It’s harder and harder to have an honest debate on the internet. Social-media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook Groups are rife with trolls; forums are plagued by archaic layouts and spambots. Teenagers who are looking to talk about big issues face additional frustrations, like the fact that most adults on these platforms don’t take them seriously.
Naturally, they’ve turned to Instagram. Specifically, they’ve turned to “flop” accounts—pages that are collectively managed by several teens, many of them devoted to discussions of hot-button topics: gun control, abortion, immigration, President Donald Trump, LGBTQ issues, YouTubers, breaking news, viral memes.
But as flop accounts grow by the thousands as teens seek refuge from the wider web, many of the internet’s worst dynamics have begun to duplicate themselves on Instagram. Some flop accounts are rife with polarization, drama, and misinformation. All the while, an increasing number of teens are turning to these types of accounts for news, seeing them as more reliable and trustworthy than traditional media.
The accounts post photos, videos, and screenshots of articles, memes, things, and people considered a “flop,” or, essentially, a fail. A flop could be a famous YouTuber saying something racist, someone being rude or awful in person, a homophobic comment, or anything that the teen who posted it deems wrong or unacceptable. Some of the teens who run a given account know one another in real life; more likely, they met online.
“Flop accounts bring attention to bad things or bad people that people should be aware of. We also post cringeworthy content for entertainment purposes,” said Alma, a 13-year-old admin on the flop account @nonstopflops.
According to teens, flop accounts began as a way to make fun of celebrities and popular YouTubers, but sometime over the past year they’ve morphed into something more substantive: a crucial way to share and discuss opinions online.
“Content [on flop accounts] is centralized around things that we think are factually or morally wrong, and it’s how we critique them,” said Taylor, a 15-year-old in Illinois who is an admin on a flop account. “Today, for instance, I posted a flop that was this lady making fun of someone for being homeless. That’s a horrible thing to do.”
Flop accounts have a few characteristic visual cues. They usually have the word flop in their name and a generic image for their avatar. In Instagram’s bio section, account admins all list their first name; their emoji “signature,” which they use as shorthand to sign comments and captions; their pronouns; and often their ages; which run from 13 to 18.
Some flop accounts cover specific issues or topics; others are broad. “Every fandom will have flop accounts,” said Lea, a 16-year-old in Illinois who runs a flop account about the Nickelodeon series The Loud House (and who, like many of the teens I spoke with, asked to be identified by her first name only, citing privacy concerns). There are flop accounts dedicated to the lip-sync app Musical.ly and to YouTube, as well as to calling out the bad behavior of specific people, like the YouTuber Onision, who frequently bashes other YouTubers, or the rapper 6ix9ine, who has a criminal record of sexual misconduct with a minor. Then there are IRL flops, “like ‘Oh, this thing happened to me and it was really messed up,’” explained Alex, a 13-year-old in Georgia and an admin on @lgbtflops.
But one type of flop has been outpacing the rest in recent months: politically themed flops. More politics flop accounts are cropping up, and broad-based flop accounts have begun featuring politics and social-justice flops, teens say. They also say they’re turning to flop accounts for real news and debate about issues that matter to them. “Everyone started making a lot of accounts on Instagram to vent through about social issues, and the community blew up through that,” said Danny, a 15-year-old in California.
Luna, a 15-year-old admin on @Flops.R.us, said that she and other teens use flop accounts as a space, away from parents, teachers, or people who don’t take them seriously, to discuss issues and formulate ideas. “Flop accounts are your place where you can get your or other people’s opinions out,” she said.
“Teenagers want an outlet to express their opinions with the same kind of conviction that they generally might not be able to express at home or other parts of their life,” said Hal, a 17-year-old admin on @toomanyflops_.
“Liberal flop accounts point out problematic behavior or spread liberal opinions,” said Bea, a 16-year-old in Maryland who founded the account @hackflops. “Conservative accounts post about feminism and whether the movement is good or bad, whether you can be conservative and LGBT, or Black Lives Matter and whether it’s better or worse than All Lives Matter … I’ve formed my opinions largely based upon what I see in the flop community.”
Dann, a 17-year-old in New Jersey, said his politics have tilted rightward after spending more time on flop accounts. “I was very left-leaning when I started this account, very [social-justice warrior],” he said. “ And over the course of running the account, my opinions have shifted. I was exposing myself to more stuff, then the things I was posting as a flop I kind of ended up agreeing with more and more,” he said. While he used to post flops calling for gun control, now he believes in the Second Amendment and is “pro–gun rights.”
Some flop accounts’ admins hold wildly disparate beliefs, which can end up causing problems when it comes to retaining followers. “There’s many diverse opinions among the admins ourselves on @toomanyflops_,” Hal said. “Some of us are pro-life, some are pro-choice, some are transgender, some are religious, some are atheist ... As account admins, we always try to engage in dialogue and promote discourse.”
But sometimes that doesn’t work out. Hal said one flop he posted about a pansexual musician ended up losing the account a couple hundred followers overnight. He worries about flop accounts turning Instagram into more of an echo chamber. “Everyone wants to see content they agree with,” he said.
Most teens say they’ll at least try to engage with content on flop accounts from both sides, even if just to find more flop ideas for their own accounts. “We aren’t forcing anyone to see our content, but if you want to come and educate yourself, have a good laugh, you can see kids your own age talking about important topics,” Alma said.
The main thing teens who engage with flop accounts share is a strong distrust of the news media. Teens said they turned to flop accounts specifically because they didn’t believe what they read in the news, saw on TV, or even were taught in their U.S.-history class, since, as one teen saw it, their teacher is just one person giving an opinion. Teen flop-account admins and followers said they found information on flop accounts to be far more reliable because it could be crowdsourced and debated.
“You don’t want to read things in a newspaper, because that’s filtered. That’s not interactive,” Alma said. “Flop accounts, you can comment, ask questions, and you usually get replies.” Alma said that a big reason she found news outlets to be so unreliable is that she believes each article is written through the lens of a single reporter’s opinion or agenda.
“A lot of news nowadays claims to be facts, but it’s based off people’s opinions or they purposefully omit information,” she said. “I wish we could trust articles more, but it’s been proven multiple times of people reporting things that aren’t true. It’s just hard to know who to trust, so you always feel the need to check things yourself. You can’t just read an article and take it as fact, because there’s always a chance that it isn’t.”
“Flop accounts have a lot of people fact-checking each other instead of just depending on one source giving us information,” Dann said. “The fact that we’re all posting about these things means we all have to do research and it’s a lot of people completing these things together, not just one person, which makes us trust it more.”
But even accurate information can be warped to present a biased viewpoint, and some flop admins have accidentally posted misinformation before eventually realizing it and taking it down.
“I don’t know how Facebook works because I don’t use it, but it’s easier to spread misinformation on Instagram because we have the Explore feed,” said Markus, a 15-year-old in South Carolina who is an admin on the account @nonstopflops. He said that he hasn’t come across tons of misinformation himself, but he has seen a lot of what he describes as propaganda.
Flop-account admins said that if it was determined that they had spread fake news or false information, they’d remove it, but they try to do their own research and not rely on the word of a follower. When followers do call foul on a post, admins ask them to provide backup and sourcing before they take their post down.
Several teens said they hope that flop accounts remain a teen thing. The accounts feel like a refuge for some kids whose parents don’t align with their politics or beliefs, and they worry that older people joining the community would just get confused or ruin it.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media-studies professor at the University of Virginia, said he thinks flop accounts are a good thing. “You have people engaging directly with claims about the world and arguing about truthfulness and relevance in the comments. It’s good that that’s happening,” he said. “If young people are getting more politically engaged because of it, all the better.”
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“One thing when we’re talking about teens is that they’re still in those formative years, this point in time where they’re kind of figuring out what their beliefs are,” said Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, adding that social media allow teens to be exposed to a broader variety of viewpoints than they’d likely encounter offline.
“You need a core set of beliefs to find who you are,” Alma said. “Whose opinions about what is going on now are more important than the people who are growing up now, who are experiencing it now, whose ideas and opinions are molded by what’s going on now?”