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Why Instagram started banning hashtags (and why it's a bad idea)

Lauren Brousell | Aug. 13, 2015
Instagram recently made a controversial decision to ban select hashtags associated with inappropriate posts, but the company eventually backpedaled, and it's unclear whether the censorship worked to combat spammers or only alienated its loyal users.

instagram app
Credit: Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

Policing social media sites is no easy task, because users can post almost anything they want, often without consequence. Other users can report inappropriate content, but it's not possible for social networks to remove every post that violates their guidelines.

Instagram, the social photo-sharing service that boasts 300 million monthly active users and more than 30 billion photos shared, recently banned certain hashtags, including #EDM (for "electronic dance music") and #curvy, because they were frequently being tied to posts with graphic or offensive content. However, there's currently no end in sight for these types of violations, many of which come from spammers, so it's uncertain if Instagram's attempt to crack down will make a difference in the long run.

Why, and when, Instagram blocks hashtags
Instagram said in a statement that it blocks certain hashtags, making them unsearchable, "when they are consistently being used to share images and videos that violate their community guidelines." Instagram's community guidelines include rules against nudity in photos and allow for the removal of content that contains credible threats or hate speech. In April, Instagram also added new guidelines to address posts that promote self-harm, and it banned hashtags such as #thinspiration and #proanorexia, which were perceived as promoting eating disorders. If users come across posts that violate these guidelines, the company says they should report the pictures, block the users and delete the any questionable comments on their own posts.

Though Instagram recently blocked the #EDM and #curvy hashtags, the company quickly reversed course and freed them up, saying it is working on "ways to more quickly restore certain hashtags that have been previously blocked," as well as "ways to better communicate our policies around hashtags."

Estelle Metayer, founder and president of Competia, a strategic consulting firm, says Instagram may not be worried about mere bad user behavior, but also pornographic sites and spammers taking over. Spammers often using hashtags to hack into conversations on social media sites, she says. "By using a popular hashtag, they know that people are following and will see that content."

Metayer says spammers have inserted themselves into social conversation for years, not just on Instagram but on other sites, as well, including Twitter. For example, spammers follow popular events, such as the TED conferences, then use the associated hashtags to promote their services, and not much can be done to prevent the misuse, according to Metayer. For Instagram, "[b]anning hashtags is useless, because the creativity of those spammers and pornographic sites is endless," she says.

Banning Instagram hashtags an exercise in futility
Although spammers can be somewhat contained with various kinds of filtering software, Instagram faces different challenges. "There are other platforms that have photo sharing, but with Instagram, that's all they are," says Jess Harris, founder at Jess Harris Consulting, and content and social media manager at Kabbage.

 

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