Instagram debuts new tool to stop abusive message salvos made through new accounts

DMs are the next area the firm wants to focus on in controlling abusive behavior.

Instagram's appeal lies in the ability to share images; indeed, some users known as "influencers" have been able to build businesses purely on these types of posts -- but the popular platform, and its users, are not exempt from abuse. 

In the same way as Facebook -- which acquired Instagram in 2012 -- users are able to communicate privately through direct messages (DMs), rather than just comment on public posts. 

For most users, this is nothing more than a useful feature to stay in contact with friends and fans. For others, however, it is an additional conduit to conduct abuse and harassment.

If you have an account set to private, you may receive message requests for review. Existing contacts can be blocked from messaging you if conversations turn sour or if they are abusive. 

However, this doesn't stop someone from signing up for a new account and reaching out again and again -- a problem Instagram hopes to tackle with new measures preventing users from seeing abusive DMs in the first place. 

Users can already set a block for an individual's account, but soon, they will also be able to pre-emptively select a further block that will try to catch any new accounts the same abusive person creates in the future.  

"This is in addition to our harassment policies, which already prohibit people from repeatedly contacting someone who doesn't want to hear from them," Instagram says. "We also don't allow recidivism, which means if someone's account is disabled for breaking our rules, we would remove any new accounts they create whenever we become aware of it."

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Another new feature is a filter to cover message requests containing "racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other kind of abuse." Just seeing these types of messages can be upsetting, and while trying to prevent it completely is likely impossible, Instagram's tool could limit the amount of abuse we see in our inboxes. 

Offensive words, phrases, and emojis can automatically be blanketed when they are detected in DM requests. 

"Because DMs are private conversations, we don't proactively look for hate speech or bullying the same way we do elsewhere on Instagram," the firm says. "[The tool] will work in a similar way to the comment filters we already offer, which allow you to hide offensive comments and choose what terms you don't want people to use in comments under your posts."

Due to be enabled under Privacy settings and "Hidden Words," if this feature is turned on, 'offensive' terms can be filtered in upcoming DM requests and you will need to proactively open the hidden requests folder to view the message and tap the content to uncover it. 

Instagram is keen to emphasize that using the tool won't send message content back to the firm's servers, nor share the content directly with Instagram unless users report the account holder. 

Lists of offensive terms are being created with the help of anti-discrimination and anti-bullying organizations. Users will also be able to create their own custom lists if they so choose.

Instagram's tools will be rolled out in the coming weeks to a handful of countries before expanding over the next few months to additional areas. 

The company is also refining its algorithms for detecting abusive comments. If users choose to disallow 'offensive' words in comments made on their content, Instagram is also starting to hide common misspellings of these words. 

"We know there's still more we can do, and we're committed to continuing our fight against bullying and online abuse," Instagram says. 

Earlier this month, Facebook's VP of Integrity, Guy Rosen, said that users of both Facebook and Instagram are now able to appeal content left up -- including posts, status updates, photos, videos, comments, and shares -- through the Oversight Board.

The idea behind the board is to maintain a balance between free speech and rights, and is made up of individuals ranging from activists to lawyers. Facebook will have to uphold or reverse content decisions based on the board's reviews, and the group will also make recommendations to both Facebook and Instagram concerning content policies. 

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