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

A look into 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 typically faced little to no consequences, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report, by 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 further steps to curb harassment on their platforms. Many women using Instagram — especially those with large followings — have consistently reported feeling unsafe, and advocates say the relentless harassment threatens to cut women off from one of the world’s most popular online platforms.

But in opening up their thousands of incoming private messages to researchers, the five high-profile women allowed for a deep analysis of the misogyny they face out of public view, and how one tech company handles it. Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the nonprofit, wrote that Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, “created an environment where abuse and harmful content is allowed to thrive.”

“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,” he said.

In a statement, Instagram disputed the conclusions of the report and pointed to measures it had taken to limit harassment. Users can filter out specific words from DMs and comments, turn off the ability of strangers to send DMs, or hide comments and DMs from users who either don’t follow or have recently followed them. It blurs images sent in DMs 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 C.C.D.H.’s conclusions, we do agree that the harassment of women is unacceptable,” Cindy Southworth, Meta’s head of women’s safety, said in a statement. “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.”

By the report’s telling, Instagram’s policies were unable to protect the five women from a wide array of misogyny and threats.

The women represented a range of public figures, variously prominent in entertainment, activism and journalism. Amber Heard, an actress, has 4.1 million followers, while Jamie Klinger, an activist who co-founded the Reclaim These Streets group 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, a journalist and author; and Sharan Dhaliwal, founder of the South Asian culture magazine Burnt Roti.

When messages are sent by someone you don’t follow, they’re cast aside into 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 broke 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,” Ms. Riley said in the report. “If they did it on the street, they’d be arrested.”

In studying the accounts that sent abusive messages, 227 of 253 remained active at least a month after they were reported. Forty-eight hours after they were reported, 99.6 percent of the accounts remained online. (Instagram said accounts are banned after three strikes, and lose the ability to send direct messages after a first strike.)

The report argued for stronger regulation, accusing Big Tech companies of being unable to regulate themselves. Their commitments to halting harassment were without teeth and secondary to the goal of profit, the report said.

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

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

“Social media is how we connect with one another today and that medium is pretty much off limits to me,” she said in the report. “That’s the sacrifice I made, the compromise, the deal I made for my mental health.”


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