Instagram Outlines Steps to Address Potential Areas of Racial Inequality on its Platform

Last week, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri published a video on his Instagram feed in which he seemed particularly emotional about the #BlackLivesMatter protests across the US.

Mosseri, in general, is a pretty calm and collected character, and rarely shows much emotion in his posts and presentations. But it felt like this issue had really hit home with him, and that he wanted to do more to address the noted concerns. And today, Mosseri has outlined how, exactly, he plans to do just that.

In a new post, Mosseri discusses the role Instagram has played thus far in the #BlacLivesMatter movement, while also noting that, in some areas, the platform has fallen short.

“We’re hearing concerns about whether we suppress Black voices and whether our products and policies treat everyone equally. The irony that we’re a platform that stands for elevating Black voices, but at the same time Black people are often harassed, afraid of being ‘shadowbanned’, and disagree with many content takedowns, is not lost on me. This is a moment when people around the world are rightfully demanding actions over words, and we owe the same to our community.”

Tackling these concerns, Mosseri has outlined four steps that Instagram will be taking to improve racial representation and equality on its platform.

  1. Harassment – Mosseri says that Instagram will be looking to address any potential gaps in its policies which may be seeing different groups experience more harassment and abuse
  2. Account verification – Mosseri says that Instagram will also re-assess its verification process to ensure that there’s no endemic bias in how verification is allocated and approved. “Verification is an area we constantly get questions on – what the guidelines are, and whether or not the criteria is favoring some groups more than others.”
  3. Distribution – Mosseri also says that Instagram will review its content policies to ensure that there’s no inherent bias in how content is chosen for its Explore and Hashtag pages. Mosseri also says it will investigate “shadowbanning”, which sees content get less exposure without explanation as to how or why. “Soon we’ll be releasing more information about the types of content we avoid recommending on Explore and other places”.
  4. Algorithmic bias – And lastly, Mosseri says that they will examine their algorithms to avoid repeating patterns, like racial bias, which are instituted based on biased inputs. “While we do a lot of work to help prevent subconscious bias in our products, we need to take a harder look at the underlying systems we’ve built, and where we need to do more to keep bias out of these decisions”.

The last point is a key note of emphasis raised by virtually every AI and machine learning academic. Because the input data is often already tainted with behavioral bias, based on the actions of people, those same leanings are intrinsically built into the systems, meaning that we can’t escape racial bias even when it doesn’t come down to humans doing the thinking. 

That’s a significant problem to address, and the solutions to such won’t come easy. But it is an important element, and it’s good to see Mosseri raising it as something that he plans to take on at Instagram.

Though Mosseri does also note that it will take time to investigate and implement any subsequent changes:

“We’re going to provide updates over the next few months – both about what we learn and what we address. These efforts won’t stop with the disparities people may experience solely on the basis of race; we’re also going to look at how we can better serve other underrepresented groups that use our product.”

The issues Mosseri highlights here are actually all very technical, and in large part, difficult to address, because they require more in-depth assessment of accepted logic, and will see Instagram looking to search beyond what user data tells it. That’s generally Facebook’s stance on most elements like this – it’s not up to any person to decide, for example, what gets traction and what fails on Facebook, it comes down to people, our activity dictates what Facebook is. The system is merely a host, a mirror for society as it really is.

With these investigations, Mosseri is looking to dig deeper than that, and use Instagram at least, less as a mirror and more as a view to how things should be, in a more equal and balanced world.

While Mosseri has summarized these into some fairly short dot points, the actual work required is very in-depth, very challenging. And it may well end up being hugely important – both for Instagram, and Facebook more broadly.

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