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Instagram vows to remove accounts of people who send abusive direct messages

Simon Peach, PA Chief Football Writer
·5-min read

Instagram has announced new measures to tackle online abuse in the wake of the latest spate of sickening racist attacks on footballers.

Manchester United players Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe and Lauren James are among those to have been subjected to racism on social media in the last fortnight alone.

A man was arrested during that period after Romaine Sawyers was sent what West Brom called an “abhorrent message”, while Chelsea full-back Reece James – brother of Lauren – was sent vile abuse via an Instagram direct message.

Instagram does not use technology to proactively detect content within private messages but it has announced new measures, including removing abusive accounts, in a bid to reduce the abuse people get in direct messages.

Facebook content policy manager Fadzai Madzingira told the PA news agency: “I am horrified that they have to deal with that sort of abuse and as a company we take it very seriously.

“We’ve always had rules around people who abuse our community standards in Instagram direct messaging, specifically.

“Currently we will set a specific ban or what we call a block for a set amount of time when someone violates those rules and we extend that time should they continue to do so.

“What we’re announcing today is that we’re taking tougher measures on people who violate those rules in Instagram direct messaging, so instead of just extending the time, we’ll be removing the accounts altogether.

“That allows us to ensure that we have a lower tolerance for that sort of abuse in direct messaging and we’ll be closing those accounts more quickly in Instagram direct messaging than anywhere else on the platform.”

Stopping individuals from seeing abusive content in direct messages is challenging, given they are private conversations, but business and creator accounts have the option to turn off messages from people they do not know.

Instagram intends to eventually roll that function out to all personal accounts, while a new feature is in the works recognising “that seeing abusive DMs in the first place takes a toll”.

But vile abuse has not been restricted to private messages, with a number of players seeing monkey emojis and racist terms left in the comment section of recent posts.

A number of those accounts appear to be focused on sending abuse – something Ms Madzingira says Instagram continues to work on, while she pointed to comment filters that can block certain words, phrases and emojis from appearing.

“I think there is something about the world that we’re living in where someone can go from throwing a banana peel at a player on the pitch to suddenly also waking up and opening their accounts and using this online,” she said.

“What we’re trying to address is the online aspect but there’s definitely a broader conversation we need to have about what does racism in sport look like and how do we stop that sort of behaviour?”

Instagram says it took action on 6.5 million pieces of hate speech, including in direct messages, between July and September of last year, with 95% found before anyone had reported it.

The social media platform has underlined its commitment to working with UK law enforcement on such abuse, vowing to respond to valid legal requests for information.

Preventing people from hiding behind anonymous accounts has been repeatedly mentioned within football as a way of holding people to account for abuse.

Asked if backend identification was feasible, Ms Madzingira said: “I personally understand where the frustration comes from and the desire for people to ‘need to use government IDs before they can open an account’.

West Bromwich Albion v Fulham – Premier League – The Hawthorns
Romaine Sawyers was recently sent what West Brom called an ‘abhorrent message’ (Paul Childs/PA)

“It is a debate we’ve had internally. There are a lot of difficulties – and not on a cost side – a lot of difficulties in terms of access when you think about who has identification and who doesn’t.”

Ms Madzingira pointed to the example of how difficult it was to get hardcopy identification growing up in Zimbabwe, as well as the disproportionate impact on other groups.

She knows there is a lot more to do and welcomes the ongoing discussions with all relevant stakeholders, including discussions with the UK Government on the Online Harms Bill.

“As a company, we’ve been really open,” Ms Madzingira said. “We want to have these conversations with governments. We want to be talking about regulation.

“We do think we’re not just talking about online, we’re talking about some of the behaviour offline and how it presents itself online.

“We think regulation is the appropriate discussion to be having right now.”

And Instagram has vowed to continue dialogue with football bodies about how to curb abuse.

The social media network said in a statement: “We’re committed to doing everything we can to fight hate and racism on our platform, but we also know these problems are bigger than us.

“We look forward to working with other companies, football associations, NGOs, governments, parents and educators, both on and offline.”