What Could Happen If Governments Restrict Social Followers?

Instagram's new comment restriction tool may be helpful for some users, but it presents challenges for public-sector agencies who must uphold standards like citizens’ First Amendment rights.

by / October/November 2019

Instagram is testing a new comment moderation tool, but government agencies might want to think twice about adopting it. 

The image- and video-sharing platform has discovered that sometimes younger users are hesitant to report or block bullies because they don’t want to risk retaliation. Enter the new “restrict” feature, which attempts to address this problem by giving users more control over the comments people can view on their posts.

According to preliminary details from Instagram, accounts will be able to restrict who can see comments certain users make on their posts. Because the person who makes the comment continues to see it, and isn’t notified that it’s no longer seen by anyone else, the “restrict” option feels similar to the “hide” option available for Facebook comments. The key difference is that hiding Facebook comments is done individually after the comment has been published. Comments made on an Instagram account by someone restricted by that profile would automatically be hidden to others.

Restricting is an action a user can take toward another Instagram profile, such as with “blocking.” But unlike blocked profiles, restricted accounts aren’t banned from finding the restricter’s profile and can continue to view all the content that the person who has restricted them publishes. If your profile is blocked, you might know it because you can’t view the profile that blocked you at all. However, restricted profiles would be unaware their comments have been restricted (which does make it useful for bullied people who don’t want to make waves).

The other important feature of restricting an Instagram profile is that users can choose to make the restricted person’s comments visible to others on a case-by-case basis. This means all the offender’s comments would start off as automatically hidden, and then the original poster can decide to let some of those comments be visible.    

Why should government be cautious?

As soon as Instagram mentioned it was testing the restrict option, I heard from several government agencies eager to test it out as a way to manage profiles that repeatedly violate their official comment policies.

I’ve always cautioned government agencies against comment hiding and profile blocking. While the idea of restricting Instagram profiles may be a useful tool for private citizens, it raises concerns for government agencies.  

Courts are being more consistent in finding that government profiles on social media are public forums, and that blocking profiles is a violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.

What if you restrict a profile with the good intention of reviewing the user’s comments on a case-by-case basis, but you don’t immediately review the comments, or you forget to? Relevant information (that doesn’t violate your social policy) might never see the light of day.  

Whenever government is in a situation where it is choosing which comments to allow and which to restrict, trouble is near.  

The best advice on government social media comment moderation is always to get your legal staff involved, review your policy to see if any adjustments are needed in light of changing circumstances and avoid putting yourself in the situation of monitoring viewpoints.  

Kristy Dalton Contributing Writer

Kristy Dalton is known as "GovGirl" in the government technology industry. She has been called on as an industry influencer and has a passion for social media, technology and digital strategy. Kristy is the founder & CEO of Government Social Media.

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