If you’ve been on Instagram lately, you’ve probably come across some pretty wild “facts.”
Some of these posts go viral, gaining hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. While some of the content might seem inconsequential, there’s one glaring problem with these posts: Many of their handles include the word “fact,” when they simply aren’t.
Constantly seeing fake facts on Instagram, no matter how innocuous, can numb teens to false information elsewhere.
Fortunately, MediaWise and now Instagram with its new fact-checking partnership are rooting out these accounts and verifying their claims.
This may be a revelation to many U.S. readers — a recent study published by Pew Research Center reported that about half of Americans shared news and information online that they later found out was completely made up and inaccurate.
The MediaWise team at The Poynter Institute and its Teen Fact-Checking Network have vetted dozens of posts by accounts claiming to be the home of all kinds of facts. There are more than 30 pages that post false claims as true when you search the term fact on IG, and often have account names like @fact, @diplyfacts and @facts.trend. Most of these pages are full of suspect, out-of-context or downright false claims and have millions of combined followers.
The lines between fact and fiction online are becoming more and more blurred over time, and these accounts are capitalizing on that trend.
“The quality of our information directly shapes the quality of our decisions. And the quality of our decisions, of course, shapes the quality of our shared experience as humans,” said John Green, a Youtube creator, best-selling author and MediaWise Ambassador in his Crash Course series called Navigating Digital Information, which was produced in partnership with the MediaWise project.
This is an even more direct and significant connection for teenagers because they are still learning how to spot reliable information and sources on the internet. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly nine in 10 teens go online multiple times per day, and some 45% of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly.”
With information directly influencing the way people think and how they trust information online, it’s important to understand the motivation behind these viral accounts.
‘Fact’ pages stack cash while spreading misinformation through memes
These “facts” pages help influencers build massive followings on Instagram and can mean big bucks for advertisers. For example, @Diplyfact’s advertising website highlights the many ways these pages make money.
Faisal Shafique, a 26-year-old cryptocurrency trader based in South Florida, owns @Fact, which is arguably one of the most popular fact pages on Instagram. Though he says he does some basic Googling to determine whether a fact he posts is true, it’s clear from the page’s feed that his fact-checking is surface level at best — and sometimes includes posts that are opinions or emotional content.
For example, on July 20, the page posted the following “fact”: “If the whole world smoked a joint of Marijuana, there would be peace for 3 hours on the entire planet.” This is not a fact.
So what is the motivation behind viral fact pages? Mainly to make money, which page owners mostly do by selling followers or through general e-commerce.
Shafique started @Fact in 2013, and at the outset spent $200 a week buying followers and cross promotion with other viral pages to build his following, he said in an email to MediaWise. Now he’s using the money he’s made off of the page to invest in real estate.
Along with @Fact, Shafique says he runs @Ghetto, @Reactons and @Epic, which command a following of more than 16.8 million. This reach helps him sell advertising for $150 for a single hour of exposure on his pages.
@theoriginalfacts is another Instagram page that seems harmless on its face. Its profile picture is a smiling animal reading and the profile boasts “ONLY LOGICAL TALK,” “UNBELIEVABLE BUT TRUE” AND “UNKNOWN THINGS” next to emojis of two aliens and a clown.
But the bottom of the bio reads, “Need More Cash Flow?” and directs viewers to a website called Cashfloww run by Tai Lopez, a popular Youtuber and “wealth advisor.” But the account never states that it’s an ad — usually demonstrated through the hashtag #ad.
The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines for Instagram brands and influencers that appear to require some form of disclosure when promoting an advertiser or its products. The FTC has sent warning letters — and follow-ups — to influencers such as Vanessa Hudgens, Lindsey Lohan, Akon and Jenni “JWoww” Farley of “Jersey Shore” fame about disclosures.
MediaWise asked the FTC whether or not the @theoriginalfacts account was in violation of endorsement policies. A spokesperson responded: “We cannot comment on whether a disclosure is needed in this particular instance.”
The FTC reviews ads and complaints on a case-by-case basis. In addition, the FTC has only filed charges against social media influencers one time.
As Instagram rolls out fact-checking program, will these pages face scrutiny?
With all of this misinformation on the platform, Instagram recently rolled out a process to fact-check claims made in posts. This process could prevent posts with inaccurate claims from appearing on recommended pages, like Explore and Hashtags.
Instagram says that while these “fact” accounts, specifically @fact and @theoriginalfact, don’t violate Instagram’s policies, their content would be eligible to be screened by this fact-checking initiative. This process allows professional fact-checkers to rate the posts in question, which Instagram says they find through a variety of signals.
Using the tips above and following accounts with consistently accurate information will help to combat false claims — and you can still get your daily dose of interesting facts.
The MediaWise Teen Fact Checking Network is debunking posts from pages like these every day. If you or someone you know is interested in being a teen fact-checker, you can apply using this link. Also, if you see something suspect online, message the MediaWise Instagram or tag MediaWise and use the hashtag #IsThisLegit.
In his Navigating Digital Information CrashCourse series, Green said, “Much attention has rightly been paid to the ways that misinformation and disinformation are shaping our political and social discourse, but they are also shaping us —as individuals and as communities.”
MediaWise is part of the Google News Initiative and is a Google.org funded partnership between The Poynter Institute, the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), the Local Media Association (LMA) and the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). Mediawise aims to teach one million students how to discern fact from fiction online by 2020. Follow @MediaWise on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to see more of our fact-checking work.
MediaWise Senior Multimedia Reporter Alex Mahadevan can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.