PRIVACY/SECURITY Instagram’s Banned Hashtags Reveal Moderation Challenges

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Moderation of user-generated content on social media is absolutely necessary. However, it can also become a challenging balancing act: Failing to moderate can lead to the growth of toxic communities that drag brand image down, and perceived over-moderation can cause users to revolt. A new list of banned hashtags on Instagram gives insights into the tension between sites and users.

The Data Pack explored more than 10,000 hashtags using the Instagram application-programming interface to test for both permanent and temporary hashtag bans. The permanent bans are not necessarily surprising, as they are largely pornographic, associated with racism like #WhitePower or supporting behavior that Instagram doesn’t want on it’s network, like #Thinspo, a pro-anorexia tag.

Other permanent bans might seem confusing, but #Like is probably banned because otherwise it would be on every post, meaning that posts with the tag would be saturated and impossible to moderate. However, it’s the temporary hashtag bans that highlight potential problems with Instagram’s broad-based moderation approach.

#Adulting, #Desk, #Kansas, #Skype and #Kik all appear on the temporary bans list. While these may seem like benign tags, references to other messaging services could easily be saturated by users offering pornographic services to other users. Kansas doesn’t seem like a harmful tag, but maybe it wasn’t pornography that prompted the ban.

The temporarily banned hashtags do still show limited results, and #Kansas shows several pictures of guns and several users posing with turkeys and ducks which they have hunted. Gun-related hashtags are popular on Instagram, but not so popular with Instagram and parent company Facebook, which recently banned the private sale of firearms through their sites.

Instagram’s terms state that users “may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content,” and it notes, “We may, but have no obligation to, remove, edit, block, and/or monitor content or accounts containing content that we determine in our sole discretion violates these terms of use.” This language would give Instagram the leeway to remove gun-related posts, but limiting #Kansas while not limiting #Hunting or #Guns seems unlikely.

While this is speculative and the cause could well be something else, it does raise certain points about the difficulty of moderation. Given the deluge of porn on Instagram, along with other banned content, users clearly have an appetite that Instagram would prefer they didn’t indulge. But there’s only so much Instagram can do when it is constantly trying to catch up with the terms users are employing to share porn and other objectionable material.

The backlash against Reddit’s seemingly clandestine approach to moderation two years ago provides a warning: Make your moderation program transparent. This list of banned tags was populated by a third party and may be incomplete. We don’t know, and Instagram isn’t very forthcoming about its processes. Clear rules and clear processes would serve to keep objectionable content off Instagram and keep users informed at the same time.


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