Words by Sarah Manavis.
Do you know what’s happening in the Middle East? Maybe you want to understand microaggressions, impostor syndrome or the foundations of feminism. The good news is you can now find everything you need to know while scrolling Instagram.
Few social media trends in the last decade have taken hold quite as quickly as the made-for-Instagram infographic. These slideshows, usually shared on the Stories function of Instagram, where images disappear after 24 hours, are now an unavoidable part of the social media user experience.1 They have been heralded as a creative new form of activism, one that is inherently tied to Instagram’s functionality and its prioritizing of eye-catching visuals.
In the last year, though, communicating on the most complex issues of world politics and social justice via a handful of pastel-hued slides has come to feel overly simplistic; failing to tackle complex issues with the nuance they require. While some can be useful and educational, these infographics have increasingly been accused of flattening discourse or being laced with obvious bias. For example, early on in the COVID pandemic, an authoritative “data pack” infographic emphasizing the mildness of most infections was shared by celebrities including Kendall Jenner, who has over 166 million Instagram followers. Scientists quickly pointed out the flaws in its presentation: It ignored the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed, long COVID and the possibility of younger people infecting the elderly, but that didn’t stop it from doing the rounds online.
“The origins of infographics are not
as a simple, universal language that
could communicate to anyone.”
Though the surge of infographics on social media feels deeply modern, using them as a tool for argument is part of a centuries-old pattern. The emergence of the infographic at the end of the 18th century was “almost destined,” says Dr. Murray Dick, author of The Infographic: A History of Data Graphics in News and Communications. During the late Enlightenment period, more and more people were collecting and generating original data to use in textbooks, reference works and other academic publications. When the need for a clear, effective way to convey their findings arose, researchers turned to the new data visualizations that had been dreamed up by Scottish engineer and economist William Playfair, such as bar charts, pie charts and line graphs.
Many of those consuming infographics at the time had academic backgrounds in cartography, meaning they could comprehend highly complex diagrams. “The origins of infographics are not as a simple, universal language that could communicate to anyone,” Dick points out. “They were very much bound up in an elite discourse—elite people talking to other elite people about elite issues.” There were some exceptions, however, such as the beautiful, intricate infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois, which plotted how African Americans remained oppressed by institutional racism more than three decades after the end of slavery.
The true explosion of infographics as a tool of mass communication began at the turn of the 20th century. Newspapers and magazines began publishing infographics regularly, realizing they could draw in more readers if they accompanied written articles with a compelling infographic. As more illustrators got involved, symbols and text were used to enliven dry data and to capture the attention of a broader audience—representing worker numbers with drawings of men, for example. This era also gave rise to infographics as tools for political persuasion: They were often used to show the reasoning behind one side of a debate, such as a chart explaining how tuberculosis could be contained by comparing the rates of infection under self-isolation against those without quarantine in place.
“Frankly, when you have lots of people
just creating these things for the sake of it,
it does create noise. And it does also end up
Infographics, particularly those made by newspapers, had a reputation throughout the 20th century of being “often unabashedly propagandistic,” Dick says. However, parts of the industry have been thoroughly professionalized over the decades since: Standardized data visualizations are now created by dedicated news outlets (think statistical analysis sites like FiveThirtyEight or the obsessive prediction maps we see during elections).3
But while the professionalization of infographics was occurring within traditional media, the aughts and early 2010s saw a new type of creator begin to emerge: the general public. “Each new wave [of creation] is always related to technologies that provide the means for people to create infographics,” explains Sandra Rendgen, author of History of Information Graphics. “Around 2007, the internet was widely available—everyone had a personal computer. Therefore, everybody had the means of graphic production.”4
During this time, we saw the beginnings of what we now associate with modern Instagram infographics: homemade diagrams, usually arguing a political point of view, often without citation and often misleadingly reductive. Until just a few years ago, these infographics largely existed on small blogs, unlikely to be seen by more than a handful of people.
Then, Instagram tweaked its functionality in a way that would dramatically change the distribution of infographics by allowing posts—the photos or videos uploaded to a user’s grid, often accompanied by an explanatory text caption—to be shared through Stories. This small, technical change motivated people to share information in a visual format and paved the way for the current infographics boom that arguably began in the summer of 2020, when there was a sharp rise in educational posts covering topics such as systematic racism, charting Black deaths in police custody and relaying statistics around arrests related to race.
But much like the traditional print media in the early 20th century, explains Juliette Cezzar, a professor of communication design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, influencers realized that they could use infographics to gain clout.
Without the understanding needed to represent statistical data accurately in graphic form, this incentive has sometimes led influencers to share reductive, hastily compiled or lopsided versions of the truth. For example, several infographics disseminated during the Black Lives Matter protests touted the same statistic: that more white Americans are killed each year by the police than Black Americans. However, these posts omitted the data per capita—which reveals that Black Americans are actually killed by police at twice the rate of white Americans. “Frankly,” Dick explains, “when you have lots of people just creating these things for the sake of it, it does create noise. And it does also end up creating misinformation.”
The problem is compounded by the trust that viewers instinctively place in facts and figures presented with the legitimizing veneer of authoritative fonts and crisp template layouts.5 “At a certain point, you can convince people that they know more than they do,” says Cezzar. “Many of these infographics make us feel like we understand things that we don’t… These things are often not so easy to grasp. [When] we don’t know anything about how that information is gathered, or what its limitations are, we don’t have the capacity to understand.”
This may appear like a new chapter in infographic history—one where incorrect data can be seen by millions. But Rendgen argues that botched diagrams have always been commonplace—the only real difference now is the scale and readership. As far back as 1914, so many misleading infographics were being published that a “how-to” book on creating accurate infographics was published, Willard Brinton’s Graphic Methods For Presenting Facts. “Unfortunately,” Brinton wrote in the book’s preface, “there are extremely few draftsmen who know how to plot a curve or prepare any kind of a chart from data presented to them in the form of tabulated figures.”
Rendgen explains that every time the field of infographics evolves, people pile into it quickly—but the expertise doesn’t grow accordingly. “The democratization of infographics means that everybody can make one, but not everybody understands that you must bring some understanding of numbers and mathematical processing to make it work,” she says. She is hopeful that in this Instagram iteration, like in others, creators will eventually catch up. Cezzar echoes this. She believes that data citations in viral infographics will become more common, in line with the improvements that historically happen over time.6
Though an Instagram infographic unpacking the meaning of “toxic positivity” may feel like a far cry from charting how to contain tuberculosis, the most important thing to remember as a consumer of infographics is that they are built to make an argument—regardless of what the issue might be. “It doesn’t matter how you try,” Dick says, “you can’t switch off the argument.”