language. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with these slides; they can be an efficient way to share basic information, a way of aggregating and organizing dense content into concise, easily digestible byte-size pieces. And this type of infographic is appropriate for certain topics: simple “lifehacks” like how to save time cleaning or how to present yourself professionally. It is undoubtedly a creative use of Instagram’s ten-image carousel option, traditionally reserved for pictures from a trip or baby gender reveals. But the form fails when it is applied complex subjects with gray areas or those that require citations, and it can be easily taken advantage of by fake-news spreaders.

The success of this “PowerPoint activism” is surprising, considering the fact that viewers have to click continuously through the carousel to continue reading. The avatar of the social media user is a lazy reader who wants easy consumable information with the least amount of effort required, and a slideshow that asks them to keep clicking doesn’t seem like it would hold any appeal. “Anyone who works in web or digital product design will tell you that the carousel is one of the least successful formats to share information since users rarely go onto the next slide,” said Eric Hu, a New York graphic designer who has done work for brands like Nike, in an interview with Vox. Further, Instagram’s algorithm favors images over text, placing them higher up in personal feeds and under the “Explore” tab. According to Hu, Instagram’s algorithm “actively fights against” the success of infographics. 

“The target audience for most of these slideshows appears to be “sympathetic but overwhelmed white people who would like to be told, in the most seamlessly optimized way, how to properly process the current moment.”

So why are these slide-shows going viral? Many seem to believe it’s the unprecedented particulars of the moment that have driven many to educate themselves on topics like race and socialism. As the New Republic put it, the target audience for most of these slideshows appears to be “sympathetic but overwhelmed white people who would like to be told, in the most seamlessly optimized way, how to properly process the current moment.” And the slideshows seem to share some design elements that help to create a “unique stylistic uniformity” that many believe has led to their success. Hu told Vox that the slideshows that tend to go viral are usually “heavily over-designed, featuring whimsical, colorful, or even ‘grotesque’ typefaces and illustrations.” It is both content and style that drives their virality, the New Republic observes: “[W]ithin thin the walls of the tile grid, where aesthetic cohesion reigns supreme and users have become acclimated to the ever-present filters and the easy ubiquity of the content, everything snaps into place as if it were ordained by a higher power.” 

These PowerPoint style slideshows were popularized by organizations like Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter, but the design elements are derived from brands like Glossier, Buffy, and Casper, as Vox reports. And many brands from Nike to the NBA have even started sharing these “guides” themselves. Social justice is trendy, and brands want in, which superficially may not be problematic, but their use is hard to reconcile with the anti-capitalist positions of the leaders of many of the organizations that popularized the form, like Black Lives Matter.

Now,  individuals are creating slideshows at a higher rate than ever before, according to the Washington Post, indicating a shift that media reporter Mark Stenberg called the “Facebookification of Instagram.” “We are the living in the era of the Instagraphic,” the New Republic writes. Jess, a former Bernie Sanders organizer, created @soyouwanttotalkaboutit, an Instagram account with 1.3 million followers dedicated solely to posts about topics like medical racism and the psychology of Trump voters. Jess’ posts are less than problematic than most Instagram slideshows; hers are relatively extensive, containing ten or so slides with a few paragraphs on each slide, and she provides her sources. Reading posts on @soyouwanttotalkaboutit is almost like reading a full-length article; their length allows for explication of gray areas and nuances. 

But most slide infographics are much shorter than those on @soyouwanttotalktoaboutit and many oversimplify complex, nuanced topics into the glossy, reductionist rhetoric of a commercial ad in a misguided effort to speak Millennial. Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist, recently made her own Instagram slide show to explain the risks of the form. One of her slides reads, “Graphics like this can be a helpful teaching tool, but some of the ‘racial justice explainer’ posts that go viral grossly oversimplify complex ideas in harmful or misleading ways or flat-out misstate facts. [They] are not attributed to any transparent person, people, or organization who can be held accountable for errors and draw on the work of scholars and activists who go uncredited.” Ewing is correct in pointing out the lack of attribution; many of these slideshows do not cite the sources of their information simply because there is not enough room on an infographic to do so. Omitting sources not only allows for misinformation, but also for intellectual theft from the original authors. Ewing, who had never created a slide show before, was able to easily create one on Canva using one of its most popular templates, illustrating the fact that anyone with internet access can create a professional-looking Instagram slideshow. 

Our brains like concision, but the very nature of distilling complex concepts depends largely on the perspective of the person doing the distilling, even though these posts present themselves as “thoroughly non-ideological product[s].” In order to take a topic like, say, racist microaggressions, on which numerous books have been written, and present it as an infographic, the post’s author must choose which aspects of it are most important. In believing everything we read that is contained in a shiny, neat slideshow, we are putting complete faith in the information aggregator without assessing whether they have earned it. Some things are sure to be lost in the transformation, and yet we trust those in charge of the process to identify what information is valuable when they are often completely unvetted.

Also, Instagram is uniquely positioned to be taken advantage of by groups like anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, who are using the slideshow format to share dangerous misinformation. Facebook has increasingly made efforts to crack down on fake news, but Instagram has been slower to do so, even though it is owned by Facebook. In March, Instagram announced that it would adjust its moderation standards to be in line with Facebook’s, but only after months of backlash. Further, it is more difficult for algorithms to identify misinformation when it is contained in an image rather than text, making the task more difficult for Instagram than for Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, a lot of slideshow posts represent a type of performative social justice that we must be wary of  mistaking for real activism. Referencing his belief that Breonna Taylor’s death has “devolved into a meme,” Instagram creator @disintegration.loops warned that they could be used to “commodify tragedy and obfuscate revolutionary messages.” While many people can intellectually admit that merely sharing social justice posts does not constitute activism, the very existence of these slideshows can lead to what writer Alex V. Green calls the “having conversations industrial complex,” in which “what should be the first step toward achieving justice is instead stretched out into an infinite loop in which the perpetuation of this cycle becomes its own end goal.” 

As someone who taught college composition and rhetoric for a couple of years, always including a “Fake News Day” on which I taught students how to spot fake news, I have long fancied myself a savvy consumer of media. Whenever I read an article on social media, I take note of the source, look for citations, and Google the author. But I often find myself taking off my skeptic’s hat on Instagram, considering it a traditionally apolitical space free from fake news. I have eaten up these slideshows skipping the analysis I would do for an article, and I think many people are the same way. Considering the ubiquity of these slideshows, their reductionism, and their potential for misuse, we can no longer regard Instagram as a platform free from misinformation, and we must consume every post on it with the same skepticism as we would an article found on Facebook. 

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