Study shows high-profile women face “an epidemic of misogynist abuse” on Instagram

According to a new report issued by the Center For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), high-profile women on Instagram are targeted virulently by sexist trolls, with one in every 15 of over 8,700 messages that the organisation surveyed containing content that violated Instagram’s policies on bullying in harassment.

Per The Guardian, researchers for the CCDH combed through 8,717 messages sent the accounts of five high-profile women active on Instagram: Aquaman star Amber Heard, Countdown co-presenter Rachel Riley, activist Jamie Kingler, journalist Bryony Gordon and Burnt Roti Magazine founder Sharan Dhaliwal. 

What they discovered, according to Imran Ahmed – chief executive director of the CCDH – was that “Instagram systematically fails to enforce appropriate sanctions and remove those who break its rules”. He noted that the CCDH’s ‘Hidden Hate’ report turned up “one of the worst-ever failure rates” in the organisation’s history, finding that Instagram failed to take any action on 90 per cent of the abusive content sent to the women participating in the survey.

“The intended effect of the abuse and the trauma of its constant barrage is simple: to drive women off platforms, out of public life, and to further marginalize their voices,” Ahmed continued, pointing out that “in the absence of effective tools to stop the stream of harmful content, women have been forced to find their own solutions, often tailoring their content to avoid provoking abusers or avoiding posting altogether to reduce their visibility”.

Ahmed went on to claim that Instagram’s inbuilt safety measures – primarily centred around algorithms designed to pick up on and flag problematic keywords, as well as a large team of human moderators – proved “ineffective”, and “shift[s] the burden of preventing misogynistic and online gender-based violence to those who suffer the abuse”.

“Instagram, and other mainstream platforms, have permitted the creation of a culture of intimidation,” he said, “narrowing the parameters of people’s freedom of speech and expression, thereby creating spaces that are safer for abusers than users… Social media is systemically and categorically failing women, just as they fail marginalized groups across the board.”

In the report’s data breakdown, it’s revealed that out of the 8,717 messages the CCDH surveyed, 374 instances of image-based harassment were reported (or 6.2 per cent of 6,059 images sent), while 20 out of 142 audio messages (14.1 per cent), 65 out of 1,889 text messages (3.4 per cent) and 109 out of 630 video messages (17.1 per cent) contained abusive material. 

When reported to Instagram for moderation, the platform reportedly failed to act on nine out of every 10 examples. 

“There is an epidemic of misogynist abuse taking place in women’s DMs,” Ahmed told The Guardian. “Meta and Instagram must put the rights of women before profit.”

Responding to the allegations levied by the CCDH’s report, Cindy Southworth – head of women’s safety at Meta, Instagram’s parent company – said that although Meta disagrees with “many of the CCDH’s conclusions”, it asserts that abusive material sent to women on its social media platforms (which also include Facebook and WhatsApp) is “unacceptable”.

“That’s why we don’t allow gender-based hate or any threat of sexual violence, and last year we announced stronger protections for female public figures,” Southworth told The Guardian. Per Instagram’s community guidelines, the platform asserts that it does not tolerate content that attacks users “based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disabilities, or diseases”.

According to a 2020 report by Plan International, one in five (or 19 per cent of) girls either leave or significantly decrease their presence on a social media platform due to harassment, while one in ten (or 12 per cent) altered the way they present themselves to avoid receiving abuse. This, Ahmed explained to The Guardian, has a serious impact on the way young women are able to use social media to their benefit.

“Digital spaces provide increasingly important ways to maintain relationships, communicate and build personal brands,” he said. “For women, however, the cost of admission to social media is misogynist abuse and threats sent by abusers with impunity.”

For help, advice or more information regarding sexual harassment, assault and rape in the UK, visit the Rape Crisis charity website. In the US, visit RAINN.

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