Jess Lomax

‘I’m sharing my situation to be as transparent as possible, because online abuse has killed people, it’s nearly killed people, and it will kill people.’

These are the candid words of Pheebs Jameson. Pheebs is a young British activist, a campaigner against public sexual harassment, the founder of a signposting service for victims of sexual violence. She is also a victim of online abuse. Following her own experiences of abuse on Instagram, Pheebs has started a campaign to change the way the social media giant handles claims of abuse, harassment, death threats, and hate speech. I met up with Pheebs on Zoom to discuss her campaign, and why Instagram is not taking the necessary actions to keep its users safe. 

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Though online abuse is a problem as old as social media itself, Pheebs notes that the volume of abuse received by her and others has grown considerably since the first lockdown. ‘I’ve experienced online abuse since about November 2019, but it shot up from March, and I think this is true for a lot of others too.’ Since lockdown, the length individuals have gone to to cause deliberate harm to Pheebs is shocking – sending direct messages telling her to ‘try and kill yourself again,’ and ‘can’t wait to bully you into actual suicide.’ In a pandemic which has fostered a mental health crisis of its own, the uptick in messages such as these is worrying, and the consequences are potentially dangerous.

This growth in online abuse isn’t surprising – social interactions that would once take place in person are now, due to Covid, happening online, and our increased presence on the internet only makes online abuse more likely. In addition, the level of uncertainty caused by the pandemic may have some impact on the mindset of abusers – ‘People are scared about what’s going on, and they don’t know how to safely work through their emotions,’ Pheebs notes. What is surprising, perhaps, is the lack of action that has been taken to combat this rise in online abuse. Despite our lives moving almost entirely online, those in charge of the most popular sites are still not acting in the interest of protecting their users.

So, what exactly is being done to tackle online harassment and abuse? According to Pheebs, not enough. From personal experience, she’s seen little done to the perpetrators of the abuse she’s received – while one abuser’s account was deleted, there’s no way of knowing whether this action was taken by Instagram or the account’s owner. While Instagram’s current terms of service state they will take action against any user making ‘credible threats’ to another, Pheebs notes that the decision on what is and isn’t ‘credible’ can often lead to Instagram not doing anything to abusers.

Pheebs also cites examples of activists who have spoken about important issues – especially people of colour who have used Instagram to educate others on racism – whose accounts have been restricted after receiving racial abuse. As a platform, it appears Instagram has been more concerned with silencing the voices of those speaking on important matters than deleting the accounts of those who have committed harmful and racist abuse. 

Pheebs notes that this is a common pattern on Instagram, stating that while ‘anyone can get abused and anyone can perform abuse, this does happen more to marginalised groups.’ Whether this is due to human error or a problem within Instagram’s algorithm, it is evident that the current system is not working, and that something desperately needs to change if Instagram is to be a safe and productive platform for all its users.

But it is unlikely change will come on its own. Instagram is a multi-billion dollar company, owned by a multi-billion dollar company, which makes its profits by selling users’ data. Nowhere in this business model is there an incentive to block online trolls – in fact, the opposite is the case. As Pheebs notes, ‘More data equals more money – the reason why I don’t think a lot is being done is because of how much money they’re making off trolls.’ If this is true, and Instagram does rely on trolls to increase their profit margin, collective action is the only way to hold the site accountable for its ineffective terms of service. 

This is where Pheebs’ campaign comes in. With the issues of racism, transphobia, fatphobia, and misogyny at the forefront of its mission, the campaign is aiming to grab Instagram’s attention with an official mission statement and petition within the next month. Following this, those working on the campaign are planning to collect testimonies from those who have suffered abuse on the platform, ranging from victims of harassment to individuals who have received death threats. These testimonies will be collected, collated, and added to an open letter, so as to attract the attention of those responsible for keeping users safe. As Instagram is owned by Facebook, any changes to its algorithm should run across both sites, making Twitter the natural next target for the campaign. 

Online abuse is costing lives, and a change to Instagram’s terms of service could help to save them. Pheebs doesn’t shy away from the harsh effects of online abuse – ‘lives are being lost and that’s really sad to say, but I just want people to take it seriously.’ Rather than forcing victims of abuse off their platform, it is evident that Instagram needs to take action to combat the toxic troll culture that has negatively affected so many of its users. In the meantime, Pheebs notes the importance of listening to victims – ‘it’s so hard to talk about, but it’s very important.’ 

If you are interested in following and helping with Pheebs’ campaign, please follow her on Instagram.

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Last Update: February 04, 2021