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Instagram – which tuned ten years old this week – is the most influential app when it comes to lifestyle and beauty trends. It has surpassed stalwart magazines and even digitally-native fashion sites as the key place for consumers to discover new products – whether it be buzzy skincare products or the newest luxury handbags and footwear. As The Atlantic put it in April 2019, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform is basically “the new mall,” a testament not only to its sweeping reach, but also its consumption-specific endeavors, such as its “Shopping” capabilities. 

With its estimated one billion active users around the world, Instagram has firmly cemented its status at the go-to place for brands to run ad campaigns and drive product discovery, and for consumers to curate their lifestyles for their followers to see, and to simultaneously – and often inadvertently – identify their next purchases (thanks to their friends, influencers, and native advertising by brands). At the same time, recent research shows that an increasing number of people are also going to Instagram for another reason: to consume news. 

A report by the Reuters Institute found the use of Instagram for news has doubled across all age groups since 2018. In fact, it is now set to overtake Twitter as a news source in the coming year, with younger people in particular embracing Instagram for their news. The same report revealed that Instagram reaches 11 percent of people of all ages for news, based on survey results for 12 countries. But the embrace of the platform for news is particularly pronounced for young people. For example, in April, 24 percent of 18-24 year-olds in the United Kingdom used Instagram to find out about COVID-19. This compares with 26 percent in the United States. 

In a separate poll, a 2020 Australian study of school students found 49 percent of teenagers surveyed got their news from Instagram, where users can receive news stories and updates by following another user and then seeing what they post by scrolling through their feed. Alternatively, users can search via hashtags. 

Instagram for news?

So, why are young people choosing Instagram – a platform best known for lifestyle-centric photo sharing – for news? Well, those under about 35 have grown up with mobile and social media as the norm. So, it follows they interact with news and current events in a radically different way from previous generations, or even news consumers a decade ago. Recent research suggests young people think that rather than going to dedicated sources for their news – like a newspaper or daily TV program – the news will come to them. And ultimately, important information does often “finds them” anyway, through their general media use, peers and social connections.

Another key difference between older news consumers and Instagram-using ones is that younger people are “prosumers.” Not only do they read the news, they can actually produce it and join in what is trending. Sometimes, this may simply take the form of sharing a post with extra commentary and opinion. At other times, users might take an image or video and edit it in order to make and share a meme that relates to the content.

Influencers & order in a chaotic world

Beyond the natural tendency of digitally-connected consumers looking to social media for their news consumption, the rise of Instagram-as-news-source makes sense for other reasons, as well. For one thing, amid global chaos and uncertainty, Instagram offers up the world as a stable, structured, and highly stylized. It is less chaotic than other social media platforms because of the actual interface design. That is, the focus is almost purely on aesthetics – on the beauty and impact of the image using filters and tools. This type of media consumption soothes instead of provoking anxiety. In some senses, it simplifies and streamlines the chaos of the world. Instagram’s ability to simplify and “organize” the world resonates with another finding of the Reuters report: Instagram has become even more important with younger groups for accessing news about COVID-19. 

Still yet, Instagram is home to “influencers” – high-profile users who are considered to be style and opinion leaders. While they can influence the products we buy, or the places we travel to, they can also influence the information we consume. This becomes even more important in times of crisis. It is comforting to seek out narratives or perspectives from people we know and trust. 

In the case of news media, Instagram gives young people what feels like a direct and personal line to their role models. In this respect, so does Twitter, but again, the interface of Instagram is simpler. On Instagram, what might be complex and confusing issues are condensed down to images. Recent research also suggests Instagram users prefer “lighter” and “less-demanding” types of interaction with online news. 

What does this mean for news consumption?

The implications of the move towards “Insta-news” are complex. One concern is the way people can curate their own reality, because they can shape their feed so they only see what they want. They can unfollow or block what they do not like. In some senses, this can sense of control is positive. However, this also means people are essentially constructing what they want the world to look like. This leads to “filter bubbles,” where people become “cut off” from other, perhaps more challenging, ideas. 

There is also the danger of fake followers, fake accounts, and fake news, which are already well-known in the social media space. Last year, Institut Polytechnique de Paris researchers found 4,000 fake accounts in a targeted sample on Instagram. Before that, the New York Times published a damning exposè that shed light on rate at which politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and television personalities have taken to buying fake social media followers to boost the credibility of their online – and off-line – profiles.

Yet, for young people seeking solace from the hostility and pressure of news events, Instagram provides a space filled with good-looking visual stimulation, often from people they like and trust. And as the Reuters report noted – Instagram may not be everything. Social media are generally used “in combination” with other types of news information. But as increasing numbers of people turn to Instagram for their news, the question remains: is this the news they need, or simply the news they want to see?

Dr. Laura Glitsos is a Lecturer in Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. (Intro courtesy of TFL)