Why Banning Words on Instagram Won’t Work


Banning words used by pro-eating disorder or pro-ED communities in Instagram backfired. A new Georgia Tech study found that Instagram users eventually invented new but similar words after the ban in 2012, turning “thighgap” into “thygap” or “thightgap,” just to name a few.

Additionally, the censorship even increased the support for these pro-ED Instagram groups. In spite of Instagram’s efforts to control the expression of these unhealthy behaviours, the number of supporters of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders still increased by up to 30 percent.

A user looking at an Instagram profile. Photo from Pixabay/YashilG

A user looking at an Instagram profile. Photo from Pixabay/YashilG

The Georgia Tech researchers investigated 2.5 million pro-ED posts from 2011 to 2014. Lead researcher Stevie Chancellor explains that pro-ED Instagram users remain anonymous and use specific hashtags.

“Likes and comments on these new tags were 15 to 30 percent higher compared to the originals,” notes Munmun De Choudury, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing. “Before the ban, a person searching for hashtags would only find their intended word. Now a search produces dozens of similar, non-censored pro-ED terms. That means more content to view and engage with.”

Previously, some of the hashtags they used were “thighgap,” “thinspiration” and “secretsociety.” These users stopped using these as soon as the ban was enacted, and they tweaked the spelling of words like “‘thinspiration’ with “thynspiration” or “thynspo,”  “thighgap” with “thightgap” or “thygap.”

The other 17 terms also turned into hundreds of new words, with 40 variables each term on the average. The term “thighgap” even turned into 107 new but similar words.

Instagram does not allow any words associated with racism, sex or self-harm. Nevertheless, along with contents showing different eating disorders, the research team also discovered that these hashtags also contained contents from self-harm, isolation, even suicide.  Still, the Georgia Tech team insists that other approaches other than simply banning these words may solve the problem.

“Allow them to be searchable. But once they’re selected, the landing page could include links to help organisations,” suggests Chancellor. “Maybe the search algorithms could be tweaked. Instead of similar terms being displayed, Instagram could introduce recovery-related terms in the search box.”


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