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How Instagram Decides What Hashtags to Ban

Instagram doesn't hate curves -- but it does hate porn.

angelicafenney/ Instagram

Instagrammers were up in arms last week after the social media site banned the hashtag #curvy, eliminating pictures associated with that hashtag from its search results.

Some female users protested by posting curvaceous selfies using the hashtag #curvee as a workaround, and other hashtags like #bringcurvyback and #stillcurvy gained steam.

But Instagram says it doesn’t hate the word curvy, or the (usually positive) body image associated with it. So why, then, did a term that’s helping women feel better about their bodies get the boot?

Instagram claims that when it bans a word from its search feature, the actual meaning of that word has nothing to do with why it was banned. Instead, Instagram bans any term that returns inappropriate or pornographic results that exceed a certain threshold, which #curvy crossed last week.

“In this case, #curvy was consistently being used to share content that violates our guidelines around nudity,” a spokesperson told Re/code.

deedeelemew/ Instagram

Under this policy, terms like #beautiful or #happy could be banned as well if people were posting inappropriate photos alongside those hashtags. On the flip side, sexual or inappropriate terms are allowed, so long as the prevalence of inappropriate content associated with those terms doesn’t cross a specific threshold. A company spokesperson declined to share how prevalent inappropriate content needs to be before a term is banned, but said that seemingly random terms, like #eggplant and #soles, have been banned in the past as a result.

Instagram is getting a taste of what it’s like to be a place for public, searchable and sometimes anonymous content. It’s an area Instagram wants to get into; it revamped its search feature last month to help people better find stuff from others they don’t follow.

But it’s not an easy place to operate. (Just ask Twitter.) If you want to become a hub for breaking news, you have to keep pace with those who want to hijack the news for other reasons, too.

Here’s a prime example: The Instagram search results for #CaitlynJenner had to be modified last week after people hijacked the hashtag to write nasty, vile comments after Jenner — who recently came out as transgender — won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. Instead of showing all recent search results for the hashtag, Instagram only showed a few, hand-picked images that were deemed appropriate. It’s a strategy that a spokesperson said the company is considering for hashtags like #curvy in the future, too.

It’s a decent solution, but doesn’t feel like a long-term fix. What’s the point of contributing to the conversation if the conversation isn’t fully there for you to see? As Instagram grows, so too will the number of hashtags it has to block. Unfortunately, it seems to come with the territory.

Update: Instagram unblocked #curvy — at least partly — on Thursday afternoon, according to a company spokesperson. You can now search for #curvy again on the service, but Instagram will only return a group of hand-selected photos it deems appropriate. It’s the same strategy Instagram used to combat trolls who hijacked the #CaitlynJenner hashtag last week.

Here’s a statement from the company on the decision:

“We want people to be able to express themselves, and hashtags are a great way to do that. At the same time, we have a responsibility to act when we see hashtags being used to spread inappropriate content to our community. In the case of #curvy, we don’t like putting restrictions around a term that many people use in very positive ways, so we have decided to unblock the hashtag while taking steps to ensure that it’s not used as a vehicle for bad content.”

#Curvy’s return was first reported by The Washington Post.

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