For prominent women on Instagram, DMs can be a miscellaneous cesspool

A new report released on Wednesday found that looking at the personal direct messages of five prominent women on Instagram found a stream of harassment, including pornographic images and threats of physical and sexual violence, where perpetrators generally did not face any consequences.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a report by an international non-profit organization, is far from the first to identify the urgent need for social media titans to take further steps to prevent harassment on their platforms. Many women using Instagram – especially those with more followers – continue to feel insecure, and advocates say relentless harassment threatens to alienate women from one of the world’s most popular online platforms.

But in order to open their thousands of incoming private messages to researchers, five high-profile women have allowed an in-depth analysis of the abuse they face and how a technology company manages it out of public view. The nonprofit’s chief executive, Imran Ahmed, wrote that Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, “has created an environment where abusive and harmful content is allowed to develop.”

“The intentional impact of abuse and its ongoing setbacks is simple: removing women from the platform, keeping them out of public life and further marginalizing their voices,” she said.

In a statement, Instagram disputed the report’s findings and pointed to steps taken to limit harassment. Users can filter certain words from DMs and comments, turn off the ability to send DMs to strangers, or hide comments and DMs from people who don’t follow or have recently followed them. It blurs images sent to DM by people who don’t follow you in an attempt to hide unwanted sex images and removes a wide range of offensive content.

“While we do not agree with many of the CCDH’s decisions, we do agree that harassment of women is unacceptable,” said Cindy Southworth, head of women’s protection at Meta, in a statement. “So we do not allow any threats of gender-based hatred or sexual violence, and last year we announced strong protections for female public figures.”

According to the report, Instagram’s policies failed to protect five women from widespread pornography and intimidation.

Women represent different public figures, distinguished in a variety of ways in entertainment, activism, and journalism. An actress named Amber Hard has 4.1 million followers, while Jamie Klinger, an activist who co-founded the Reclaim This Streets group after the death of Sarah Awards in London last year, has about 3,500 followers. The group included British TV presenter Rachel Rilio; Brianny Gordon, a journalist and writer; And Sharan Dhaliwal, founder of South Asian culture magazine Burn Roti.

When messages are sent by someone you don’t follow, they are dropped to a side folder labeled “Request.” For female public figures, this tends to be a cesspool.

The report found that of the 8,717 DMs analyzed, one in 15 violated Instagram’s rules on abuse and harassment, including 125 instances of image-based sexual abuse.

“On Instagram, anyone can personally send you something that should be illegal,” Mrs. Riley reports. “If they do it on the street, they will be arrested.”

Of the 253 accounts that sent abusive messages to the study, 227 were active at least one month after they were reported. Forty-eight hours after their reporting, 99.6 percent of accounts remain online. (Instagram says accounts have been banned after three strikes, and lost the ability to send direct messages after the first strike.)

The report argues for strong control, with big tech companies claiming to be unable to control themselves. Their commitment to stop the harassment was toothless and secondary to profit, the report said.

Meanwhile, women were left to create their own coping strategies. Some chose not to be directly involved in the messages, but Mrs. Klinger said it was not an option for her, as she occasionally receives press requests to talk about her activism.

Mrs. Hard said that the experience, and the inability to do much about it, increased her depression, anger and frustration.

“Social media is the way we connect with each other today and that medium is not limited to me,” he said in the report. “That’s the sacrifice I made, the compromise I made, the agreement I made for my mental health.”

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