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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Instagram could become a new platform for the sharing of disinformation around the 2020 election because of the way propagandists are relying on images and proxy accounts to create and circulate fake content, leading social intelligence experts tell Axios.

The big picture: "Disinformation is increasingly based on images as opposed to text," said Paul Barrett, the author of an NYU report that's prompted a renewed look at the problem. "Instagram is obviously well-suited for that kind of meme-based activity."

How it works: A false claim about the Odessa shooter in Texas being a Beto O'Rourke supporter appeared as a tweet from a far-right account called @UncleSamsChild, which has nearly 30k followers.

  • This tweet quickly turned into screenshot images shared on Instagram from proxy accounts for @UncleSamsChild, whose accompanying Instagram account has zero posts, presumably because it was taken down for violating Instagram's rules.
  • The group's hashtag #UncleSamsMisguidedChildren appears on over 31,000 posts, meaning they have a healthy following on Instagram despite not having any actual posts on their own account.
  • So it was a tweet made to look like an Instagram post that was also shared by various people on Facebook — all as images and by accounts other than the main disinformation culprit, @UncleSamsChild.

Why it matters: This makes it harder for platforms to enforce their rules, remove content and suspend accounts.

What they're saying: Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said the Odessa example was the first time he's seen this proxy account strategy at work.

  • "They’re keeping their main account and brand and being careful not to violate policies or get that account suspended, and using other proxy accounts to share screenshots. They have also the impact but not the accreditation back to the main account, so they’re circumventing the rules."
  • "Instagram isn’t built for virality in the same way as other platforms, so it does require other kinds of ingenuity to abuse the platform in other ways," said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center.

Why Instagram matters: It's an engagement powerhouse that attracts far younger users than its parent company, Facebook.

  • And it drove more engagement with Russian disinformation in 2016 than Facebook, according to the NYU report.
  • In a statement, Instagram said: "We know that our adversaries are always changing their techniques so we are constantly working to stay ahead."

Experts say the tactics of the people looking to spread disinformation around the 2020 election have gotten savvier since 2016, so it will be harder to crack down on it.

  • "No kind of competent information operation will be single-platform," said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at Graphika, a social-media analytics company. 
  • He studied one Russian operation that targeted the U.S. and spread false content across more than 30 different social networks and blogging platforms.

So now researchers are focused on the behavior online — not just specific platforms — when trying to identify and get ahead of disinformation.

  • They're watching how accounts use "backup" proxy accounts to share information, and what type of hashtags they're using that might be incongruous with the type of content they're posting.
  • Researchers are also keeping an eye on activities like sharing celebrity gossip to build an audience and then pivoting to political content as an election nears.

What to watch, per Nimmo: "The more big platforms are cracking down on stuff on their platforms, the more they’re forcing the bad actors to look elsewhere."

Go deeper

Updated 15 mins ago - Sports

Swimmer Chase Kalisz first American to win Tokyo Olympics gold medal

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him. Moments later, Kieran Smith grabbed a third medal for the U.S. when he won bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

DOJ won't investigate nursing home deaths in N.Y. and 2 other states

People who've lost loved ones due to COVID-19 while they were in New York nursing homes attend a March protest and vigil in New York City. As of this month, Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Department of Justice has decided not to launch a civil rights investigation into whether policies in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan contributed to pandemic deaths in nursing homes, according to a letter sent to Republicans.

Why it matters: The Trump DOJ requested data from the three states plus New Jersey last August "amid still-unanswered questions about whether some states, especially New York, inadvertently worsened the pandemic death toll by requiring nursing homes to accept residents previously hospitalized for COVID-19," per AP.

Former Blizzard CEO says he "failed” women at the studio

Image: Neville Elder / Getty Images

Mike Morhaime, who co-founded and worked at video game studio Blizzard for 28 years, has apologized publicly for toxic work conditions at his former studio, which is now the subject of a discrimination and harassment lawsuit by the state of California.

Why it matters: Morhaime is no longer at Blizzard, but was its leader for most of its existence and therefore was in charge when much of what is alleged in California’s suit would have occurred.

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