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How Long Can Instagram Distance Itself From the Facebook Backlash?

The photo-forward platform is the “friendly” social media app—that also happens to be owned by Facebook. Will recent scandals have any effect on Instagram? And can the app avoid the data controversies that have plagued its parent company?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In late March, Facebook backlash hit a fever pitch. After a report that the research firm Cambridge Analytica exploited the social network’s data-sharing policies to pilfer user information for political gain, a grassroots #DeleteFacebook campaign emerged. The movement to abandon the platform was far reaching enough to inspire the participation of both brands and celebrities. Elon Musk complied with his Twitter followers’ suggestions to delete both Tesla and SpaceX’s Facebook pages, agreeing they looked “lame anyway.” The following week, Playboy deleted its Facebook page, explaining that it did not want to be “complicit” in exposing fans to the company’s “alleged mismanagement of users’ data.”

But amid the ever-growing criticism of the tech world’s largest platform, the high-profile companies owned by Facebook have somehow managed, Homer Simpson–style, to quietly back out of the spotlight and into the nearest bush. Chief among the boycott exceptions is Instagram, which many users are too fond of to abandon. One recent Mashable headline read “I will delete Facebook, but you can pry Instagram from my cold, dead hands.” A handful of social media posts that have spread the #DeleteFacebook hashtag have simultaneously declared Instagram as their new go-to social media site. Others have expressed frustration at how difficult it is to completely extricate themselves from the corporation’s many online entities. “I guess Facebook owns Instagram so I’m switching to Pinterest?” wrote Twitter user @adamchhall. “Man, it’s so hard to #DeleteFacebook …” Meanwhile, Playboy’s Instagram feed is still scantily clad and kickin’. When a separate Twitter follower warned Musk to “be aware” that “Instagram is a subsidiary of Facebook,” the entrepreneur appeared to agree, adding that “FB influence is slowly creeping in.” Still, his personal and company accounts remain intact.

Though Musk seems to be aware of Instagram’s corporate structure, it’s possible that most other people are not. A recent Verge survey discovered that 60 percent of respondents didn’t know Facebook owns Instagram, and Google searches containing the question “Does Facebook own Instagram?” reached an all-time high the week the Cambridge Analytica story broke. Comparing the two platforms, you can see why people might not assume they’re connected. Facebook presents as a minefield of circa-2007 “wall posts” and comment threads in which distant friends and relatives reveal themselves to be conspiracy theorists. Instagram, on the other hand, is a relatively simple experience. There are no features that automate nostalgia, no trending topics or sprawling groups—just a stream of carefully edited flat lays, food, and matcha latte foam art. The less cute ephemeral content is relegated to Instagram Stories, which disappear after 24 hours. Text on the platform is minimal compared to Facebook, and comes in the form of intentionally opaque captions and comments. Overall, a relatively low-fi image-centric medium just feels safer.

That sense of security may be the reason Instagram’s user base continues to grow. In September, the platform announced that 800 million people use its service at least once a month, and 500 million open the app every day. At 2.13 billion, Facebook’s monthly average user base dwarfs those numbers. But in its most recent quarterly earnings report, stats show that Facebook’s daily users in the U.S. and Canada declined for the first time, by about 700,000 users. Some cursory research suggests that this trend is indicative of a learned social media savviness among younger generations. “I just think [Instagram is] a nicer place to be,” one 28-year-old blogger recently told USA Today, adding that, on Facebook, “everything feels like an advertisement or an argument.”

Instagram may not be quite as ripe for data harvesting as its parent company, but characterizing it as a benevolent, informationless platform is a false comfort. The company has been in the business of information peddling for quite some time. In 2012, shortly after it was bought by Facebook, CEO Kevin Systrom made his endgame clear to an audience of conference-goers. “Instagram isn’t necessarily a photo company, or a communications company as I like to say, we’re also going to be a big data company,” he said. Today it gathers insights from the profiles, hashtags, likes, geotags, and searches generated by its users. And as BuzzFeed News recently explained, that information is combined with all the data on your Facebook profile to help advertisers deliver highly targeted ads on either platform, or both.

Remaining a loyal Instagrammer doesn’t just undermine the principle of the Facebook boycott, it opens users up to the same invasive data-collection practices Facebook has been employing for years on its flagship platform. (The fact some users who have deleted their Facebook profiles have reported receiving multiple automated pop-up notifications on Instagram urging them to link their account to the mothership suggests that this information-sharing system is very valuable to Facebook’s advertising branch.) And even if users were to delete their Facebook profiles en masse and migrate over to Instagram, there’s plenty of opportunity for the photo-based social network to enhance its data-collection efforts on that platform, too. Over the years, Facebook’s research department has made significant headway in advancing “computer vision,” or a machine’s ability to accurately acquire, process, and analyze data in digital images. The average user is likely to have encountered this kind of technology when tagging a friend in a photo: Facebook’s interface suggests who to select based on the calculations of its impressive artificial intelligence tools. The technology has become only more sophisticated in recent years. In 2015, for instance, the company announced that its recognition filter software could identify someone’s partially obscured face with 98 percent accuracy.

As Facebook’s researchers continue to fine-tune these technologies, they have been slowly but surely massaged into the fabric of the social network. Last year, the company premiered a feature that allows users to search for photos based on content. (An invasive feature that Google Photos is also well known for.) Facebook’s team is also getting much better at parsing out separate objects in an image—a form of analysis researchers predict the company will eventually be able to apply to video as well. If Facebook feels comfortable integrating this technology into its main platform, then it could very easily bring it to Instagram.

Facebook is not the only company that sees value in AI’s ability to analyze images. Earlier this year, Lou Jordano, the chief marketing officer at social media analytics platform Crimson Hexagon, wrote a piece for AdWeek that argued marketers should take advantage of the technology in 2018. “AI and machine learning can help marketers filter through billions of social images to understand their audience in a more personal way,” he wrote. “With the help of AI, marketers can analyze data from brands and objects found in photos on social media to identify how, when, and where their competitors are being sponsored and advertised and monitor their own audience’s interests, conversations, and use of products.” It’s easy to imagine how this technology plays out on a platform like Instagram, where an average of 95 million photos are uploaded a day. Let’s say someone with a large Instagram following shares a photo that includes a certain product or brand but does not mention it in the post. Marketers can use AI to identify whether a logo was captured in the image, then engage with the potential influencer to help promote their name. Or, on a larger scale, a brand might be able to identify Instagram users who have photographed a competitor’s logo, and directly market to them. (Crimson Hexagon declined to comment for this story.) And that’s just commercial analysis. At least one Stanford professor has predicted that AI will eventually be able to predict a person’s sexual orientation, IQ, and political leanings.

There’s no indication that Facebook plans to apply its own advanced image analysis tools to the Instagram feed. In response to the current uproar over its past data-collection practices, the company recently surprised a handful of third-party developers by reducing the amount of data they can access from Instagram’s API per hour. (Instagram did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) But public tolerance for Facebook’s data collection ebbs and flows. And even as Facebook executives work overtime to restore the reputation of the company after this particularly splashy news story, the company’s business model has not changed. Facebook is a massive corporate social network that has built complex systems to harvest and profit off of its users’ data. To borrow a phrasing from Systrom, it’s not a photo company, or a communications company, it’s a big data company. And if a valuable, younger demographic of users is gravitating toward Instagram, it’s not absurd to think that Facebook will find a way to put its many years of AI research to work there, too. Especially if other marketers are already doing it.

More than anything, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has forced a public reckoning with the epic data bacchanal Facebook has had over the past decade. But even amid this historic backlash, the utter pervasiveness of Facebook’s reach and influence has muddled this conversation. As largely unregulated tech companies push forward into the future, one of the next frontiers (and scandals) could very well be slicing up users’ images into separate data points by way of AI, and cross-referencing that information with a user’s profile. When a company’s influence—and ownership—is as powerful as Facebook’s, perturbed users can stray only so far until they’re right back where they started.