Featured Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Every day I come across a carousel of Instagram stories on my feed, plastered with neatly designed visuals that aim to explain complex topics in bitesize slides to anyone who may be unfamiliar to them. Infographics, which have traditionally served as tools to accompany and underscore longer sources of information, have now slowly grown on the platform to become appealing candidates for self-sufficient online informants. From bits of advice on mental health and fitness to expositions of social justice and environmental issues, they have turned into an essential instrument for different ideas, news, and resources to proliferate.
As part of this newer — and possibly more impatient — generation that grew up surrounded by fast-paced technology, I understand why: these infographics are engaging, straightforward, and aesthetically pleasing. I, for one, have used them as comforting mental health reminders, and as handy starting points to educate myself more extensively on histories that I didn’t get to learn in school.
However, while it is one thing to get inspired and prompted by a post to learn more about a particular topic, it is another to take everything that is written inside a well-edited colored square as gospel. Although they do have great potential in raising awareness on important matters, I believe that this newfound reliance on viral infographics has strong limitations that predominantly stem from our passive consumption of social media.
The first problem with Instagram infographics lies in their lack of substantiation. In theory, the idea of being able to simultaneously learn about current politics while leisurely scrolling through your friends’ party pictures sounds efficient and undemanding. Nevertheless, online infographics have reached a concerning level of unquestioned credibility. It is tempting to omit the important step of fact-checking when condensed information is accessible just one click away, and even more so when it is shared within one’s own circle. Granted that impartiality is impossible in news reporting, the way we process the narratives we are exposed to is within our control. It is advisable to do some extra reading and research, and to physically dig into the posts’ bibliographies — when they actually present themselves with one, that is.
As well-intentioned as infographics may be, the content they affirm to their viewers is often just as non-verifiable. The authors of these visuals are frequently spontaneously given authority over the knowledge and biases that circulate online solely because of how the facts at hand are displayed. As a result, there is much less attention given on the expertise, or lack thereof, these creators have on the subjects they address. Making the effort to keep an eye out for confirmation biases and doing more than just skimming the references’ titles is how one can prospectively form a belief that isn’t blindly based on a random user’s opinion.
Secondly, infographics easily serve as discrete advertisements for different agendas. I would even go so far as to say that they are a newer form of propaganda. As an infographic gets widely shared, its reputation as a reliable source subliminally strengthens while the undetectability of the originator’s intentions and overall biases is further facilitated. Due to their abbreviated nature, infographics tend to give oversimplified rundowns on topics that simply cannot be condensed as such. Although journalism and social media cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship in transmitting a constant flow of fresh information, it is arguably easier to tell the biases that bigger and more consolidated news organizations tend to support. For instance, we can do so by having a look at the companies and people who own and control them. The circulation of infographics, on the other hand, are more prone to perpetuating the illusion of unnuanced and black-and-white hard facts. Take the following posts, which are two extremely different views and presentations on the current situation in Xinjiang, China pertaining to the Uighurs:
Infographics provide an easy way out from having to assess and compile one’s own educational resources. The aesthetically pleasing nature of infographics is what makes them gain traction easily and spread mis/information at an alarming rate. A prime example can be found in the inevitable digital must-reads/watches posters that seem to come with each relevant world issue and social movement. The problem with a lot of these lists is that there is sometimes no rationale given as to what actually makes these books and films good educators. This makes them no better than the hegemony they often claim to be fighting against. In addition, this interpretation of current events seems to imply that learning about them is nothing more than a sporadic process; that there is a given threshold for what “woke enough” looks like.
By the same token, Instagram infographics go hand-in-hand with superficial activism. Sharing a post from the comfort of one’s own home has the power of giving one the illusion of directly and actively pushing for real-life changes. While making useful resources better known and raising awareness on pertinent issues looks good on paper, there has yet to be a way to prevent the simultaneous spread of misinformation. Anyone can make a pretty typed-out edit, but not everyone is willing to take time out of their day to do comprehensive research. The bottom line is that there isn’t enough attention paid to who the people who upload these infographics are. It would hence be advisable to take a step back and form a better-grounded outlook on a subject before re-posting someone else’s take on it.
If you have access to infographics on the internet, then you most likely also have access to firsthand sources and primary research papers. There is unfortunately no reliable shortcut to maintaining a balanced point of view on world issues, and these visuals are of no exception. Now, this isn’t to say that infographics don’t have great potential in helping causes and in spotlighting important points of view, or that all of them are flawed. This is more so a reminder that taking social media as the principal place to derive one’s knowledge from represents a bigger gamble than we often would like to think.