TW: Homophobia, Transphobia, mentions of homophobic and transphobic slurs, rape, lynching
Today, I had an opportunity to meet Instagram’s Public Policy & Community Outreach Manager as part of Queer Muslim Project‘s Digital Pride Festival 2.0. On behalf of Yes, We Exist, an LGBTQIA+ digital advocacy platform, 5 recommendations have been made to make Instagram safer for the LGBTQIA+ community in India. They are as follows:
While the use of English-language slurs such as ‘faggot‘, ‘fag‘, ‘tranny‘ used to attack LGBTQIA+ persons is banned on Instagram, content is abundant on Instagram that uses South Asian-language words such as ‘Chakka‘, ‘Meetha‘, ‘Gandu‘, etc. in homophobic/transphobic ways. Reporting such content does not result in content takedowns.
Suggestion: Consult with multiple LGBTQIA+ organizations across South Asia’s lengths and breadths to identify words used for anti-LGBTQIA+ Hate Speech and disallow such content on the platform. Examples:
In the last couple of years, there has been a significant rise in the number of LGBTQIA+ persons in India petitioning the courts and raising their voices for equal rights and protections. This has led to a rise in counter speech which is most hateful in nature. Although Instagram policies treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics and disallow attacks against individuals based on these characteristics, they, unfortunately, allow criticism of concepts and treat homosexuality and the transgender identity as concepts. For example, saying “Homosexuality is a disease“, “Transgenderism is unnatural“, etc. is allowed on the platform.
Suggestion: Stop treating LGBTQIA+ identities as concepts and treat criticism of LGBTQIA+ identities as Hate Speech against the LGBTQIA+ community. Saying “Homosexuality is a disease” is not a criticism of some abstract concept but a direct attack on people who are born homosexual. LGBTQIA+ identities are not concepts but intrinsic characteristics of LGBTQIA+ persons. Saying “Bisexuality is disgusting” is the same as saying “Bisexual people are disgusting” and is as violating as saying “Whites are disgusting” (for example), and should be treated as Hate Speech.
Example: This post by an account with over 74,000 followers claims to present a “Hindu view of Homosexuality” and in the process deems homosexuality as “degenerative propaganda“, “abnormal” and worthy of punishment. Despite several reports, this post remains on Instagram and has over 6,600 likes.
A week ago, Yes, We Exist hosted a Pride event on Instagram Live. As soon as we went to live, our comments were flooded with Hate Speech from over 30 users who planned a coordinated attack. Our comments feature is restricted to our followers only, these attackers bypassed this restriction by following us to comment. There was no option for the Live host to report these comments and block these accounts during the Live; the only option was to hide the Live from the attackers after they had posted a hateful comment.
After the Live video ended and was published, there was no way for us to view the comments posted during the Live to take action against the attackers. Fortunately, one of the audience members had taken screenshots of the attackers’ comments, due to which we were able to find them and block them and file a Cyber Crime complaint against them. Reporting these accounts to Instagram was futile as their comments on the Live video had disappeared and there was no way for Instagram to identify the violation and action the accounts.
Suggestion: Please create a feature to report comments and block accounts from Live video comments. Please create a reporting mechanism to report batches of accounts involved in coordinated harassment with an option for those attacked to provide additional context to Instagram.
Example: Here are some of the accounts involved in the coordinated attack that I experienced
Usually, it takes coordinated reporting on a mass scale or direct contact with an Instagram employee to take down homophobic/transphobic accounts with a large following on Instagram. After the successful removal of such accounts, the abusers easily get back with a new account and continue spewing hate speech and harassing LGBTQIA+ users. As much as it is the responsibility of users to report abuse, the larger responsibility to prevent abuse and disallow recidivist users lies with Instagram.
Suggestion: Create policies and systems to completely disallow repeat violators from entering back onto Instagram. Trump is not the only abusive user. There are many more.
Example: a recidivist abuser named Vedprakash Pandey who calls himself ‘Guy With The Board’ has had 2 Instagram accounts deleted, one with over 19,000 followers and another with over 4,500 followers. He harassed other queer creators through his posts. He blocked their accounts so that they cannot see and report his content. On Instagram, he has even discussed lynching a popular queer creator at a Pride March. Now he is back again with two new accounts, growing his followership and spewing hatred.
Abusers know that Instagram policies allow Hate Speech if it is self-referential in nature. Abusers add indicators like the Rainbow emoji, Pride Flag emoji, hashtags related to the LGBTQIA+ community, pronouns, etc. in their bio to give a false impression that they are LGBTQIA+. They do the same in their captions while uploading homophobic/transphobic content to bypass Instagram’s content moderation mechanisms. Abusers also use the term “LG TV” instead of “LGBT” in their hateful comments to bypass Instagram policies.
Suggestion: Have frequent consultations with the LGBTQIA+ community to gather intelligence that will help Instagram improve its anti-abuse systems. Instead of limiting these consultations with a few handpicked organizations, invest in creating more open channels for community members to pass feedback directly. Current reporting mechanisms and current civic consultation efforts are clearly not enough, given the excessive abuse on the platform and the large scope for region-specific policy improvement.
We hope that Instagram finds these suggestions valuable and decides to implement them on a priority basis so that LGBTQIA+ users can express themselves using Instagram fearlessly.
If you have additional suggestions, share them in the comments below.