Skip to main content

The Instagram logo is seen in this file photo.Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Instagram is taking new steps toward fighting bullying, harassment and abuse on its platform by rolling out new opt-in content filters that users can apply to their comments starting today.

The filters will block posts that include hundreds of what the company calls "deplorable words" in the dozens of languages spoken by the Facebook-owned social-media platform's 500 million users. Instagram will also allow users to customize the default settings by adding their own lists of terms; everything from a personal nickname to specific emoji can be banned. The changes are also retroactive, so users who enable the filters (click on the gear in your account to find this new "comments" option) will see old offensive comments disappear from view in addition to blocking new ones.

Back in July, Instagram began to hint to media that tools it was testing behind the scenes to help some of the platform's biggest stars manage their unruly fans might someday migrate to all users. Content filtering was one of those tools, as well as blocking all comments on specific posts. While the latter isn't in today's release, the company says it will continue to offer more control over user feedback.

CEO Kevin Systrom, who founded Instagram only six years ago, selling to Facebook in 2012 for what now looks like a bargain at $1-billion (U.S.), released a blog post that explains the moves, which are pitched primarily at keeping comments on the platform "positive and safe."

"People of different backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations and abilities, to name just a few, call Instagram home – but sometimes the comments on their posts can be unkind," he wrote. As an example of what Mr. Systrom means, 15-year-old transgender writer and social-media star Jazz Jennings recently told Teen Vogue that every single post she puts on Instagram attracts a negative comment. "To empower each individual, we need to promote a culture where everyone feels safe to be themselves without criticism or harassment. It's not only my personal wish to do this, I believe it's also our responsibility as a company," continued Mr. Systrom's post.

Canadians may recall that Ontario-born pop sensation Justin Bieber briefly quit the network after his fans used his comments to attack new girlfriend Sofia Richie. In the new Instagram he could have set filters to block the snake emoji, which many users posted as a sign of their disapproval.

Instagram's new comment controls also feature something commonly called a "bozo filter," in that the person whose comment is blocked gets no notification that they have been blocked, but they are the only person who can see the offending post. This, coupled with some mystery around the blocked terms (which will not be posted anywhere) could in some cases deter a user from trying to find rude words that are not blocked.

Instagram already has community-standards systems that can get users who abuse them banned, and users can delete posts left on their pages, but pro-active filters allow users to crack down on commentary that might not violate Instagram's global standards. For instance, a frequent complaint of Twitter users who report harassment is that Twitter errs on the side of not blocking a user based on suggestive, but not always directly explicit, hateful or harassing speech. User-defined filters should make it harder for even clever harassers to infiltrate comments.

"I think everyone has different opinions about what is okay and not okay to say online," says Nicky Jackson Colaco, global head of public policy for Instagram. "On your own account in your own comments, in your house, you have the right to decorate your house the way you decorate it."