Something must be happening on body-positive and sex-positive Instagram. In the past few weeks, I’ve been noticing a lot of people in my network – pole dancers, sex workers, sex educators, performers and so on – post about someone impersonating their accounts on Instagram or Facebook. Many of them argued that, if Instagram granted verification – the coveted ‘blue tick’ – to their official account, impersonation would be more obvious, further protecting its victims. Yet, verification is, like the platform’s algorithm, one of Instagram’s most nebulous and mysterious processes – and it seems that accounts featuring nudity or anything remotely linked to sex are specifically struggling to get it. For this post, I spoke to people who have been impersonated and to Instagram, trying to find out about how accounts featuring nudity can protect themselves from impersonation and how they can get verified.
Disclaimer About This Post
As always in my interviews with Instagram, I feel like I’m reading some sort of prophecy or riddle I need to interpret. I got some answers, but they’re not 100% straight, and a lot of conjecture goes into reading between the lines. So please bear with me.
People in my network seem to get impersonated a lot, but I decided to write about a couple of weeks back, when a variety of accounts with a sizable following started sharing stories or posts about someone stealing their pictures to create a new account. The first one I saw was Alana Evans, former porn actress and now activist, who has over 100,000 followers.
Alana posted screenshots of the account impersonating her on her feed, then deleted it a few days later. When I asked her if she had any thoughts on what was happening, she told me:
It seems to be the same person, or a team of people who steal all my images from Instagram, start new pages all the time. All of them are trying to scam my fans for money, and I use my Fanbase to help get them reported.Alana Evans
She added the accounts always follow people who follow her, sliding into their DMs, and that it’s almost a daily issue. She said: “It’s so bad I’ll post the image to get my fans to report, and then once it’s taken down I’ll delete the picture because otherwise my entire Instagram thread would be filled with it.”
Activist, performer and sex worker Rebecca Crow – whose original Instagram account was deleted by the platform at 725,000 followers – also has daily impersonation problems. She said: “At one point my account was being cloned five times a day.”
With accounts featuring nudity often relating to aspects of self-confidence, sex positivity and openness, victims of fake profiles often risk being groomed into sending private information, messages or even pictures to someone with nefarious intentions.
Exotic dancer and pole instructor Ava Hennessy was impersonated earlier this year, and was told about it by one of her pole dancer followers. This is her real account.
The person who warned Ava thought the messages receiving from what she thought was her account were getting odd, and then realised Ava’s name was spelled differently – Hennessey instead of Hennessy.
When Ava posted the screenshots her follower sent her on Facebook, she realised the account had been messaging a variety of her followers.
According to Ava, the account had blocked her, used her pictures and then sent messages to a lot of people who liked her page or followed her account. She said:
“This poor girl was trying to say really nice things to make ‘me’ feel better, but then she figured it was strange and that it wasn’t me. They [the account] also message another person asking about sex toys. She said, ‘I was so embarrassed because I thought this was a girl chat that we were having, but it wasn’t.’Ava Hennessy
The page was taken down after many people reported it. She said: “I don’t know the extent to which it went on, and how many people they’ve messaged. I wouldn’t have even known about it unless someone else had figured out it was weird.”
Dancers, body-positive advocates, sex workers and performers seem to attract a specific type of impersonator. Sydney-based deaf performance artist Demon Derriere, too, has been impersonated regularly on Instagram for the past two years. She says impersonators “stole pictures, sliding in people’s DMs – but only to fem presenting people, as they would talk about my dance classes. They would body shame people and even asked girls out on dates. It’s been going on for way too long!”
Last weekend, the account of @positivitypoppa, a male self-love advocate, was also impersonated. Similarly to him, sex educator Reed Amber posted about being impersonated last week, something she says happens to her very often. She said: “I had one awful case of some poor girl who thought i was sexting and swapping nudes with her on Facebook.” She added that she contacted Instagram a variety of times about people impersonating her and asking other accounts for money or nudes, but she never heard back.
Just today, someone on Instagram stole Reed’s pictures and used them to contact photographers for scam photoshoots. Impersonation on the platform is getting scarier, and users seem to be playing a game of whack-a-mole with impersonators.
Impersonators seem to use the same modus operandi: they steal photos from their public accounts, look at people who interact with them and their posts, and then message them. If they manage to get something substantial out of them – e.g. pictures – they then blackmail them. So what’s Instagram’s process to tackle impersonation?
What Can Accounts Do Against Impersonation?
Impersonation of a person or entity are against Instagram’s community guidelines and, according to the platform, they are removed as soon as they are made aware of their existence. Instagram told me they encourage users to actively report impersonators, which can be done in two ways:
- Via the in-app reporting tools – tap the ‘…’ in the upper right-hand corner of an account, tap ‘report’ and then tap ‘it’s spam’
- Via this online form: https://help.instagram.com/contact/636276399721841.
Basically, ‘impersonation spotting’ is largely outsourced to Instagram’s user base.
Impersonations of all sorts of accounts – whether they were banks, Facebook profiles or well-known individuals from the performing, sex posi or sex work community – has in the past resulted in fake accounts sharing malware links that steal data and can cost victims a lot of money.
Aside from the money and data consequences of impersonation, asking for money to delete pictures or to delete the fake account is also illegal. Some useful resources about sextortion and cyberblackmail can be found here and here.
Verification can help accounts featuring nudity fight impersonation on Instagram. So why aren’t they getting it?
The accounts above were the accounts in my network I saw complaining about the issue, but the problem seems to be widespread. In many of these cases, a ‘blue tick’ verification sign next to these users’ profiles would have made it immediately clear to their victims that they weren’t speaking to who they think they were, making the reporting of these fake profiles a quicker process. Yet, despite the fact these accounts have followings in the thousands, they are not verified.
For Alana Evans, “If I was verified this wouldn’t be an issue, but we all know their verification process is skewed.” Rebecca Crow added: “I was never ever verified despite easily over 100 impersonation accounts being removed.”
It’s understandable that, with the amount of accounts made everyday, it can be difficult for Instagram to actively clamp down on every impersonation. Yet, considering the amount of times the accounts above and others similar to them have been impersonated, and given their notoriety and following, one has to wonder why Instagram hasn’t verified them yet.
What Does Instagram Say About Verification?
In June, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Instagram pledged to do better to make sure Black voices were heard. This included tackling algorithm bias and clarifying how verification worked:
“We’re looking into our current verification criteria and will make changes to ensure it’s as inclusive as possible. Verification is an area we constantly get questions on what the guidelines are, and whether or not the criteria is favoring some groups more than others.”Instagram News Page
I tried to speak to Instagram about their verification process but I got little more than their recycled help page info, as always. The platform told me they look at a number of factors when evaluating Instagram accounts to determine if they’re in the public interest and meet their verification criteria. According to these factors, to be verified your account needs to be:
- Authentic: it must represent a real person, registered business or entity.
- Unique: it must be the unique presence of the person or business the account represents. Only one account per person or business may be verified, with exceptions for language-specific accounts. They don’t verify general interest accounts, like @puppymemes.
- Complete: Accounts must be public and have a bio, profile photo and at least one post. Importantly, profiles wishing to be verified can’t contain “add me” links to other social media services.
- Notable: Accounts must represent a well-known, highly searched for person, brand or entity. Instagram argued that they review accounts that are featured in multiple news sources, and they don’t consider paid or promotional content as sources for review.
Clearly then, despite their answers, more clarity is needed to understand how the verification process works, the platform’s definition of ‘famous’ – which, arguably, Instagram itself has extended – and what helps or hinders getting a blue tick.
I specifically asked Instagram about accounts featuring nudity because I’ve seen a variety of profiles with less followers than Alana, Rebecca, Reed or Ava get the blue tick. The presence of nudity and/or references to sexuality are the only difference I’m able to see between other verified accounts of the same following and profiles from the pole dancing, sex work, performing and sex positive communities.
In the age of OnlyFans, I also found the “profiles wishing to be verified can’t contain ‘add me’ links to other social media services” point particularly relevant: with OF being seen as a social network, that can represent active discrimination against those wishing to promote their work when it comes to verification. Given the popularity of platforms like OF, Instagram users would really benefit from more clarity on this.
When I asked about whether Instagram would rather not verify accounts that feature nudity, I was told that if these complied with community guidelines, then nudity wouldn’t be a factor in the lack of verification. Yet, considering the disparity between accounts like the ones above and some with less followers, it would be fair to wonder whether nudity is what’s impacting verification.
Plus, if we consider Instagram’s general rule of thumb – that they don’t allow nudity and, in particular, female nipples – you can’t not discriminate against nudity and take nudity down at the same time. And if we consider that, last year, IG reportedly told me they do not discriminate against pole dancers and sex workers, only to apologise for moderating their hashtags “in error” through this blog, it’s fair enough to take their statement with a pinch of salt.
How About Verified Accounts That Feature Nudity?
The fact that certain accounts that feature nudity have been verified adds further confusion to the verification process. For instance, pole dancer Michelle Shimmy and porn performer and sex worker advocate Ginger Banks have both been verified.
Ginger Banks in particular said she worked both alone and with a publicist for a couple of years to be interviewed by different mainstream outlets. However, for her, a Wikipedia page seems to have made the difference: “A fan of mine created a Wikipedia page about me with those interviews as references. Then I just spent a couple weeks reapplying for verification on the Instagram app.”
Ginger feels that she gets reported “a lot less” on IG since she has been verified, but not everyone’s experience matches hers. Presenter, illustrator and body-positive activist Venus Libido, who has 123,000 followers, also received a blue tick on Instagram last year. She said: “I only got a blue tick because last year I got deleted for calling them out on sexual harassment on this app. So basically they deleted me and they brought me back with a blue tick, thinking that would shut me up.”
Venus mentioned at least another person in her network was verified after some of her pictures were deleted for nudity. She says she’s still shadowbanned and still being censored despite verification: “It’s still absolutely shit, to be honest with you,” she said, when it comes to the relationship between nudity and verification.
Does the fact that some accounts featuring nudity have been verified mean it’s not always be a factor for Instagram verification?
We can’t know for sure. However, considering nudity has affected creators through light censorship such as the shadowban and through account deletion, it’s worth wondering whether other factors – e.g. old school ‘proof’ of celebrity like a Wikipedia page, mainstream media appearances and so on – may override nudity for verification.
The bottom line is that despite having said in they’d release information about how they decide which accounts get verification, Instagram have once again decided not to provide any clarity at all on this matter. And this doesn’t only fuel doubt about Instagram’s already widely criticised and unequal governance policies: it actually puts users at risk.
What Users Need To Know About The Verification Process
For more inclusive verification and safety from impersonation, IG should:
- Respond to demands to make the verification process clearer
- Explain the steps in the verification process
- Clarify why certain popular accounts apparently meeting the criteria aren’t verified.
- State what can help or hinder verification
- Clarify whether linking to other platforms – e.g. even OF – can hinder one’s chances at verification.
Read my previous posts and research on Instagram below:
- My research on the shadowban
- My framework for a better, more equal definition of social media
- Comments from Instagram, explaining how they ban hashtags
- Instagram’s apology to pole dancers through my blog
- My first interview with Instagram, where they fed me non-answers about community guidelines by way of their press team, denying the shadowban was a thing
- My interview with Exotic Cancer, where she talks about her experience of account deletion and shadowban
- Sass & Clacks‘ round-up of where we got so far, and her important list of organisations to support and ways to protest the shadowban
- PolePositive’s reminder that sex workers were affected by the shadowban first
- Mary Emily O’Hara’s interviews for MTV News, where she talks to sex-positive, queer and feminist brands about how social media platforms are preventing them from using ads to promote their products
- Jesselyn Cook’s article about how sexist the shadowban is via the Huffington Post.
- Jesselyn Cook’s article about Mosseri’s denial of the shadowban.
- More info about EveryBODYVisible’s protest.