If you’re on Instagram, then you’ve probably heard the news about Instagram. “Don’t forget tomorrow starts the new Instagram rule where they can use your photos,” the blurry image-text reads. “Don’t forget Deadline today!!! It can be used in court cases in litigation against you.” Luckily, “it” can be stopped, in accordance with specific laws, by a “simple copy and paste.”
If a legally binding social media repost sounds obviously bogus to you, then you are not Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Judd Apatow, Usher, Nancy Meyers, Retta, Julianne Moore, Tina Knowles Lawson or Rick Perry, the United States secretary of energy. Nor are you any of the myriad other public figures, influencers and nonprofessional Instagram users who shared their own copies of the post, sounding the alarm far and wide in the Facebook-owned app.
The meme quickly went from alarmist to absurdist, as users announced their basic web literacy through humor. The new “rule,” of course, does not exist. The “tomorrow” of the post is eternal. Its legal claims don’t make sense. Much of the language isn’t coherent enough to be specifically disputable.
The many clues about its credibility are not subtle. “Instagram,” hastily slapped over some other word from some previous iteration of this false alarm, gets larger with each subsequent appearance, creating an unsettling visual crescendo before the closer: “Instagram DOES NOT HAVE MY PERMISSION TO SHARE PHOTOS OR MESSAGES.”
The pasted-over name is almost certainly “Facebook,” where versions of this post seem to have originated and spread to such an extent that Snopes felt the need to address them in 2012. Those messages were part of a long tradition of self-referential rumors that spread around newsgroups, through email and on practically any service that allows people to congregate or communicate online. Email chain letters, having no single email provider to refer to, might have suggested nefarious email-related schemes by the government, or by an all-powerful Bill Gates. Facebook, which is more centralized and has a single, well-known boss, is the clearest heir to the email chain letter tradition, and has provided rich material for the form.
The Zuck Man Himself
In 2006, it was “Facebook is recently becoming very overpopulated” and “those who do not send this message within 2 weeks” will be “deleted without hesitation to create more space.” This was a variation on email spam from years before; in 2014, a similar message about Instagram went viral too. In 2009: “From Saturday morning facebook will become chargeable. If you have at least 10 contacts send them this message.” That same year: “If you don’t know, as of today, Facebook will automatically index all your info on Google, which allows everyone to view it.”
Another message circulated just last year: “Hey everyone, Zuck here with a huge announcement. So after much consideration … I, the Zuck man himself, will be deleting Facebook.” These formats have been reanimated for other Facebook-owned products. WhatsApp’s help page for “Hoax messages” is almost entirely focused on messaging purporting to be from, or affiliated with, the company itself.
Each of these messages was — pick your word — a hoax, spam, fake, wrong. Many were debunked, sometimes by email providers or social media companies themselves, but more often by news outlets or fact-checking sites. In the case of this week’s viral Instagram warning, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, addressed the posts. “Heads up!” he wrote in an Instagram Story that linked to a Women’s Wear Daily article. “If you’re seeing a meme claiming Instagram is changing its rules tomorrow, it’s not true — swipe up to learn more.”
On Facebook, bad information often rises from obscurity. The spread of a single viral message on Instagram appears to be more of a top-down process, finding audiences in the manner of a product or trend promoted by influencers. On Facebook, the viral machinery is visible, intended to show you not just how many people have shared something, but where it came from and what people think about it. On Instagram, there is no one-tap way to repost content, so a repost takes a bit of work — screenshot, manual credit, re-caption — and is therefore understood as an endorsement, not unlike a choice to wear a piece of clothing or drink a particular drink.
The Recitation of the Legalistic Incantations
This sort of false information — low-stakes and extremely popular — deserves debunking wherever it appears. But revisiting the “copypasta” panics of the past, and the confident, defiant corrections they inspired, makes for strange reading. Consider the 2009 Facebook post about sharing data with Google. This did not happen. Facebook did, however, remake its service as an “application platform,” providing a simple way for third parties to build apps within Facebook, and for users to provide profile information to those apps, instantly. That went badly. The platform also introduced its own search engine, Graph Search, which allowed users to search profiles and posts that had been made public by their creators — content that, while technically available already, was suddenly much easier to find. Facebook was not about to start charging users in 2009, as a copy-paste meme suggested. In 2018, however, Sheryl Sandberg entertained the possibility on TV, and Mark Zuckerberg alluded to it in a Senate hearing.
The Instagram panic of 2019 earned a swift denial from the company — “There’s no truth to this post,” a spokesperson told reporters — and dozens of confident debunking stories. These, too, can make for strange reading. “How did this ridiculous Instagram privacy hoax from 2012 fool so many stars?” asks a headline on Mashable. It’s a fair question, answered not just by the article, but by a related video promoted right below it: “WATCH: Instagram users’ location data, stories were tracked by marketing company.” Or by the stories in the site’s various sidebars and content modules that surround the story: “Facebook’s ‘clear history’ tool doesn’t actually ‘clear’ anything,” or “Instagram can’t stop flood of grisly photos from teen’s murder so users step up,” or, published five days ago, “Instagram will let users report ‘false information.’”
It is fair but maybe not adequate to call posts like these “hoaxes,” or to prosecute them as a form of mis- or disinformation. The jokester never comes forward. If they’re spam, they’re missing a spammer to cash in. What are they? Are they a bit like chants, or spells, meant to ward off the spirit of Zuck? Rearranged, the lines sound like bad but earnest poetry:
Everything you’ve ever posted
becomes public from today
Don’t forget tomorrow starts
The new Instagram rule
In this spirit, the part of the post that first reads as most ridiculous could be the one worth taking seriously. The text suggests that all of the things that Instagram will allegedly do to you “tomorrow” can be stopped by pasting a chunk of text, citing some laws and telling the company what’s what. “With this statement, I give notice.”
Or a bit further down the page: “We do not claim ownership of your content, but you grant us a license to use it.”
When you “share, post or upload content” to the service, you:
hereby grant to us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings).
“You can end this license anytime by deleting your content or account.” (The next sentence starts with “however.”)
It’s boilerplate. Another way to put that: All the big social apps explain themselves to us this way. The same services we use to spread false information depend on web of rules that are so rarely read, and a set of “agreements” that are so cartoonishly lopsided, they may as well be made up. Online, we live in a world defined and ruled by what feel like magic words. What else are we supposed to post about?