United Kingdom

Instagram says sorry after 'algorithm mistake' urged users with anorexia to search for diet pills

Instagram has apologised after an 'algorithm mistake' urged users with eating disorders to search for fasting and diet pills. 

A mistake within the app resulted in the search function automatically recommending terms including 'appetite suppressants' and 'fasting' to some users, reported the BBC.

The Facebook-owned platform said the suggested terms feature was never meant to include terms around weight loss and that the issue had been fixed earlier this week.

The new feature was designed to offer users suggestions for search terms based on the content they had previously liked and accounts they follow on the platform.

Lauren Black (above), who is an Instagram influencer and recovering from anorexia, said: 'When I use the app, I’m often promoted things like calorie counting images and diet methods'

A Facebook company spokesman said: 'To help people discover content they're interested in, we recently rolled out a new way to search on Instagram beyond hashtags and usernames, where you tap on the search bar and we suggest topics you may want to search for.

'Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests.

'Weight loss should not have been one of them and we've taken steps to prevent these terms from appearing here. We're sorry for any confusion caused.'

Lauren Black, who is an Instagram influencer and recovering from anorexia, said: 'When I use the app, I’m often promoted things like calorie counting images and diet methods. People go to Instagram for support with their illness. 

'But if you look at and research eating disorder recovery, then Instagram just throws harmful stuff at you, it can be really damaging.'

Campaigners have previously warned of the dangers of the imagery and language on social media around body image, particularly the impact they can have on young and vulnerable people and their mental health.

Instagram and other platforms have been criticised for allowing a range of content around dieting, detoxing and cosmetic surgery on the platform which could affect some users.

Instagram said it has policies to prevent the promotion, encouragement or glorifying of eating disorders, blocks certain posts advertising weight-loss products from being seen by under-18s, and has blocked a number of hashtags linked to the topic.

The Facebook-owned platform said the suggested terms feature was never meant to include terms around weight loss and that the issue had been fixed earlier this week (file photo)

In 2019, the platform announced a crackdown on diet and cosmetic surgery content, which also introduced rules that said any post which makes a 'miraculous' claim about a diet or weight-loss product and is linked to a commercial offer such as a discount code would be removed.

Following the pledge, Simon Stevens said: 'Every business should put a premium on its customers' well-being and it's welcome that social media giants are beginning to listen to NHS calls to rein in harmful or misleading content that could harm users' health.'

Emma Collins, Instagram's public policy manager also said at the time: 'We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.

Actress and body positivity campaigner Jameela Jamil (pictured above) described Instagram's update in 2019 as a victory for mental health advocates

'We've sought guidance from external experts, including Dr Ysabel Gerrard in the UK, to make sure any steps to restrict and remove this content will have a positive impact on our community of over one billion people around the world – whilst ensuring Instagram remains a platform for expression and discussion.'

Actress and body positivity campaigner Jameela Jamil, who has repeatedly criticised high-profile online figures including Khloe Kardashian for posting on social media about diet products, described the update as a victory for mental health advocates.

She previously said: 'This is a huge win for our ongoing fight against the diet/detox industry.

'Facebook and Instagram taking a stand to protect the physical and mental health of people online sends an important message out to the world.

'I'm thrilled to have been able to work towards this with them, alongside a host of other experts who shed light on the danger of these products.

'Instagram were supportive and helpful when I brought them my protests and petitions; they listened, they cared, they moved so efficiently, and communicated with us throughout the process.'

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