Instagram decision to disable search for sensitive topics and Instagram ban
Written by Jeff Allen
[Note: This article discusses sensitive topics, particularly eating disorders. I do my best to talk about it as abstractly as possible, but want to give notice to people sensitive to the topic]
On January 8, 2024, Instagram began disabling searches for sensitive questions about eating disorders and self-harm. This is probably for the best. And then we can research these issues internally and ask if Instagram is harming people and have the courage to say that our current product is harming people and needs to be disabled. I'm so glad there are people here. . But it's also a reminder of how broken Instagram is, both as a platform and as a company. This is a little personal for me. When I worked at Instagram, I used Intagram's various content recommendation screens ([探索]I was part of a team that cleaned up all violative content (such as content on tabs and hashtag pages). And while that team had many victories, I personally considered my time on Instagram a failure. It was clear that Instagram's path to becoming a healthy content recommendation system was long and uncertain, but I didn't have the energy to keep trying. (And of course, in hindsight, this is OK. The work of integrity, trust, and safety can be hard. Sometimes you need a break.) Good to show up in searches related to self-harm, or Useful content absolutely exists on Instagram. and eating disorders. But Instagram search is fundamentally broken, and Instagram can't seem to build search in a smart and responsible way. By disabling search for sensitive topics, Instagram is essentially throwing in the towel and admitting that it can't build a secure search engine or content ranking system (and that it doesn't allow political content in threads). Given the decision to de-recommend the content, turning it off seems like the only solution (Jules in the meta). So while disabling it is more responsible than maintaining the status quo, it also reflects a lack of vision from Instagram's leadership about the positive role Instagram can play in the world. Instagram searches frequently return inappropriate and harmful content for very basic search queries about eating disorders. Instagram blocks all content for bulimia searches, as highlighted in the blog post. However, you can search for bulimia. You can also click on the help screen to continue through the search results. These search results contain a surprising number of posts that are inspiring to people who struggle with eating disorders. Three of the top 15 results for bulimia include images of people at the time who were struggling with the eating disorder, and quantification of the actions they took as a result of their eating disorder to share content online. Contains images that violate the guidelines of the National Eating Disorders Association. There are also posts that advocate bizarre, highly restricted diets. Based on this one example where 20% of the results were problematic, we can actually say with 95% confidence that more than 5% of the posts returned from a basic bulimia search were problematic. In my test. You can also see posts where the content screen is displayed. This means Instagram knows they may be inappropriate. This is completely unacceptable. It's a shame that a search engine used by billions of people around the world is not completely secure for such basic search queries. It doesn't have to be this bad. For example, you can search for bulimia on Google. And what do you get? The top results are from the Mayo Clinic, National Eating Disorders Association, NHS England, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the Cleveland Clinic. That makes so much sense! Almost all of Google's top results are medical institutions. Now, you may be wondering what happens if these organizations don't have content on Instagram. You can also search Instagram using Google. If you search for site:instagram.com bulimia on Google, you'll see results where Google features the best bulimia content on Instagram. This provides results from the Child Mind Institute, Limi Hospital, Promises Healthcare, National Eating Disorders Association, and UCSD Center for Eating Disorders. Again, there were a lot of really great results. So the problem isn't that there isn't good content returned on Instagram for sensitive search terms. The problem is that Instagram's search is built in an intentionally irresponsible way, which prevents Instagram's search algorithm from showing you any quality, useful content. This is sad for obvious reasons. Because Instagram is unnecessarily showing people a lot of harmful content. But this is also sad for less obvious reasons. Because Instagram search can be beneficial for people. It could connect people to organizations they can trust and people who understand the difficult situations they may be in and know how to help them recover. We may live in a world where Instagram is seen as a helpful tool for people with eating disorders. Instead, Instagram seems to have resignedly accepted that at best it can treat people as badly as it has in the past. You can also search for bulimia on various platforms. A search on YouTube will bring up many posts from medical institutions and major news organizations, similar to Google. TikTok seems to be more aggressive in blocking sensitive searches, so whether you're binge eating or binge eating, you won't see any results on TikTok. And to be fair to Instagram, things are getting worse. If you search for bulimia on X/Twitter or Tumblr, you'll see content that actually defends bulimia, which is insane. Things can always get worse. So why is this so? Why does Instagram return inappropriate and harmful content to Instagram instead of content from the many health organizations that fight eating disorders? We will focus on how content ranking systems differ between. There are two fundamental reasons. Instagram doesn’t know how to build a search engine algorithm or content ranking system. The other doesn't have a vision of how Instagram can play a positive role in people's lives. How Instagram Works and How Instagram Builds Its Search (and All Content Rankings) So, How Does Instagram Search Work? I haven't worked here in a few years, so I don't know the details. But Instagram has been fairly transparent about how its content ranking and recommendation system works. A search on Instagram roughly looks like this: Find all posts that contain your search term Estimate the probability of engagement with a post (looking at photos, likes, and comments) If the content follows Instagram's policies Estimate the probability of violating either Sort the content by some criteria A combination of the probability that a user will engage with the content (likes or comments) minus the probability that the content violates it. The final ranking score can be “Probability (Engagement) – 10 * Probability (Violation)” or an equivalent formula. This is a standard “engagement-based ranking” framework and is known to amplify harmful content (a brief overview of how harmful content is amplified can be found in the appendix) . There is a growing industry consensus that this engagement is correlated with low-quality, harmful, and violative content. There's a lot to be said about the harm that engagement-based rankings cause (and I have about a 20-page paper covering it all that I'm trying to put together, so I'll link it here when it's done… ), but here are the cases of eating disorders: Instagram searches are a clear example of failure. Engagement-based rankings are bad, but engagement-based rankings for sensitive searches are insane. So what's the alternative to “engagement-based rankings”? There's no big secret. Google Search is so old that its founding patents have expired. Google search is full of explanations on how it works. As a result, Google search returns relevant and helpful content, even for sensitive queries, when strictly limited to results from Instagram. I don't want to pretend that Google Search is perfect in every way. There are certainly drawbacks (discussed in the appendix). However, Google offers a very obvious and obvious alternative to building a content recommendation system for engagement-based rankings. Very broadly speaking, Google Search evaluates results along two dimensions: quality and relevance. The results that appear at the top of Google Search are what our systems think are high quality and relevant. Quality Google's definition of quality is publicly available. Platforms don't have to be afraid to quality-assess their content. Doing so is actually important and valuable to your business. Google uses a variety of signals to predict quality, including the very long-established information search signal. The most famous of these is PageRank, Google's founding algorithm. I created his PageRank calculation for 20 million Instagram accounts using Common Crawl (I'll also publish this when I have time). What would Instagram search look like if quality and PageRank were built into the system? Out of our 20 million Instagram accounts, we calculate a score based on the percentage of Instagram accounts that have a lower PageRank score than the specified account. Therefore, 100 means that the account has a higher PageRank than other accounts in the dataset. A score of 10 means the account's PageRank is higher than 10% of the accounts in the dataset. And a score of 0 means that the account never appeared in the dataset, and therefore the PageRank is too low to be easily estimated. You can compare what the PageRank score of the results would be if you searched for bulimia on Instagram using Google. , use Google search and map results to your Instagram profile, or use Instagram search directly.
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