Sara Melotti
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“It’s not right that we’re doing this”: inside the Instagram mafia

Photographer Sara Melotti reveals the reality behind the numbers. 

At the Tegallalang rice terraces in Bali, Sara Melotti had an epiphany. The 29-year-old blogger and photographer was visiting the Indonesian island with a group of Instagrammers – that is, people who are famous or make their living on the picture-sharing site. The tranquil terraces are surrounded by layers of lush green foliage, making them a popular spot for tourists and social media users alike. “Bali is what changed everything because that's when I realised: what are we doing?” says Sara. “Like what the fuck are we doing with our lives?”

It was Sara’s fellow Instagrammers who inspired this epiphany. After arriving at Tegallalang and taking their photos, the group immediately turned to leave. “It was like wha... why should we go?” explains Sara. “It’s a beautiful place, we just got here, let’s enjoy it. And that was the first trigger.”

Sara is talking about her slow disillusionment with the social network Instagram. It may be no surprise that many of the app’s most famous users set up the perfect shot without really interacting with the surrounding scenery. Around the world there are many “IG spots”, where Instagrammers go to take photos that will automatically garner likes. Yet just over a month ago, Sara wrote a blog post exposing an even darker side to the app: the “Instagram mafia”.

“That’s what I call it… it’s not the technical name,” says Sara, who learnt about the “mafia” from an Instagrammer who she does not wish to name. She met the man in Bali, a few weeks after he had created a new Instagram account. “He already had like 20,000 followers and his picture had 9,000 likes,” says Sara, who has nearly 33,000 followers. “So I was like, are you buying your likes and followers? He said he wasn’t, and then he explained to me all about the Instagram mafia.

“When he explained about that, when I got to know that existed – something broke in me.”

In 2016, Instagram’s algorithm changed. Previously, the app would show you the posts of people you followed in chronological order, but an algorithm-driven feed was introduced to pick and choose photographs. Instagram claimed its homepage would be “ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most”, but Instagrammers quickly figured out the algorithm’s driving force. Pictures that gained the most likes and comments soon after being posted were the ones that most users saw.

Sara – and many other Instagrammers – felt this was unfair. The change meant many photos were lost in the ether, and it gave an immediate advantage to users who were already popular on the site. Instagrammers had and have a variety of tricks to get noticed on the app (posting at certain types of the day, going to certain places, selecting a theme for their photographs) but Sara says that after the algorithm change things started to get “dirty”.

“It is just absurd to me that a person spends his life on an app trying to trick an algorithm,” she says.

In response to the algorithm change, Instagrammers took to WhatsApp and Facebook chat to form what are known as “comment pods” (this originally took place on Instagram’s messaging service but users began to fear the site would clamp down on the groups). Inside a comment pod, hundreds of Instagrammers agree to post their pictures at the same time – in New York city, the most popular hour is 2pm. Once the picture is live, the Instagrammers link to it in their pod, whose members then like and comment on each other’s photos, garnering them hundreds of thousands of likes.

“To me it's just absurd that this is even happening… how did we get here?” says Sara. “[It’s] a status thing, so if you like have more comments, you look cooler, you look like people care about you more. It’s all about ego.”

Yet, as Sara goes on to explain, it is also about much, much more than just ego. Over the last few years, influential Instagrammers have made thousands of pounds via posts on the site. These social media influencers are paid by brands to feature products on their Instagram accounts, and the money offered largely depends on an influencer’s number of followers, likes, and comments. According to talent agents, Instagrammers with a million followers can get £3,000 for a single post.

“If you are willing to just advertise for anything then you can make a lot of money,” says Sara, who says she is “picky” and only features products she actually likes on her account.

Yet before her epiphany, Sara did use comment pods. “At the time it didn’t seem wrong, it was just time-consuming,” she says. After a while, she became exhausted by the hours spent liking and commenting on other people’s photos. “I was just doing these comments and I was thinking like this is taking time away from my life that I want to live. This is not right that we're doing this.”

Another tool that Sara used – Instagress – has now been shut down after a “request” by Instagram. Instagress was a paid-for bot site that allowed Instagrammers to automatically follow and comment others’ posts without having to do so manually. “From day one I felt torn about doing this but it was the promise that if you have a ton of followers then life will be easier,” says Sara, explaining she thought it would help her get photography and advertising jobs. “With that promise in mind I was like ‘oh it's okay to do it for now and I will reach this amount and I will stop’ but then it just went on and on and on.”

Despite this hiccup, Sara comes across as an exceptionally moral person. She quit her job as a fashion photographer in New York because she felt guilty about perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards. Then, to remedy this, she started the project Quest for Beauty, a photo series of women from around the world that aims to illustrate “what beauty really is”. Before her life-changing trip to Bali, she spent a month and a half in India interviewing victims of acid attacks. When asked why she exposed herself and other Instagrammers by coming clean about the dodgy dealings on the site, her answer is simple.

“I just had to, my soul was crying for me to do it.”

Many Instagrammers are currently less than happy with Sara (“I definitely lost a few friends,” she says), while those who casually use the app are thrilled that she exposed the “bullshit” on the site. Like the modelling photos she used to shoot, Sara feels Instagram photos can give people unrealistic expectations.

“Where are we headed to? We're so surrounded by all this fakeness. The pictures we post don't portray reality. They portray a dream that doesn’t really exist… My pictures have to be looked at as paintings, they’re not real life, they’re artistic.”

A tiny little warning symbol features in Sara Melotti’s latest Instagram post. With her back to the camera, she stares out at the calm waters of Omo River, Ethiopia. Her face is hidden, but her short denim dungarees and large straw hat are in sharp focus. “This pic does not reflect reality,” she ends her caption of the dream-like photo. “I took it after a long morning in the excruciating heat.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University
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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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