Picture this, your posts now come with a conscience of sorts

Instagram may be clamping down on bullies, but what about the rest?

Social networks can always do more. Instagram’s move will not stamp out all bullying on social media, but it might make a few people think about their behaviour.  Photograph: iStock

Social networks can always do more. Instagram’s move will not stamp out all bullying on social media, but it might make a few people think about their behaviour. Photograph: iStock

 

“Are you sure you want to post this?” Imagine having a small Jiminy Cricket style conscience on your shoulder, keeping you on the straight and narrow whenever you feel the urge to dash off an ill thought out response to something online.

That’s similar to what Instagram has rolled out on its platform, drawing a line in the sand of sorts on online bullying.

Starting immediately, the photo-sharing site will warn you if your comment could be construed as bullying. It uses artificial intelligence to compare comments with commonly reported posts; if yours ticks the right – or wrong, as the case may be – boxes, it triggers a warning before you post.

Effectiveness

It’s an admirable move, but its effectiveness remains to be seen. Like that imaginary conscience, the warning can be ignored. It won’t prevent people posting abusive comments, but it is designed to make people rethink their interactions. Likewise it won’t pick up everything that could be interpreted as bullying.

Artificial intelligence, while it is a useful tool, is only as smart as the data it receives. In human interactions, context is key.

Bullying can be much more subtle than all-out name calling. What may look like an innocent comment to one person may be a subtle dig as part of a sustained campaign of bullying to another. Machines are getting smarter, but nuances of communication may still be beyond them for now.

You could argue that it’s all a bit of misdirection - Instagram appears to be taking action, but unless it leads to real results, it is futile. You could also argue that the big social media players are effectively playing “whack a troll”; remove or suspend one account and another pops up in it place.

With this move, Instagram is targeting those who may be more careless than vindictive. Determined abusers won’t be deterred, but arguably they are the ones that are the true problem.

One thing that is for certain is that Instagram has brought the spotlight back to user behaviour on these networks and the responsibility of their overlords to protect users. It sets a standard for other companies to meet too.

So how do the other main social media sites stack up in comparison? None have implemented a simple warning system in the way Instagram has. But they have made noises about clamping down on online abuse.

Abuse

Twitter meanwhile has made it easier to report abuse on the platform, making certain tweets less visible in conversations by filing them under “Show more replies” and identifying certain patterns that may indicate an abusive account.

According to the company, 38 per cent of the abusive content it deals with is directly detected by Twitter rather than relying on reports from users; that still leaves a lot of content that needs to be reported by users though.

Policing content on Facebook is a thorny issue. The social network has more than 2 billion active monthly users, and it has come under fire repeatedly for how it handles abuse. Bullying and harassment breaches the community standards; however, one person’s bullying is another’s “forthright interaction”.

It has taken some steps though, filtering out fake accounts and those who create multiple accounts to get around being blocked by a user. It has also increased tools for group admins to monitor the communities that have grown more effectively.

Facebook set up a bullying prevention hub that has a list of resources aimed at teenagers, parents and teachers, both for those who may be suffering at the hands on bullies or those who have been accused of it.

The bottom line? Social networks can always do more. Instagram’s move will not stamp out all bullying on social media, but it might make a few people think about their behaviour.