With Facebook in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, it may be tempting to overlook the social media giant's photo-oriented sibling, Instagram. That would be unwise.
Instagram, which you should absolutely never forget is owned by Facebook, has around 800 million monthly active users — and it exploits their data for ad targeting much like its scandal-prone big brother. This should worry you.
As a Senate Democrat launches an investigation into Facebook's sharing of user data with third parties (data which notoriously ended up with Cambridge Analytica), and as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issues a non-apology apology for his company's role in that mess, it's important to remember that the detailed profiles Facebook builds on each of its users are not just limited to what we share with Facebook.com.
Instagram, too, is a creepy land of corporate stalking.
The service permits advertisers to build detailed profiles describing their desired targets — using scores of categories and subcategories ranging from your political affiliation, to education level, to whether or not you are "young & hip."
Options shown to advertisers when creating an ad for Instagram.
Using this data, advertisers can theoretically target specific groups of people on Instagram for disinformation and exploitation just like they can on Facebook. As self-described techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a New York Times oped, the real scandal isn't Cambridge Analytica — it's Facebook's fundamental business model.
Cambridge Analytica, after all, is just the one that got caught. It's almost impossible to say how many other developers have used data gleaned from Facebook, and, yes, Instagram, for nefarious purposes. The fact that you don't have a Facebook account and instead chose Instagram for your social updates doesn't protect you from this very harsh reality.
And lest we forget, Instagram played host to plenty of Russian trolls masquerading as advocacy groups with the apparent goal of influencing the 2016 US presidential election.
Notice the above posts are marked as "sponsored"? That means these Russian-bought Instagram ads released in November by the U.S. House Select Intelligence Committee used the same detailed demographic data made available to advertisers trying to sell you shoes.
This is a problem, and unfortunately it's one without a lot of clear solutions — short of deleting both your Facebook and Instagram account, that is. That's because Instagram uses "your information and interests on Facebook (if you have a Facebook account) and the websites and apps you visit" for its ad targeting.
Instagram is part of the same Facebook beast. And you should never forget how truly creepy, exploitative, and just plain bad that beast is.