The Ghost Hack: Instagram Disabled Account
Welcome to a rabbit hole. Where your ordinary day goes sideways when you open your Instagram to the words "Your account has been disabled for violating our terms."
Clicking on Learn More leads to a vague help file without links to contact Instagram.
"Oh," I hear you say, "That means you did something wrong. You fell down the rabbit hole for a reason."
Except... what if you didn't?
This happened to my daughter on September 1, 2017. She rushed into the room with, "Mom, Mom, something happened to my account."
"It's fine," I reassured her. "We'll let them know. Maybe someone reported something. We can fix it."
We tried sorting it out that first evening. And then I went to the internet searching. I saw news about a hack that leaked millions of users personal information, as reported on The Verge here. Except the reporting focused on all of the celebrities being affected. Nothing about ordinary users.
So I went to my next resource for learning about whether this was our rabbit hole or a bigger rabbit hole affecting more people, Twitter and Facebook. I found people confused and in the same rabbit hole as my daughter. They were told their account was disabled. Or, worse, Instagram said "username cannot be found."
That first day, people were concerned and frustrated, but hopeful that accounts would be returned soon. I calmed my worried daughter with assurances that she was not alone. The company had to be hearing from the many, many people leaving posts for Instagram on social media, such as the comments on this Facebook post on September 2.
"They'll restore it soon. Or there will be news soon."
Except then, the rabbit hole didn't end. In fact, tech sites that I expected would be all over this explosion of activity remained silent. Not a single mention appeared of a single user being unfairly banned from their accounts.
A few users mentioned Instagram cleaning up "fan accounts." Perhaps she was swept up in that?
Except other people lamented the loss of their business accounts, revenue streams and communities from a few thousand followers to over 100,000 followers. Many people said they were legit. They were not violating anything. People were froze out without being able to let the community even know what had happened. Days passed. Not a peep from Instagram or any reporting agency. What was going on? What was this rabbit hole? And why did my daughter have to fall into it?
So what makes a fan account, if "fan accounts" are disappearing? A fan account may be inspired by a celebrity or television show, a movie or artist. Fan accounts usually don't use content that is the original material made by the owner of the account. See, that might seem easy, fan accounts should be disabled. Instagram is for content CREATORS, not people reposting other people's stuff, right?
Except, is that true? What about major accounts like the Museum of Modern Art, or any account that showcases other content creators? What about magazines or curated feeds such as #VisitCalifornia? What makes one account a worthy-of-being-curated-account vs. a Violation-of-Terms-of-Use-account?
After all, my daughter did dedicate her account to her favorite show, Miraculous Ladybug. She did feature artists and their artwork alongside her cosplay and personal art. However, she and I talked at length about what it meant to feature an artist or artwork. She said in her bio "art credit goes to artists". She tagged artists whenever she could. She took down any image promptly (and courteously) if an artist asked not to be included. She used her platform to celebrate the community. In turn, her community enjoyed her responsible curation. She had fans seek her out at Wizard World ComicCon for photos.
Over the past week, we have sent numerous emails. We got one response that asked her to write her name on a piece of paper and take a photo holding that paper to verify that it was her. Which was followed up by a form response saying that her account was "disabled for violating terms of service." We've responded back to that one numerous times without another response back from Instagram at all.
From what I can tell, the accounts that were affected the most by this event seems to be business accounts. Anika had switched her settings to "business" because she could see where people were looking at her posts from around the world. That fascinated her. So even though she wasn't a business, she liked the stats. We've tried email them that we will change the settings back to personal, but, so far, no response. I've watched a number of legitimate businesses lamenting the loss of their accounts via Twitter and Facebook, so I don't think it was *just* accounts that featured curated feeds.
I am all for attempting to keep users aware of copyright and terms of service violations. Anika and I have seen our photos shared on numerous feeds without any credit to us which is frustrating. However, most users are happy to learn and grow. I wouldn't want a single fan account that showed one of our photos to be Disabled just for sharing one of our photos. The place where we draw the line is when a User says "this is me in the photo," or "I took this photo." We have had users argue with us about our photos, saying that the photo in question most definitely is their photo even though it was on our feed weeks before. That deserves action on the part of Instagram. But disabling feeds that feature content, especially feeds that are doing their best to attribute creators with accurate information? That's not fair.
In fact, to test the theory that it was fan-content, I searched #miraculousladybug on Instagram. A slew of account popped up right away. Not only that, but Anika showed me that the second one on the search was a fan pretending to be the show's creator. Many of them say "official" in their bio, which is false.
Meanwhile, within the discussions about feeds and content and creators and copyright, real people are affected by this sweep/hack/bug/incident. Real people face real challenges and losses from these actions. People lost photos of their family. One person lost photos of his dog that had passed away two weeks ago.
My daughter tries multiple times every single day to get back into her account. She valued what she had built. Last winter was tough, and the friends she had through Instagram helped her. She misses them.
Not to mention the weird silence in media and from Instagram. In the days after, comments were heated and frustrated. Now, I see people giving up and starting over. The photos that Instagram posts on Facebook and Twitter have a few pleas for help, but have quieted down. A lot of people have just given up.
Anika started a new account. While trying to get into the old one (which we still hope might be restored).
One lesson for us is that our social media worlds, these carefully constructed worlds with friends and history and stories, ultimately belong to someone else. That someone else, whether it's Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or another hosting service, can drop rabbit holes in your path at any time. And it's only through their benevolence that we can hope to get our world back. To say, "well, don't violate the terms," may not be noticing how vague the terms are actually written. The terms basically absolve all responsibility with, "someone complained. Maybe. We'll never tell."
If you get that response, even. If you're lucky. The current users caught up in this sweep/bug/hack haven't even been given that.
I just hope there isn't a programmer congratulating himself/herself for 'cleaning up' Instagram. Real people are feeling real feelings over their accounts disappearing.
They're down the rabbit hole. And no one seems to care.
Anika named it The Ghost Hack due to the fact that no one seems to see it happening besides the users directly affected. Which is perfectly named!
P.S. As of 4pm today (September 12), I sent an another email via the response form that, yes, it was a "business account" because she liked the statistics about viewership around the world. But she wasn't a business and would happily change it back. The response said that Instagram needed proof in order to help. They needed proof that she was the owner of the business so please share a Business License, Utility Bill, or other such evidence. I responded, again, that she is fourteen and we could share a report card to prove that she is the owner the account...
In her profile, it encourages her to "try the business features" on Instagram. Nowhere does it caution children that accounts can be taken away for trying those features... Hoping this gets resolved soon (along with everyone else's accounts). If anyone at Instagram is reading this, her account is @bugabooxbabe.
For her fans wondering where she went, her new account is @bugaboo.darling. Thank you!