Even if you’re not an avid TikTok watcher you’ll recognize many of the app’s frequently used affectations: the front-facing camera work, synchronized dance moves and the act of pointing to text on screen to convey anything from the frustrations of being a stay-at-home mom to how to talk to your doctor about your BMI. And while TikTok may be the reserve of younger social-media users, a lot of its signature video styles have been copied and ported over to Instagram’s Reels.
I don’t normally watch or make Reels and tend to dismiss them when they pop up. But out of sheer boredom (hey, it’s been a long 15 months) and to get me through those late-night breastfeeding sessions with my baby, I decided to click on every single Reel that was highlighted on my explore page, a collection of curated content Instagram thinks I’ll like. I wanted to see what the algorithm chose for me and where it might lead.
Unsurprisingly, since I’m a mom of two young children who shares photos of her kids, the app initially promoted generic motherhood content. I got videos of exhausted moms “keeping it real,” sharing their stories of sleep deprivation and diaper blowouts. It was innocuous and generically relatable. But after a week or so the material became more pointed, with women sharing beliefs on nutrition, home schooling and the pandemic. It wasn’t alarming, but it wasn’t what I would normally consume.
After two weeks of clicking on these seemingly harmless Reels, I was being served anti-mask tirades and anti-vaccination videos that walked a careful line so as not to be flagged for removal – videos of the “just asking questions” variety. I also started to get anti-abortion content that pushed anti-birth control sentiments. What alarmed me the most was how these videos featured the same affectations, music and looks as the benign “momfluencer” content. They used a predefined style to push harmful views that took me further and further down a potentially dangerous rabbit hole.
I asked gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto, about the effect of these kinds of videos, particularly on exhausted new moms. “I think it is having a significant impact,” she says. “People get their false beliefs reinforced and others are introduced to new false beliefs and conspiracy theories. These women have cultivated a measure of trust among their followers, so their disinformation is more likely to be accepted.”
Social media can be a necessary lifeline for mothers. It’s a way to share frustrations and assuage anxieties and fears. As the pandemic has forced us apart, apps such as Instagram have allowed overworked, overburdened women to maintain a measure of sanity and stay connected with friends.
But the platform is also aspirational. We follow other women we think perform motherhood in the ways we’d like to; we follow influencers down a sun-dappled path hoping to approximate some of their same ease, charm and ability to keep a clean house despite having three kids under 3. We trust that the products they push on us are, if not vetted, at least endorsed honestly. When what they’re selling is disinformation, the entire community suffers and that trust is broken.
I thought about the times I was most likely to watch these videos – up at 3 a.m. to feed the baby, at my most sleep-deprived and vulnerable. How long until the more controversial topics didn’t seem so far-fetched? What may seem silly and plainly wrong in the light of day can transform in those moments of maternal desperation when, exhausted and drained, you can’t seem to do anything right.
Once I hit the anti-vaxx bubble I stopped watching Reels entirely. In a year when mothers have juggled full-time work, full-time child care, managed Zoom meetings and virtual school days, seeing the way some influencers were exploiting our vulnerabilities felt like a cruel slap in the face and a dangerous precedent.
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