Instagram Has a Massive Harassment Problem

when Brandon Farbstein first joined Instagram in 2014, he was 14 and optimistic. Farbstein was born with a rare form of dwarfism, and he wanted to use the photo-sharing site to educate people about his condition—to, as he told me, “show people a glimpse into my life and inspire people.”

Soon enough, though, the hateful messages started coming: death threats, expletive-laden comments about his appearance, worse. A meme page put his face on Hitler’s body. Multiple accounts popped up with the explicit purpose of taunting him. His house was swatted. When he does a live video, the insults float onscreen, fast and furious. “It’s been hard to keep my composure,” Farbstein told me. After trolls started posting pictures of him in the hallways at his high school, he started to fear for his safety. Eventually, he left and finished high school online.

“My entire experience of high school was completely ruined by Instagram harassment,” Farbstein said. “It’s draining, it’s anxiety producing. I’m used to people calling me names, but it’s when people say that they’re going to kill me or come find my family that really gets me in a sense of pure terror. Really nothing can prevent or get in the way of that taking over your thoughts and emotions.”

Farbstein has tried to make the harassment stop. He said he’s filed numerous reports through Instagram’s internal reporting tool, but the company takes days to address them, if it does at all. Most of the time he simply deletes the messages and comments himself. “The reporting system is almost like it’s not there sometimes,” Farbstein said. “You want it to end, but you also know that nothing is going to happen if it takes months and months for your report to go through. It produces more fear and anxiety ... than whatever’s posted.”

The harassment, he said, has escalated sharply over the past year. “Instagram is the No. 1 platform that I experience hate on,” he said.

He’s not alone. Despite a long-standing and well-crafted reputation for being the nicest place on the internet, to many of its users—a large number of whom are very young—Instagram doesn’t feel very kind at all. To some, it’s getting worse. In interviews, 22 users described painful, sustained, sometimes terrifying abuse on the platform—abuse they say Instagram has repeatedly failed to stem.

For years, Instagram has traded on its reputation as a place for positive, aspirational content—for shopping, connecting with friends, and following interests. Even as other major social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube, have been forced through massive, public reckonings with harassment, Instagram has emerged largely unscathed. Often it’s heralded as a good example for the rest of the social web.

In 2016, Instagram’s founder and then-CEO, Kevin Systrom, touted his plans to turn it into what Wired editor in chief Nicholas Thompson described as “a kind of social media utopia: the nicest darn place online” in a long and rosy feature about the effort. A few months later, after Systrom took to the company’s blog to announce new anti-harassment measures that included auto-banning inappropriate comments, HuffPost lauded the company for “tackling hate speech the way Twitter should have done.”

Instagram doubled down on its warm and fuzzy image last fall with a multipronged “Commitment to Kindness,” which included various product tweaks as well as a #KindComments campaign, in which celebrities like Jessica Alba encouraged users to leave nice feedback on one another’s photos. “I’ve seen how other companies have misstepped in managing communities,” Systrom told Variety at the time. He didn’t specifically name Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook (Instagram’s parent company), but his implication was clear: We’re different, and we’re better.

“Our goal is to be the safest platform online,” Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, told me in September when I asked about harassment. “It’s an investment that’s not just in words.” She highlighted as an example the company’s recent “Kindness prom,” where teen influencers ate free In-N-Out burgers and danced the evening away under a balloon arch that declared the space a bully free zone. Last week, Instagram announced a set of new features to limit bullying and “spread kindness,” including comment filters on live videos, a “kindness camera effect to spread positivity,” and the deployment of machine-learning technology to better detect bullying in photos.


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