Instagram Asks Young Female Activists How It Can Better Combat Online Harassment

By Jemima McEvoy Sunday, October 25, 2020

The internet has revolutionized the world as we know it. Unfortunately, however, not all consequences of more time online are positive. The advent of social media, which brings billions across the globe together, has led to a rise in online bullying and harassment—particularly among young girls. One platform wants to put an end to it.

On October 11, officially designated the International Day of the Girl, Instagram announced a new initiative designed to squash online hate and harassment. The Facebook-owned social media platform said it is creating a panel of 15 youth activists who will host a series of listening sessions, consulting with a diverse network of girls, civil society organizations, and activism groups to present Instagram with feedback from thousands across the world.

“The Listening Sessions will give policy and product teams from Instagram—as well as other Facebook platforms—an opportunity to hear directly from girls about their lived experiences on social media,” said a news release from the company, outlining hopes to create “a dialogue about more ways the companies can continue to invest in protecting girls from bullying and harassment.”

The feedback that comes from these listening sessions will also be shared with Facebook and Whatsapp, said Instagram, meaning the resulting changes could sweep through some of social media’s most influential players.

This action from Instagram — which hasn’t been seen before on the same scale among social media platforms — is directly related to a landmark report published by independent human rights organization Plan International revealing the extent to which bullying is a problem online. Surveying 14,000 girls across 22 countries, ranging from the United States to Benin to India, Plan International found that more than half (58%) of girls reported being harassed or abused on social media. This abuse includes cyberstalking, being sent explicit messages or images, or generally receiving abuse online.

“These attacks may not be physical, but they are often threatening, relentless and limit girls’ freedom of expression,” said Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. “Driving girls out of online spaces is hugely disempowering in an increasingly digital world, and damages their ability to be seen, heard and become leaders.”

According to the study, around 20% of female users have been forced to leave social media, while another 12% have had to adjust how they use it because of the online violence and hatred they faced. A quarter of the girls surveyed reported feeling physically unsafe as a result of online abuse. Some say they have been spammed with death threats from anonymous accounts.

These problems spanned all platforms — WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok — not just Instagram.

“We love your platforms, they’re a huge part of our daily lives,” wrote six young girls in a petition to leading social media platforms, published by Plan International with the study’s findings. “We are physically threatened, racially abused, sexually harassed and body shamed. Online violence is serious. It causes real harm and it’s silencing our voices.”

While bullying is against most platforms’ community standards, social media companies have long struggled to enforce these rules, with dire consequences. The head of Women’s Safety at Facebook, Cindy Southworth, recognized the problems many platforms have in curbing this hate.

“Abuse of women on the internet is a serious problem, one we tackle in a variety of ways—through technology that identifies and removes potentially abusive content, by enforcing strict policies and by talking with experts and people experiencing harassment or abuse,” she said. “We know this is a particular challenge.”

As the problem seemed to be getting worse and not better, the UN special rapporteur called on governments in 2018 to create new laws to better protect women online, based on rights to expression, privacy, and freedom from violence. Plan International has also advocated for this. Now, working with Instagram on the Listening Sessions initiative, it has an opportunity to concretely influence the way social media companies handle this delicate issue.

“We need effective ways to report abuse to ensure that everyone is safe using digital platforms,” said Plan International USA President and CEO Tessie San Martin. “Harassment abuse of girls and young women has not only moved online, it has increased.”

Plan International will also continue to advocate for more sweeping change in the form of legislation dealing with justice in gender-based violence in the hopes that one day the internet will be a safe space for everyone.

About the Author


Headshot of Jemima McEvoy

Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.

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