Fake news ‘spreading to young people through Instagram memes’

An exodus of young people from Facebook has seen fake news spread to Generation Z through memes on Instagram, a leading journalism academic has said.

Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and former world editor of the BBC News website, said many young people had switched from Facebook.

Fake news is now spreading to young people through “memes and visual storytelling” on Instagram, he told a conference on Tuesday.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is mainly used for sharing photos and has not traditionally been a major source of news for social media users.

But genuine news and fake news are making their way on to the platform, Mr Newman said.

The Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report assesses the state of online news access across the world.

This year’s findings will show a continuing trend in the popularity of Instagram.

“Facebook themselves have been showing people less news, and less extreme news as well,” Mr Newman said.

“You’ve had a switch of network, particularly of young people, out of Facebook and into Instagram. Instagram is also on our agenda in terms of where misinformation happens.”

He cited new research from the US detailing “how Instagram has become a focus for spreading fake news, but mainly with memes and visual storytelling”, he said.

“That’s the heart of Instagram.”

Mr Newman also said the increasing popularity of private WhatsApp messages as a way of receiving news made it hard to track which articles were being shared online.

He addressed the Westminster Media Forum conference on tackling misinformation and disinformation on the internet, which came after the Government published its white paper on online harms last month.

The paper proposes a variety of measures to reduce threats online, including tackling fake news and content that promotes terrorism or gang violence.

Sarah Connolly, director for security and online harms at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said encrypted messages on platforms such as WhatsApp were a “particularly difficult area” to regulate.

“It is absolutely not the position of Government that we wish to get companies to break their own encryption,” she said.

“There are things we think that some of the companies might do, such as have easy reporting tools, so that would work for if you were in WhatsApp and you were getting abused. But it is a genuinely difficult issue.”