Instagram’s crackdown on ‘hateful’ DMs speeds up the spiral of Anglocentric censorship on social media

The app founded to share cute photos is now using AI to censor “hate speech” in direct messages, enforcing an Anglo-American notion of banning the ever-increasing expanse of unapproved thoughts to the rest of the planet.

Anyone who sends direct messages containing “hate speech” or abuse shall henceforth be banned, Instagram announced on Wednesday. Previously, they only suspended such users for a period of time. While that sounds great on the surface – nobody wants hate or abuse – it leaves open the very real question of who gets to define that, and how.

The US, where Instagram’s parent company Facebook is incorporated, does not have a legal category for “hate speech,” and indeed has protections for freedom of expression explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley platforms from imposing their own definitions and restrictions, however, arguing they can do so as private companies. 

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In announcing the new policies, Instagram actually boasted of acting against “6.5 million pieces of hate speech” between July and September 2020, including in direct messages. They said that 95 percent of the content was “found before anyone reported it,” meaning they censored it proactively. Moreover, they have also started using AI to “warn people when they’re about to post something that might be hurtful.”

While Instagram didn't say what prompted the change, they do mention “racist online abuse targeted at footballers in the UK” – that’s soccer players, for US readers. Further down, they also mention being “committed to cooperation with UK law enforcement authorities on hate speech.”

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The UK is well known for arresting and prosecuting people for social media posts the authorities themselves deem offensive or “hateful.” Just ask YouTube comedian Mark Meechan, aka ‘Count Dankula’ – or the yet-unnamed 35-year-old arrested in Lanarkshire, Scotland earlier this week for an “offensive” tweet. 

Apparently, the existence of such rules in the UK means they have to be enforced globally, to Instagram’s billion-plus users across the planet. That many Britons and Americans still call their countries “free” is apparently both immaterial and no longer true. What’s next, expanding Thailand’s laws on lese-majeste or Saudi rules on blasphemy worldwide? In theory, there is nothing to stop Big Tech from doing so, if they find it useful.

The most sinister part of Instagram’s announcement is actually the part where they “look forward to working with other companies, football associations, NGOs, governments, parents and educators, both on and offline.” It’s one thing to police one’s own platform according to terms of service – arbitrary and capricious as they might be – but becoming an arbiter of offline behavior, in league with NGOs and “educators” sounds positively totalitarian. 

Facebook is already purging people for what they insist is “misinformation” about Covid-19 and vaccines, while actively pushing a global vaccination campaign. It’s being done in the name of science and public health, of course – but science demands skepticism, and public health demands truthfulness, both of which have been in short supply during this pandemic.

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Ironically, globalization and the spread of Anglocentric cultural norms has meant that definitions of “racism” and “hate speech,” as articulated by “woke” Brits or Americans, are being projected to people and places that have no such history. This gives rise to absurd cases such as a Romanian referee being accused of racism for using a Romanian word for “black” to describe a coach born in Africa, with no one stopping to wonder what possible connection either Romania or Cameroon have to race slavery in the US that was abolished in 1865.

Nor is anyone wondering what gives an American company the right to be the arbiter of such things – be it Instagram, founded in 2010 as a way to share photos with cute filters on the emerging smartphone platform, or Facebook, which bought it out two years later to expand the empire started by sharing photos of “hot” Harvard classmates.

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