Instagram algorithm test “is scary,” says Utah state senator

Dec 4, 2023, 3:00 PM

FILE - The Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device. With an eye on testing the Reels al...

FILE - The Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device. With an eye on testing the Reels algorithm, Wall Sreet Journal reporters and producers recently created Instagram "test accounts" They reported that "jarring doses of salacious content" were fed to those test accounts. (Jenny Kane, Associated Press)

(Jenny Kane, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Results of an Instagram algorithm test conducted by the Wall Street Journal were not a surprise to a Utah lawmaker who is already working to help Utah kids stay safer online.

In the last legislative session, Utah Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsored a bill that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in March 2023. SB152, or the Utah Social Media Regulation Act, places several restrictions on social media companies within the state of Utah including age verification and parental consent requirements.

Of the Wall Street Journal’s findings? “I think it’s shocking,” McKell told KSL NewsRadio. “I think it’s scary. And it’s not just Instagram.”


In a nutshell, WSJ reporters and producers created “test accounts” on Meta-owned Instagram. They wanted to test the Reels algorithm to see what videos Instagram would feed to a user who watched young gymnasts, cheerleaders, “and other teen and pre-teen influencers active on the platform,” the WSJ writers explained in their report.

The WSJ concluded that the algorithm served “jarring doses of salacious content to those test accounts.”

Instagram actions involving algorithms don’t equal words

In the past, Meta has released tools that they say keep people safe on Instagram

But McKell said that the words and the actions of social media companies just aren’t adding up.

“These promises that social media companies continue to make (that) they’re protecting kids are just simply not true.”

What does seem to be adding up is frustration. The WSJ report is the latest investigation into how Instagram algorithms work. But in June 2023, the Standford Internet Observatory published findings about the creation and trading of Child Sexual Abuse Material, or CSAM. The SIO said specifically that, “Instagram is currently the most important platform for these networks, with features that help connect buyers and sellers.”

And this report blamed Instagram’s algorithms, specifically, for making it easy for people that want this type of content, to find it. In response, Meta reportedly created a task force to investigate the claims.

The ability to protect kids is already there, but …

McKell said that social media companies have told him that technologically, they can give consumers a safer social media experience.

The tools are already in their tool kit. But there’s just one problem.

“They don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage … to me, that’s really telling.”

American states suing

Attorney Generals of thirty-three states, including Utah, have filed a lawsuit against Meta alleging the social media company designed the platform to addict young users. Similarly, Utah is suing TikTok arguing that the platform also harms young users.

Other states are getting pushback on social media laws passed by their state lawmakers, including California. Montana’s law outright banning TikTok from the state, was blocked by a federal judge last week.

Utah’s social media laws don’t take effect until March 2024, but McKell told KSL they’ll probably be revised before then.

“We’re reviewing legislation as we go into the 2024 legislative session, we feel good about where we’re at,” he said. “I think we will make some minor tweaks to our legislation to be responsive to some of the legal decisions.”

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Instagram algorithm test “is scary,” says Utah state senator