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Sorry Instagram, your new anti-bullying tools still don't go far enough

Instagram boss Adam Mosseri
Instagram boss Adam Mosseri

Actions speak louder than words, so the old maxim goes. So it is encouraging to see Instagram make its first steps, tentative as they are, towards ‘leading the industry’ to fight online bullying.

This week Instagram boss Adam Mosseri announced two new features for its platform; one that pops up a notification when a user is attempting to post something deemed abusive or inappropriate, asking “are you sure you want to post this?” like a quizzical and disappointed auntie.

The second allows users to ‘restrict’ other people on the platform, making any comments visible to the poster themselves (unless otherwise approved) and stopping restricted people seeing your Instagram activity.

Will this solve online bullying? No, of course not. And you can easily argue that neither of these measures is doing enough in and of themselves.

But while an instant, catch-all solution would be a wonderful thing, the fact is that online bullying is now so deep-seated that it will take a sustained and often subtle campaign from social media companies to chip away at the toxicity that has been allowed to form on their platforms.

Of course, these platforms need to take responsibility for allowing it to fester almost unchecked. But the important step taken here is the acknowledgment that bad actors will use Instagram to target classmates and co-workers. And that there are root causes to address and real-life consequences to consider.

The restrict function, for example, seems like a timid response to a bully; tantamount to building a wall around yourself as someone hurls insults from the outside unchecked. But as Mosseri said during the announcement of the feature, some young people are “reluctant to block, unfollow, or report their bully because it could escalate the situation, especially if they interact with their bully in real life.”

That fear of escalation, as much a dodging of responsibility it may seem, is a very real thing and Instagram is right to highlight it. The sad fact is that, while social media platforms are under rigorous scrutiny to combat online abuse, playground bullying is as old as time itself.

More than half of young people have experienced bullying in school and 30pc have been bullied online, according to research by the Diana Award. The research found that 49pc of online bullying starts offline, with the majority of cases (78pc) in school.

Social media has just become another method for abuse and a more simplistic, public-facing block could have the unintended effect of moving that abuse to another arena. Which is the problem facing Instagram and other social media platforms in a nutshell. While they can unquestionably do more to stop bullies spreading, if they really want to make a difference, then using their success to address the root causes of bullying is the way to do it. 

In a way, that’s what makes the ‘are you sure?’ notification an interesting experiment. Part of me feels that the language is too soft, that the point that what someone is about to post is abuse should be driven home in no uncertain terms and could lead to a ban, or worse.

But there does seem to be some smart psychology going on here. Framing a post as egregious and ‘ban-worthy’ might offer the grimy thrill that many bullies are seeking. By asking “Are you sure you want to post this?”, there is a certain damning lack of cool that may give pause for reflection to those acting in the heat of the moment.

Of course, there is no way that this will work for more targeted campaigns of abuse and more deep-seated societal issues. This is where the social media platforms need to be focussing next. And the signs are promising there, at least. Instagram owner Facebook has hosted an anti-bullying school showcase to celebrate young people across the UK who are working together to tackle bullying in their schools, for instance, while Instagram has promised there is more that will be done.

While time will tell if these baby-steps are the first on the way to systemic change, that they are happening can be cause for cautious optimism. But there is much work to be done.