Social Media Moderation Challenges Revealed by Instagram’s Hashtag Bans


Everybody would agree that it is absolutely necessary to moderate the user-generated content on social media platforms. However, it can end up being an extremely challenging task to balance. Insufficient moderation can lead to the proliferation of toxic communities that can have an adverse effect on the brand image while excessive moderation can provoke users to revolt against the restrictions imposed.


Beyond the Obvious


The application programming interface of Instagram was used to explore more than 10,000 hashtags to test hashtag bans, both temporary and permanent. Most of the permanent bans are somewhat predictable inasmuch they deal with issues like racism, pornography or even behaviors like anorexia that Instagram does not want to be seen supporting. Some other permanent bans such as #Like may initially seem surprising but using it hardly makes sense as there would be an over-saturation of the tag and content as well.


However, the problem that may arise with Instagram’s moderation policy is better illustrated with the temporary hashtag bans, such as #Skype, #Adulting, #Kansas, #Desk, #Kik, etc. It may always not be too obvious why these hashtags are temporarily banned and hashtags that are not obviously pornographic but still banned may create confusion due to lack of clarity.


The Terms of Use Kick In


Kansas doesn’t look to be a tag that’s harmful but it is more probable that the ban has something to do with guns rather than pornography because #Kansas displays images of guns and hunting that may not have gone down too well with Instagram’s parent Facebook that has very recently banned private firearm sales on its sites. If you are wondering how and why Instagram is limiting #Kansas but not following suit with #Guns or #Hunting, you could take a look at its terms that proclaim users “may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content.” Instagram goes on to state that “We may, but have no obligation to, remove, edit, block, and/or monitor content or accounts containing content that we determine in our sole discretion violates these terms of use.”


A Futile Effort?


The proffered reason for discriminating between hashtags is entirely speculative and the real reason may well be completely different but it will give you some idea of the problems associated with content moderation. Given that Instagram is flooded with pornographic content as well as other content that is forbidden, it is quite evident that there is an appetite in Instagram followers that company would clearly prefer they did share objectionable material, there’s only so much it can do to clean the site up.


Clarity Is a Must


At this point of time, any lists of hashtags that are banned are compiled by third parties and is very likely to be incomplete or not current because Instagram has not been very helpful about lending clarity to its moderation policy. It is evident that having clear rules and processes regarding the subject would not only make Instagram content cleaner but also simultaneously keep the users informed.


What the lack of clarity can lead to is best illustrated by the outrage expressed by users when Instagram banned #curvy. When asked, Instagram put up a defense that it had no objection to the term itself or the images associated with it but takes a decision to ban words when it returns excessive results that are pornographic or otherwise inappropriate, which apparently #curvy did. The company declined to reveal the extent of inappropriate results required to invoke a ban. Instagram has thereafter unblocked #curvy but continues to be selective about displaying results the search yields.




For content to be as wholesome as the majority of users would want, the effort of keeping the site clean largely needs to also be user-initiated. There’s only so much policing Instagram can do in terms of continuously scanning the content for objectionable materials. While Instagram also cannot let off the pressure of moderating content, it needs to be very clear regarding its content policies so that users too can take cognizance of it.