Instagram apparently handled searches for popular hashtags related to the two presidential candidates differently, pointing Joe Biden search queries toward often negative related hashtags while making no such suggestions in corresponding searches pertaining to President Trump.
A new report by the Tech Transparency Project details the strange platform behavior. In the report, the tech watchdog compared searches for 20 popular hashtags related to the Trump and Biden campaigns and found that related hashtag suggestions were disabled for the Trump-related searches, including #donaldtrump, #trump, #draintheswamp and #trump2020.
For searches of corresponding Biden hashtags like #Biden, #biden2020, #joementum and #teambiden, Instagram suggested a number of related hashtags in a list that was obviously algorithmically generated. While those related suggestions were a mixed bag, they included many hashtags critical of the Biden campaign, like #sleepyjoe, #neverbiden and even adjacent conspiratorial hashtags like #covid19isahoax and #georgesorosisevil.
“This isn’t about politics,” Instagram’s comms team wrote in a combative reply to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac on Twitter. Instagram also accused the reporter of cherry-picking examples to fit a “sensational narrative.”
Instagram’s team downplayed the uneven handling of candidate’s searches, arguing that the same issue affected a number of other far less consequential hashtags, including #menshair and #gumdisease. Instagram has now disabled the related hashtag suggestions feature across the board.
Trump’s status as the current president could begin to explain the difference in treatment, but the related hashtags were even turned off for the Trump campaign slogan #draintheswamp as well as #fucktrump. The feature was also toggled off for a handful of other political figure hashtags, including #obama, #tedcruz and #jaredkushner.
While it’s not evident that the discrepancy was intentional on behalf of Instagram, this particular Trump-friendly search quirk cuts against the narrative that major social media sites are biased against Republicans — an unfounded refrain regularly undermined by the lopsided success of right-leaning content on social platforms. And as we’ve seen time and time again, a company’s intentions have little to do with the unintended consequences of the algorithmic suggestions that make their products so sticky to begin with.