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Instagram is a massive money-maker. Parent company Facebook doesn’t release figures on how much money the division makes but reports claim it generated $20 billion in advertising revenue in 2019 alone – that’s a quarter of Facebook’s entire yearly revenue. Or, to put it another way, more money than YouTube makes for parent company Alphabet.
At the heart of Instagram’s financial success is two things: advertising, the Stories feature it nabbed from Snapchat is now filled with it, and the data that powers all that advertising. There’s a lot of it.
Instagram, through its integrations with Facebook, uses your personal information to show you adverts that it believes you’ll be mostly likely to click on. This information comes from what you do within the app and Facebook, your phone and your behaviour as you move around parts of the web that Facebook doesn’t own.
First off – everything you do on Instagram is tracked. Almost every online service you use collects information about your actions. Every thumb scroll made through your feed provides it with information about your behaviour. Instagram knows that you spent 20 minutes scrolling to the depths of your high-school crush’s profile at 2am.
The data that Instagram collects isn’t just for advertising. The company uses your information – for instance, what device you use to login – to detect suspicious login attempts. Crash reports from your phone can help it identify bugs in its code and identify parts of the app that nobody uses. In 2019 it ditched the Following tab, which showed everyone the public posts you had liked.
Other than deleting the app completely there’s very little you can do to stop Instagram tracking your behaviour on its platform, but there are things you can do to limit some of the data that’s collected and the types of adverts you see online.
Delete (some) of your data
Want to see the information you’ve given Instagram? Head to the app’s settings page and tap the security option. Here there’s the choice to see the information Instagram has collected about you and download it. If you tap on ‘Access Data’ you’ll be able to see all your password changes, email addresses and phone numbers associated with the account, plus more about how you use the app.
In total there are 25 different categories of information that are collected – these range from interactions with polls that you’ve completed in people’s stories to hashtags you follow and changes to the information in your bio. Instagram’s access tool can be found here.
While it’s possible to see all of this data, there isn’t a lot you can do with it. Your search history can be deleted through the Security menu options, although when you do so you only delete it locally. Instagram and Facebook still know what – or who – you have searched for. “Keep in mind that clearing your search history is temporary, and that searches you clear may reappear in your history after you search for them again,” Instagram says.
It is also possible to delete the contacts that you may have uploaded to Instagram from your phone – this includes names and phone numbers. Uploading your contacts allows Instagram and Facebook to provide friend suggestions but also builds out its knowledge of your social activity.
This Instagram page shows whether you’ve uploaded any contacts and allows you to delete them. Deleting them will not stop new contacts being added to your phone from being uploaded. The setting can be turned on or off through the settings menu on iOS or Android.
The option to download your data includes photos, comments, profile information and more. This has to be requested through the Security menu.
You probably use Instagram on your phone. By default, Instagram’s location gathering abilities are turned-off by default but you’ve probably inadvertently turned the feature on while adding your location to a post or story.
To change this – or at the very least check if you’ve given it permission – you need to visit the settings on your phone. It can’t be done through the Instagram app.
On Android, navigate to settings then tap on apps and find Instagram. Here you can see whether you’ve given it permission to access your location, microphone, device storage, contacts and more. You can turn these settings on and off, allowing Instagram access to your location all the time, only while you’re using the app or to completely deny it.
If you own an iPhone, the process is similar. Tap your way to the phone’s settings, go to privacy and then location services and find Instagram. Here you can choose whether location tracking is on all the time, when you’re using the app or off completely.
Control ads in stories
As Facebook has tried (successfully) to make more money from Instagram, it has filled it with adverts. What you see is all powered, technically, by the parent company. Facebook is the ads server for Instagram and the two are inseparable.
Instagram shows you ads based on what it and Facebook think you like. This is based on what you do while on Instagram (e.g. liking posts from particular brands) but also what you do on websites and services not owned by Facebook. Facebook’s Pixel is a tiny piece of code that’s on almost every website you visit and collects information saying you have visited it. The Pixel gathers data about your activity online and links it to an identifier and that helps decide what ads you’ll be shown.
It’s just one way data is collected that feeds into the company’s bigger advertising machine. “Advertisers, app developers and publishers can send us information through Facebook Business Tools that they use, including our social plugins (such as the Like button), Facebook Login, our APIs and SDKs, or the Facebook pixel,” Facebook’s data policy says. This includes what you buy and the websites you visit.
So what can you do about it on Instagram? The controls are limited. Within the app, though the settings tab, you can see your ad activity. This shows you the ads you have engaged with – such as commenting on posts, liking or watching the majority of. There’s also links out of the Instagram app that explain adverts on the platform within the settings tab.
If you don’t like an individual ad it is possible to hide it by tapping the three dots that appear next to the ad and tapping hide. It’s also possible to report an ad if it could break Instagram’s policies.
To really attempt to control ads on Instagram, you need to go to Facebook. Here it’s possible to change preference settings, which will apply to Instagram as well as Facebook. There are no ad preference settings for people who only have an Instagram account and not a Facebook account. The company says it is working on building controls within the Instagram app.
Facebook’s ad preferences page is a mine of information. It shows what Facebook thinks your interests are, companies that have uploaded information about you, how ads are targeted, ad settings, and ads you’ve hidden. To change the adverts you see you need to spend a short amount of time on this page working through the settings.
Some key choices that can be made are in ‘Your Information’. Here you chose not to see ads that are based on your employer, job title, relationship status and education. The businesses section allows you to stop businesses who have uploaded information about you from showing you ads. And ‘Ad Settings’ stops Facebook products showing you adverts based on information that’s collected from other websites and services you visit.
For any of this to apply to Instagram, the company says your accounts need to be connected. “To make sure your ad preferences are applied, connect your Instagram account to your Facebook account,” it says.
If you’re just fed up with Instagram in general you can delete the app. You can’t delete your Instagram account from within the app – we’re not sure why – but instead you have to visit this page. From here it’s possible to delete your account. “When you delete your account, your profile, photos, videos, comments, likes and followers will be permanently removed,” the company says. Or you can temporarily disable your account. This can be done here.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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