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26 May 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:16am

The trouble with Instagram infographics as political discourse

Infographics are often shallow explorations of issues that need careful critical attention.

By Sarah Manavis

It looked just like any other made-for-Instagram infographic: two cartoon characters with bubblegum-pink text boxes, having a dialogue about a political issue. And like many infographics that have appeared on social media in the past year, its aim was to debunk the common thinking on a well-known topic.

You may have scrolled straight past it. But had you taken a second, you would have noticed a rifle strapped to one of the cartoon’s waists. This wasn’t a cutesy feminist post from a brand or a social media activist, but an infographic made and shared by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

The slideshow – which was posted on 13 May and, at the time of writing, had more than 144K likes and nearly 50K comments – attempted to, according to the caption, “get [the] facts straight” about “what’s going on between Israel and Gaza”. It pushed the message that the IDF has “no desire to harm civilians in Gaza” (despite evidence that nearly every citizen in Gaza has been affected by the airstrikes). Each image displayed a major question about the conflict, with an incredibly brief and uncomplicated answer in response, such as: “Why are there more casualties in Gaza than in Israel?” – “Because we do everything possible to protect our civilians… Hamas is intentionally positioning its civilians in the direct line of fire.”

The post capitalises on a trend for aestheticised activism on Instagram, where multi-image slideshows – largely made up of text – condense complex social issues and world conflicts into hyper-basic bullet points against the backdrop of a pastel background. The style became popular during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, with the sincere aim of educating the public about systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. But it is now used to cover anything from human rights abuses to nebulous, “relatable” topics such as “toxic positivity” or how to respect an introvert’s emotional needs.

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The IDF’s approach to one of the most contentious conficts in geopolitics drew vehement criticism from people with varying stances on the violence in Gaza. There is something sinister about a nation’s military forces creating and promoting a twee, over-simplistic infographic in the midst of a deadly conflict in which the majority of deaths are at the hands of those military forces. But despite the backlash, the IDF clearly realised that utilising this Instagram format worked. It has since produced several other posts, such as “What’s going on in Israel and Gaza?” and “What you need to know about IDF strikes in Gaza”, full of equally simplistic explanations. Such posts are just one example of how easy it is to present one-sided information as an impartial explainer on social media.

The rise of the Instagram infographic has potentially dangerous consequences. Few issues worthy of an explainer can be easily spelled out and understood in the space of just a few slides: these infographics are often shallow explorations of issues that need careful critical attention. Instagram users mindlessly reposting them to their Instagram Stories in an attempt at activism – what some might describe as “virtue signalling” – has become an easy way for infographic creators to gain clout.

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These infographics sometimes contain misinformation – if a creator doesn’t think to double check their data before publishing, or if a user reposts it without investigating the source. They can also present deeply biased information as though a one-sided view on an issue with a lot of grey area is unbiased and clear-cut.

Not all posts of this kind are malicious, and many have raised awareness about important political issues, particularly among younger audiences. But what can be done to prevent the ones that fail to attribute sources, gravely oversimplify complex issues, or spread misinformation?

Unlike other problems on the big social media platforms, this issue can’t be solved by a quick functionality change or more moderation – after all, there aren’t technical problems with the infographics concerned, but factual or ethical ones. Real change would require users to learn to question the arguments they see made in infographics, and for creators to educate themselves on how to convey reliable data accurately.

It’s obvious, though, that these outcomes are unlikely, simply because there are few incentives. In an attention economy, users want to see complex ideas distilled to basic bullet points that are aesthetically pleasing and take the minimum amount of time to mentally process, while creators benefit from gaining likes and followers through oversimplification. It seems inevitable that the more creators (and brands, or even governments) realise how effective these infographics can be, the more they will dominate our feeds.

And as Instagram activism continues to become a mainstream source of political information, we will see an increasingly disengaged public that, ironically, feels better informed than ever before. The more complicated issues are flattened into superficial soundbites on social media, the more users are enabled to feel good about themselves for “doing the work”, without doing any work at all.

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