For the queer community in India, instant hate has become a lingering problem on Instagram. And there’s precious little that the social media platform can — or apparently will — do about it.
Ask Indrajeet Ghorpade, founder of the digital LGBTQ awareness platform, Yes, We Exist. On June 5, Ghorpade hosted an event on Instagram Live event encouraging the queer community in India to share their best coming out experiences. “It is to give a safe space (to the queer community) and allow other audience members to come out to their friends and families and live authentic lives,” he says.
Within minutes, his live video was flooded with homophobic, transphobic, and hateful comments from over 30 users in an apparently coordinated attack.
There was no option for the Live host to report these comments and block these accounts during the Live session. After it ended, he used screenshots to find the trolls, block them, and file a cybercrime complaint.
Reporting these accounts to Instagram was futile, says Ghorpade, as their comments on the Live video had disappeared, and there was no way for Instagram to identify the violation and take action against these accounts.
“These comments discouraged a lot of folks to come live and talk. They are already anxious to share such personal experiences live and such coordinated homophobic attacks make it worse,” he says.
This isn’t Ghorpade’s first brush with homophobic trolls or homophobic content on the social media app owned by Facebook Inc.
Many followers of his page have flagged two audio reels that went viral on Instagram. One audio reel used the slur chakka for transgenders and talks about raping one such person at a railway station. Another one used the slur meetha for gay men. Both these clips have been widely reported but Instagram had not taken them down, says Ghorpade. (Instagram removed the two audio reels after Firstpost reached out for comment.)
Instagram has anti-hate speech and anti-homophobia policies in place. But the problem, says Ghorpade, is that they disproportionately enforce these policies.
“Hateful homophobic content in English is removed but the same in Indian languages is allowed to remain on the platform.” What is disturbing, he says, is despite flagging the hateful and homophobic content to Instagram, no action has been taken. “It clearly shows their casual attitude towards enforcing their hate speech policies when it comes to India.”
Yashaswini Basu of the Internet Freedom Foundation says, “Reporting Live content is problematic but there are options to do so in Instagram's Help Centre. Facebook and Instagram use AI-based content moderation tools which are inaccurate, especially in terms of the vernacular languages. Hence, this oversight. I recommend writing to Instagram to escalate the issue."
Ghorpade did. In June, Instagram teamed up with The Queer Muslim Project, South Asia's largest virtual network of Queer, Muslim, and allied individuals, to celebrate and support the LGBTQIA+ community with a second edition of the Digital Pride Festival. During an interaction with the LGBTQIA+ community as part of the festival, Ghorpade raised the issues with Tara Bedi, Public Policy and Community Outreach Manager, Instagram. He followed up on email, detailing the complaints against the platform and possible solutions.
In addition to detailing the LIVE video abuse and the reels, he wrote, “Usually, it takes coordinated reporting on a mass scale or a direct contact with an Instagram employee to take down homophobic/transphobic accounts with a large following on Instagram. After the successful removal of such accounts, the abusers easily get back with a new account and continue spewing hate speech and harassing LGBTQIA+ users. As much as it is the responsibility of users to report abuse, the larger responsibility to prevent abuse and disallow recidivist users lies with Instagram.”
Despite the complaint, all the content flagged to Bedi was still present on the platform for more than a month. (Bedi acknowledged Ghorpade’s email and promised to take action only after Firstpost reached out for comment.)
“It is an issue that Instagram performs poorly in taking down violating content that targets LGBTQIA+ people in India despite multiple reports. A greater concern is that despite flagging such content directly to Instagram’s team, with relevant regional context, URLs, and the impact of allowing such content, Instagram still fails to take action for weeks, while millions of users continue being exposed to content that endangers the safety and well-being of LGBTQIA+ people. This reflects the reality of the commitment that the company has to keep all its users safe,” says Ghorpade.
The queer community in India had found a safe space on Instagram to express themselves, especially after the Supreme Court in 2018 read down parts of an archaic law (Section 377) that criminalised homosexuality. Of late, that safety has rapidly disappeared and Instagram, the queer community says, is not doing much to help secure the platform. Instead, some members of the community have faced action by the social media platform for “being themselves”.
Rishi Raj would concur. This 20-year-old used to post queer activism messages on their Instagram account. They — Rishi Raj likes to be referred to with a gender-neutral pronoun — stopped because of all the hate and trolling. Instagram, they say, removed their posts.
“One day I posted this story with the caption ‘My body, my right. My sexuality, my right’. It was just a picture of my head with some makeup on. Instagram removed it under sexual content,” they say.
But then, they say, the platform won’t remove content where people morph their faces onto porn stars and upload to Instagram. “Or people trolling me in an abusive homophobic way and then sharing that on Instagram. Instagram has no redressal to these things,” they say.
Rishi Raj says when they posted content on trying to embrace one’s own body, they were censored by social media. “Instagram won’t remove similar content of underwear models or similar people. It infuriates me that my heterosexual or cisgender counterparts don’t have to go through the same thing. As queer people, even writing the words sexualization and sexuality in our captions makes it weirdly eligible for Instagram to censor us because apparently, they want to create a safe community or a safe space,” says Rishi Raj.
There are other issues. “Despite reports that people are using our pictures without our consent, these pictures are being used to make homophobic memes. Instagram won’t remove them and instead ask me to unfollow them. Simply unfollowing is not good enough when I am being bullied.”
Facebook, the social networking giant that owns Instagram, insists all is well. "We do not allow content that attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, or their sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. If we find content that violates these policies, we will remove it,” says a Facebook spokesperson, refusing to give out a name, saying such semi-anonymity is standard practice.]
The spokesperson adds that the company has a detailed hate speech policy which outlines their approach to hate speech on Instagram. “Namely that we do not allow content that attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, or their sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.”
We use technology to proactively identify content that may violate our guidelines including content in photos and their captions. We also make it easy for people to report content they think may violate our guidelines,” adds the spokesperson. They go on to say that once something is reported, the Community Operations team reviews that content. “The community operations team is global and reviews reports in over 40 languages and reports are reviewed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the vast majority of reports are reviewed within 24 hours.”
"While each social media platform has their community guidelines, we have generally observed that they don't vastly different (sic) from each other in terms of definitions and content moderation practices," says Basu.
Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society agrees, but makes a vital distinction. “Instagram's prohibitions aren't very different from what, e.g., Facebook prohibits, but Instagram's prohibitions do go further (‘content that targets private individuals to degrade or shame the’). So, at least in terms of policy, Instagram's doesn't seem to be "inadequate" in any way.”
“That's why I believe that those who wish to create safe spaces online should seek to rely primarily on the tools that Instagram provides (unfollowing, blocking, deleting comments),” he adds.
According to the Facebook spokesperson, people can use Instagram to challenge ideas, institutions, and practices. Such discussion, they say, can promote debate and greater understanding. “Sometimes people share content containing someone else's hate speech for the purpose of raising awareness or educating others about that hate speech. When this is the case, we expect people to clearly indicate their purpose, which helps us better understand why they shared that content,” says the Facebook company spokesperson.
Prakash adds that perfect censorship not only doesn't exist but cannot exist. “No two groups will ever agree as to what the optimal level of censorship is, and context matters (for instance, slurs can be used as terms of endearment within a community); even if somehow coming to perfect censorship guidelines was possible, it is impossible to effectively censor the mind-boggling quantity of content that gets uploaded to platforms like Instagram.”