Hashbrowns and Hashtags: How Will Instagram Stay Ahead of Photos That Glorify Eating Disorders?


Instagram has 80 million users and they’re growing fast, and with that, moderating the quickly expanding community is a mounting concern. For Beat, a British nonprofit that helps people struggling with eating disorders, the concern is with hashtags and images that celebrate disordered eating and emaciated bodies. Instagram has already made to search for such hashtags as “thinspo” and “anorexia,” but Beat wants more.

They believe that users can still post, search, and access harmful images too easily. For example, users can access these things via hashtag “ana”.

“It’s worrying that with the powerful medium of social networking and the growing popularity of phone apps such as Instagram, people are able to easily access images that encourage the individual to believe that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and to avoid treatment,” a Beat spokesperson told The Telegraph. “Some sites have acted to remove content that is seen as dangerous and encouraging people to do dangerous things. Eating disorders as a lifestyle choice should be treated in the same way.”

As the Huffington Post reports:

Although Instagram hasn’t outright disabled its search function for all eating-disorder related terms, a content-advisory warning — along with a link to the National Eating Disorders’ website — shows up before users can click on the images.
Such a warning is not a full-proof deterrence, however, since users can still glorify the images with their comments.

The thing is, no matter what they ban, new words will pop up in their place. You can’t outsmart the internet. I had a friend who was working with MTV on one of their websites and was given their list of banned words. It was several pages long and constantly growing. When you nix one word, a creative spelling of that word — or an even more offensive term — will pop up and quickly spread. You can slow it down, but you can’t stop it.

I think it’s great that Instagram is being thoughtful about this, and implementing changes, but I wonder if they’ll ever really stay ahead of it? What’s the solution for companies that don’t want to allow thinspo (or hate speech, or bullying)? When communities grow faster than moderators, how is this problem effectively addressed? And where do these new social media giants draw the line in terms of what’s acceptable user behavior? Complicated questions for a new world order.

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