In response to the overwhelming demand for social media platforms to protect their female users from online harassment, Instagram announced a new feature that will allow users to moderate the comments they see on their pictures. The feature will allow users to go into their settings and create a list of words they don’t want to appear in their comments. Once the list is set, comments with those target words will be blocked from that user’s pictures.
CEO and Co-founder of Instagram Kevin Systrom wrote in the blog post that he was proud of the diversity of Instagram users: “The beauty of the Instagram community is the diversity of its members. All different types of people — from diverse backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities and more — call Instagram home, but sometimes the comments on their posts can be unkind. To empower each individual, we need to promote a culture where everyone feels safe to be themselves without criticism or harassment. It’s not only my personal wish to do this, I believe it’s also our responsibility as a company.”
Systrom’s announcement comes at a time when social media platforms in general, but especially Twitter, have been under fire for neglecting to protect women and people of color from virulent harassment. Leslie Jones and Anita Sarkeesian have spoken publicly about the vicious harassment they’ve faced online, but you don’t have to be famous to be attacked online if you’re a woman. Beyond slurs and nasty names, studies show that women are far more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment, stalking, and rape and death threats, none of which are protected by Free Speech laws. Systrom’s comment that this is the “first step” implies that Instagram will continue to explore ways to protect women and people of color who use its platform. You also have the option to use a list of words Instagram suggests to block, as well as the existing options to delete comments, report any inappropriate comments, and block accounts entirely.
The exciting thing about this particular development is that it will allow users to decide for themselves what they don’t want to see on their comment feeds. Just a simple input in your settings, and you never have to see anyone call you a “whore,” “bitch,” “slut,” or worse ever again. No flagging, no waiting for moderators, no hoping that an anonymous account spewing hate speech will finally get shut down. Ideally, you’ll be able to go through your day without having to process yet another reminder that society considers you exist to please men and act, speak, and dress only in ways they approve of.
Of course, it’s not a perfect solution, and it’s impossible to think of the perfect list of words that will eliminate any and all slime from your comments. Instagram should stick to the implication from Systrom’s post and continue to investigate other methods for reducing online harassment. Many publications have assigned comment moderators and many others simply shut off comments altogether to avoid the entire problem. Now the ball is in Twitter’s court to step up and improve on what tiny steps they have taken in the past to protect their users.
At the end of the day, methods from either the user or a social media platform are a bandage on a larger problem: why do men feel entitled to abuse and harass women online? Misogyny is the real root of these issues; social media is just one of the many ways in which hatred makes itself public. There will always be some bad apples in every bunch, but the overwhelming abuse aimed at women online, with little to no risk of consequences, is clear evidence of a wider cultural problem. Hopefully Instagram will lead the way towards making it clear that no one is entitled to having their garbage comments read by women just trying to live their lives. Free speech may mean you can voice your bigoted opinions, but it certainly does not mean that anyone has to listen to them.