For Prominent Women on Instagram, DMs Can Be a Cesspool of Misogyny

A look at the private direct messages of five prominent women on Instagram found a torrent of harassment, including pornographic images and threats of physical and sexual violence, while the perpetrators generally faced few or no consequences, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report, from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an international nonprofit, was far from the first to identify the urgent need for social media titans to take additional steps to curb harassment on their platforms. Many women who use Instagram, especially those with large followings, have consistently reported feeling insecure, and advocates say relentless harassment threatens to isolate women from one of the world’s most popular online platforms.

But by opening up their thousands of incoming private messages to investigators, the five high-profile women allowed for an in-depth look at the misogyny they face outside of the public eye and how a tech company handles it. Imran Ahmed, CEO of the nonprofit, wrote that Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, “created an environment in which abuse and harmful content is allowed to flourish.”

“The intended effect of the abuse and trauma of their constant bombardment is simple: take women off platforms, out of public life and further marginalize their voices,” she said.

In a statement, Instagram disputed the report’s findings and pointed to steps it had taken to limit harassment. Users can filter specific words from direct messages and comments, turn off the ability for strangers to send direct messages, or hide comments and direct messages from users who don’t follow them or have recently followed them. Blurs images sent in direct messages by people who don’t follow you in an effort to hide unwanted sexual images and removes a wide range of abusive content.

“While we disagree with many of the CCHR’s conclusions, we do agree that harassment of women is unacceptable,” Cindy Southworth, Meta’s director of women’s safety, said in a statement. “That’s why we don’t allow gender-based hatred or any threat of sexual violence, and last year we announced stronger protections for female public figures.”

According to the report, Instagram’s policies failed to protect the five women from a wide range of misogyny and threats.

The women represented a variety of public figures, prominent in various ways in entertainment, activism, and journalism. Amber Heard, an actress, has 4.1 million followers, while Jamie Klinger, an activist who co-founded the group Reclaim These Streets after the death of Sarah Everard in London last year, has about 3,500 followers. The group also included Rachel Riley, a TV show host in Britain; Bryony Gordon, journalist and author; and Sharan Dhaliwal, founder of the South Asian cultural magazine Burnt Roti.

When messages are sent by someone you don’t follow, they are put aside in a side folder labeled “Requests.” For female public figures, it tends to be a cesspool.

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

“On Instagram, anyone can privately send you something that should be illegal,” Riley said in the report. “If they did it on the street, they would be arrested.”

When studying the accounts that sent abusive messages, 227 of 253 remained active at least a month after being reported. Forty-eight hours after they were reported, 99.6 percent of the accounts were still online. (Instagram said the accounts temporarily lose the ability to send direct messages after a first attack and are banned after a series of additional offenses it did not disclose.)

The report advocated stricter regulation, accusing big tech companies of being unable to regulate themselves. His commitments to stop bullying were weak and secondary to the goal of profit, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the women were left to work out their own coping strategies. Some choose not to engage with direct messages, but Ms. Klinger said that was not an option for her, as she sometimes receives requests from the press to speak about her activism.

Ms Heard said that the experience and the inability to do much about it had increased her paranoia, anger and frustration.

“Social media is how we connect with each other today and that medium is practically out of my hands,” he said in the report. “That’s the sacrifice that I made, the commitment, the deal that I made for my mental health.”

Leave a Comment