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Self-harm hashtags up 500 percent on Twitter: research

The prevalence of Twitter hashtags related to self-harm has increased about 500 percent in the past year, despite many of those posts violating the platform’s policy on the subject, according to a new report. 

The report from the Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent research organization that studies misinformation and hate on social media platforms, and Rutgers University states that users have made tens of thousands of posts per month related to self-harm since October. Many of the posters appeared to be adolescents and young adults, according to the report. 

The report states that 5Rights, a United Kingdom-based children’s digital rights charity, alerted Twitter to the hashtag #shtwt, which stands for “self-harm Twitter,” in October. 5Rights said the platform’s algorithms were promoting profiles that use this hashtag to other users who were searching “self-harm” instead of connecting them with resources to help. 

Twitter said it blocked tweets using the hashtag and other related ones in response, but posts related to self-harm have grown exponentially since the company was notified about the matter in October, the report states. As a part of that overall rise, the institute found the number of posts with hashtags related to #shtwt have also specifically been increasing.

Twitter policy bans users from promoting or encouraging suicide or self-harm, including but not limited to by asking other people for encouragement to commit self-harm or suicide or by sharing information, strategies or instructions for doing so. 

A Twitter spokesperson told The Hill that self-harm is an “extremely complex and sensitive” issue that the company takes very seriously. They said Twitter works with a group of independent experts to determine its approach to the issue.

The spokesperson said Twitter is continuing to review its policies with experts and based on research like the report so it is able to find a balance between allowing people who are struggling to have a voice and taking down content that exploits those struggles.

“The safety of the people who use our service is our priority and we are committed to building a safer Internet and improving the health of the public conversation,” the spokesperson said.

Twitter said the company has other tools it uses like not allowing known associated terms to appear in the top of search. The company said it partners with third-party organizations to direct people who are searching for information on self-harm to resources using #ThereIsHelp prompts.

These prompts are available in more than two dozen countries, including the United States.

The report states that posts with the hashtag #shtwt are usually accompanied by images of severe and potentially life-threatening self-inflicted wounds. The posts are “praised, celebrated, and encouraged” by some users, it said. 

The institute also found rapidly growing Twitter communities that glorify eating disorders and mass shootings, saying these signal that its discoveries on self-harm and suicide appear to be the “tip of the iceberg.” 

Researchers additionally found evidence that predators who claim to be minors have engaged with these online communities to further encourage self-harm, according to the report.


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