Following the death of Sandra Bland, the woman who was found dead in her Texas prison cell in what officials declared a suicide but what many believe were far more suspicious circumstances, public outcry bubbled up in familiar ways, including protests and media coverage. And, as with other fatal altercations between law enforcement and the black community, people used social media as a platform for debate, outrage and the expression of grief.
On Twitter, the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody trended; on Instagram, #SandraBland featured photos and graphics of Bland and other black Americans whose deaths were tied to their interactions with police.
That is, until Instagram moderators began restricting the hashtag's visibility.
When users attempted to search for or post content to the #SandraBland tag, they ran into problems. As the Huffington Post reported, numerous posts were disappearing from the gallery page, leading some users to question whether the platform was censoring the hashtag.
According to Instagram, however, the restriction was an attempt at blocking hate speech, of which numerous examples had popped up in step with the hashtag's burgeoning popularity.
"Content in the 'Most Recent' section of a hashtag can be abused because the photos and videos that appear in that section are highly visible," a spokesman for Instagram told Mic in an email. "To address this kind of abuse, we may temporarily restrict the visibility of content that appears under a hashtag to the 'Top Only' section, which we review regularly to ensure that it meets our Community Guidelines."
The photo-sharing platform implemented the restriction for 24 hours in order to give its moderators time to distinguish between acceptable content and content that violated its community guidelines, which includes "credible threats or hate speech." (It should be noted that those rules do allow "stronger conversation around people who are featured in the news.")
After that period, Instagram lifted the ban. "We have removed the restrictions on #SandraBland and it is now showing 'Most Recent' content," the spokesman noted. (A quick glance at the hashtag's page yields over 256,000 results.)
Restricting #SandraBland follows other recent examples of Instagram's community policing. During Caitlyn Jenner's appearance at the ESPYs earlier this July, during which she gave a speech about trans rights and acceptance, the hashtag #CaitlynJenner was temporarily blocked in a similar fashion to #SandraBland. Users weren't able to see recent posts, reportedly due to the hateful content contained therein.
Around the same time, Instagram users discovered that searching for #Curvy came up with nothing. While many touted the ban as an example of body-shaming, Instagram insisted — again — that the injunction was because the phrase had become an easy way for users to flout community guidelines, including its ban on nudity. Users responded by embracing the hashtags #curvee and #bringcurvyback and posting images of body acceptance.
While the cases of #SandraBland and #Curvy have clear differences — the former was a restriction, the latter an outright ban — there are parallels to be drawn: Each was a blanket response that swept up perfectly acceptable content along with more objectionable posts. But while the impulse to clean up undesirable material is certainly understandable, the one-size-fits-all method Instagram has used is less so.
Users haven't been shy about expressing their discontent. After the loud opposition to the #Curvy ban reached a fever pitch, Instagram lifted the ban, illustrating that, at the very least, the platform is open to working with the community. Similarly, after removing the #SandraBland restrictions, the company updated its Help Center guidelines with more information on how it polices hashtags. (The Instagram spokesman confirmed to Mic that the company is looking into ways to better communicate its policies where hashtags are concerned.)
The quest to maintain open expression while ensuring it doesn't breed hate speech isn't unique to Instagram — just take a look at Reddit's recent debacles — nor is it new to the digital landscape. But Instagram has had more than its fair share of bumps, and as the #SandraBland episode illustrates, it still hasn't quite nailed down a good answer.