Instagram’s anti-bullying tools welcomed by agency executives

Instagram wants to be a happier place, but advertisers are skeptical.

This week, Facebook-owned Instagram announced new tools to curb bad behavior and sent recently appointed Instagram lead Adam Mosseri to “CBS This Morning” to explain the changes. In short, Instagram will flag comments that artificial intelligence tools deem as offensive to the user who is trying to post it and ask if they want to “undo” it instead. Instagram also is testing a feature called “restrict” that lets users limit interactions with particular accounts. For example, restricted users’ comments would only be visible to them unless the user approves it.

These new tools can help Instagram users like teenagers being bullied by classmates, as Time described in a story this week, featuring insight from Mosseri and other Instagram executives. Instagram users having healthier experiences on the app indirectly helps advertisers by making them feel less guilty for pouring their ad dollars into a hate-filled platform. Earlier this year, bullying concerns and inappropriate content on Instagram prompted concern from brands like Marks & Spencer, The Post Office, Dune and the British Heart Foundation after a BBC investigation found their ads next to graphic content about suicide on Instagram.

Yet none of the brands mentioned chose to pull ad spend; they simply asked for reassurances. These new changes from Instagram also could directly help advertisers by potentially curbing abuse they receive on their own accounts and when they work with influencers.

An ad executive, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from Instagram, said their agency peers have long wanted Instagram to do more to curb bullying. Studies, like this 2017 report from anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label, have ranked Instagram as a top app for cyberbullying.

“Many of the executives at our media agency have been concerned about bullying on the platform and whether Instagram is doing enough to safeguard the mental health of users. The recent steps taken by Instagram have been noted, but we would welcome Facebook and Instagram to continue to invest in this area,” the ad executive said.

Agency executives have seen the bullying on Instagram first-hand. Social media manager or other ad industry professionals who oversee social accounts have had to make decisions on how to react, or not. When asked about his experience with bullying on Instagram, Brandon Doyle, the founder of digital agency Wallaroo Media asked which part — as in bad behavior in photos, comments or direct messages on Instagram?

“We’ve seen it all. Brands making mistakes regarding not being politically correct and getting attacked for it (sometimes rightfully so, but sometimes it definitely gets out of hand); consumers interpreting something incorrectly and banding together against a brand erroneously; social media managers of brands trying to be too funny or something and doing something dumb in the comments; consumers being mean in the comments or DMs, calling brand models sluts and worse. So yeah, it’s not great, I guess,” Doyle said.

The restrict tool will allow users to more easily manage harassment, without having to block users. However, the tool will be restricted to a small subset of Instagram users at first and will be available to every user later this year, an Instagram spokesperson said.

“We are generally encouraged by the pursuit of even more brand-safe and user-friendly tools like those announced. Comments and adjacent placements are more challenging for today’s third-party tools to address, especially in a personalized feed. We continue to ask that more surfaces are made fully available to third-party brand-safety measurement and ultimately pre-bid blocking,” said Kieley Taylor, global head of social at GroupM.

This announcement isn’t the first time Instagram has publicly committed itself to combat bullying. In fact, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger deleted hateful comments on the app themselves when it was first released, Wired reported in 2017. In that same piece, a profile shot of Systrom is adjacent to the text, “Mr. Nice Guy,” and the story explores Systrom’s different efforts to clean up the app following his awakening at VidCon 2016. Three years later, following the co-founders’ abrupt exits from the company late last year, Mosseri has taken over the quest. There’s a high price for not acting, Mosseri told Time.

“It could hurt our reputation and our brand over time. It could make our partnership relationships more difficult. There are all sorts of ways it could strain us,” he said. “If you’re not addressing issues on your platform, I have to believe it’s going to come around and have a real cost.”

But despite those strong words, the anonymous agency executive said they were confused and concerned about the Mosseri’s decision to take a sabbatical immediately after the announcement. Mosseri tweeted on July 7, “I’m taking time off with the family this July, a luxury FB offers us once we pass 5 years is a ‘recharge’ like this. Time away is so important for perspective. With that in mind anybody have suggestions of people in the real world to spend time with once I’m back on the grid?”

Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos, for one, suggested Mosseri go on a personal “safety tour.”

During Mosseri’s absence, Instagram’s recently appointed chief operating officer Justin Osofsky and head of product Vishal Shah will be overseeing Instagram, an Instagram spokesperson said.

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