DM abuse: Instagram ‘negligent’ over misogynist harassment of women in the public eye, study finds.

Posted on April 06, 2022 in Press releases.

With the participation of five women in the public eye, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has exposed an “epidemic of misogynist abuse” sent via Instagram Direct Messages (DMs), 90% of which is ignored by the platform despite being reported to moderators.

The women who participated in the Hidden Hate study, to be published on Wednesday, are:

  • Amber Heard, actor and UN Human Rights Champion
  • Rachel Riley, broadcaster and CCDH ambassador
  • Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets
  • Bryony Gordon, award-winning journalist and mental health campaigner
  • Sharan Dhaliwal, founder of UK South Asian culture magazine Burnt Roti

Working with access to participants’ DMs, researchers logged abuse sent by 253 accounts and reported them using the Instagram app or website. An audit of abusive accounts revealed that 227 remained active at least a month after these reports were filed, representing Instagram’s failure to act on 89.5% of reports sent to its moderators.

This finding is particularly concerning given that CCDH’s research suggests half of abusive users go on to send further abusive messages when platforms fail to remove them.

Instagram also allowed 9 in 10 abusers who sent violent threats to our participants to remain online, even after they were reported to Instagram using the platform’s own tools.

Researchers identified a number of systematic problems in Instagram’s DM function that seriously undermine users’ safety:

  • Users are unable to report any abusive voice notes that accounts have sent via DM
  • In order to report messages sent in “vanish mode”, users are forced to view them
  • Instagram’s “hidden words” feature is ineffective at hiding abuse from users
  • Users can face difficulties downloading evidence of abusive messages

CCDH performed a separate data analysis of 8,717 total DMs, retrieved by data download. (Amber Heard and Bryony Gordon were unable to retrieve full data downloads)

It shows that one in every 15 DMs (6.67%) broke Instagram’s rules on abuse and harassment:

  • Researchers recorded 125 separate examples of image-based sexual abuse
  • Instagram failed to act on every single example of image-based sexual abuse 48 hours after the abuse was reported to the platform
  • Among the sample of DMs, one in seven voice notes sent to women were abusive
  • Instagram allows strangers to place voice calls to women they don’t know.

Women have long spoken of misogynist abuse sent to them on Instagram’s Direct Messages. Harassment, violent threats and image-based sexual abuse can be sent by strangers—at any time and in large volumes—directly into users’ DMs without consent.

Instagram’s policies promise to act on hate speech, including misogyny, homophobia and racism, nudity or sexual activity, graphic violence, threats of violence. The platform has acknowledged that “seeing abusive DMs in the first place takes a toll,” and in February 2021, Instagram announced new measures aimed at “removing the accounts of people who send abusive messages”.

Instagram has previously acknowledged that the “requests” inbox reserved for DMs from strangers “is where people usually receive abusive messages.” As well as promising to filter these messages, the platform has promised to act on reports of abuse.

But CCDH’s new research finds that Instagram systematically fails to remove accounts which violate its rules.

Imran Ahmed, Chief Executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), said:

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

“Instagram has chosen to side with abusers by negligently creating a culture in which abusers expect no consequences—denying women dignity and their ability to use digital spaces without harassment.

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

Rachel Riley said:

“For women in the public eye, receiving a constant stream of rude, inappropriate and even abusive messages to your DMs is unfortunately inevitable, and the fact that this happens away from public view makes it all the more intrusive.

“It worries me that younger and more vulnerable women and girls can be exposed to huge amounts of abuse without anyone knowing.

“Instagram and other platforms have a duty to keep the women who use their sites safe, but at the moment there isn’t enough being done to protect them.”