An exclusive investigation reveals that Instagram prioritizes photos of scantily-clad men and women, shaping the behavior of content creators.
A food entrepreneur felt that her pictures did not reach many of her 53,000 followers unless she posed in swimwear. Indeed, four of her seven most-liked posts of the last few months showed her in a bikini. It could be the case that her audiences massively prefer to see her in bathing suits. But since early 2016, Instagram arranges the pictures in a user’s newsfeed so that the photos a user “cares about most will appear towards the top of the feed”. If the other pictures Sarah and Ely post is less popular, it could be that they are not shown to their followers as much.
Between February and May, 1,737 posts published by the content creators that were monitored, containing 2,400 photos, were analyzed. Of these posts, 362, or 21%, were recognized by a computer program as containing pictures showing women in bikinis or underwear, or bare-chested men. In the newsfeeds of our volunteers, however, posts with such pictures made up 30% of all posts shown from the same accounts (some posts were shown more than once).
Posts that contained pictures of women in undergarment or bikini were 54% more likely to appear in the newsfeed of our volunteers. Posts containing pictures of bare-chested men were 28% more likely to be shown. By contrast, posts showing pictures of food or landscape were about 60% less likely to be shown in the newsfeed.
The skew towards nudity might not apply to all Instagram users. While it was consistent and apparent for most volunteers, a small minority were served posts that better reflected the diversity published by content creators. It is likely that Instagram’s algorithm favors nudity in general, but that personalization, or other factors, limits this effect for some users.