tests show safety filters don't catch routine bullying language
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NGL, an app that lets users solicit and send anonymous messages, is gaining enormous popularity on Instagram, especially among young people.

NGL, which is a social media shorthand for “not gonna lie,” is a newer iteration of the anonymous “ask me anything” format. It’s among the latest iterations of the “anonymous question” tools that teens have used on social media for more than a decade. In that decade, NGL-like apps have had issues with bullying because of the anonymity of the platforms.

NGL allows teens to use the app through Instagram, where users post questions on their stories and followers respond anonymously. Typically, users will post links to their NGL inboxes on their Instagram accounts, asking followers to send questions or comments about them anonymously.

The app, which touts itself as “a fresh take on anonymity,” has language filters intended to prevent harassment. But NBC News found that some phrases still made it through.

When NBC News tested the app, slurs and terms like “KYS,” which stands for “kill yourself,” were filtered out. But the language filters allowed messages with more routine bullying terms slip through, including the phrases “You’re fat,” “Everyone hates you,” “You’re a loser” and “You’re ugly.” Users whose messages were flagged for using inappropriate language weren’t barred from sending additional messages immediately after having sent messages with slurs.

NBC News has reached out to NGL for comment on its screening filters.

“We believe anonymity should be a fun yet safe place to express your feelings and opinions without shame,” the NGL website says. “Young people don’t have a space to share their feelings without judgement from friends or societal pressures. NGL provides this safe space for teens.”

App store descriptions offer similar language about safety.

“We utilize deep learning and rule-based character pattern matching algorithms to filter out harmful language and bullying,” the description reads. “Ultimately we believe that anonymity only works when it’s safe!”

The app works by linking to a person’s Instagram handle. Once it is linked to an Instagram account, a user can use the NGL feature to ask followers to “send me anonymous messages,” as the initial prompt reads.

The prompt can be edited to ask anything the user wants to know.

NGL was launched in November, according to its website, and it launched on iOS in December, according to Apptopia, a platform that tracks app store data. In May, the app launched on Google Play.

Apptopia estimates that the app has had 7.3 million global downloads but that 7.27 million of its lifetime downloads happened this month. The biggest jump happened from June 13 to June 16, Apptopia found, which took NGL to the top of the U.S. App Store downloads. During that period, it jumped from 355th place to first.

The U.S. accounts for 35 percent of all downloads of NGL, which has generated about $500,000 in in-app purchases, according to Apptopia.

The app was launched by “a small team of designers and engineers in Venice Beach, California,” according to its website.

The format of NGL is reminiscent of platforms from the late 2000s and the 2010s, like Formspring (later rebranded as Spring.me) and Ask.fm, on which users were able to anonymously ask users questions.

Those platforms, however well-intentioned, often devolved into bullying and harassment.

Apps like Snapchat suspended apps that allow users to send anonymous questions after having been sued by families whose children had died by suicide after they were bullied on anonymous apps that could be linked to the platform, according to TechCrunch.

A lawsuit brought by Kristin Bride claimed her 16-year-old son, Carson, died by suicide after he was bullied through anonymous messaging apps like Yolo and LMK, and it asked that those kinds of apps be banned from Snapchat.

A spokesperson for Snap referred to a news release from March, in which the platform said it would “prohibit apps that facilitate anonymous messaging from integrating with our platform” in response to the lawsuit.

“As a result of that review, in March we announced several changes to our developer platform that we believe are in the best interest of our community, and further aligned with our focus of supporting communications that reflect real-life friendships,” the Snapchat spokesperson said in an email.

However, TechCrunch reported in May that the platform hadn’t fully begun enforcing the ban. The Snap spokesperson didn’t respond to request for comment about the TechCrunch report.

NGL claims it tries to discourage bullying using “world class AI content moderation.” It says that because it “understand[s the] lingo,” it knows “how to filter out harmful messages.”

Unlike previous anonymous question apps, NGL says on its website that users can block people if they are being bullied or harassed. The app includes a function to report abusive messages, which lets users block the senders or send messages to the NGL safety team.

The app doesn’t appear to have community guidelines yet. On its website, it says those guidelines are “coming soon.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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