I was deleted by Instagram

On Tuesday, 20 July 2021 around 7 PM BST, my profile was deleted by Instagram. I’m an online moderation researcher, activist, blogger, writer, survivor and pole dance instructor researching on and campaigning online censorship. And yet, even though I have discussed my research and experiences with Facebook/Instagram employees and the media in the past two years, my profile was not safe from deletion. Here’s what happened.

What happened when I was deleted

It was just another day on Instagram for me. I had my content planned in my drafts, and I had just got home from the beach, as I am staying my family in my hometown in Sardinia. I had just received the items to post for a new brand partnership, and I’d been waiting to post my daily content until the evening, so that I could use the WiFi at home. Except that I logged in around 6:50 PM UK time to an odd screen, with a a “challenge request” that required me to put in my details. I did it, only to receive the notification that my account had been disabled, without having ever received any deletion warnings, ‘strikes’ for misbehaving or explanation as to why. 

I panicked, as any creator who uses Instagram as a main source of income, networking and, in my case, research and activism would. I didn’t sleep much, and when I did I had nightmares; I felt lightheaded and nauseated; I fell into a checking loop, hoping for the ban to be lifted; my anxiety was sky-rocketing.

I started wondering what I’d done so wrong that made me deserving of being deleted from the platform I had worked so hard to build, in nine whole years of content creation, network and following building.

Before any of you state the obvious – “You shouldn’t be banking so much on Instagram when it’s not fully safe for creators like you” – don’t worry: I know this. I have other platforms. I have a Twitter network of mostly academics and journalists; I have a TikTok with nearly 300,000 followers, and I have this blog.

But for me, Instagram feels personal. It’s not just about building followers: it’s a diary, a learning resource, a friends’ group. Historically, Instagram played a major part in the explosion of worldwide pole dance as an art form and as a practice – not because of the platform’s efforts, but because of the amazing strippers and pole dancers who made it a welcoming space for us. It’s partly thanks to this Instagram network of supportive pole dancers all over the world that I was able to come out of my shell as a dancer and become an instructor, and that I was able to regain power over and love for my body again after an abusive relationship and sexual assault.

The sense of powerlessness coming from that relationship – which left me with crippling anxiety, PTSD and depression I have to fight everyday – is still my worst nightmare. Losing my main self-expression outlet, my network, my voice and one of my main work tools without explanation, just because of the platform’s whims, brought that sense of powerlessness back.

In an online world where spaces for nudity and sexuality are shrinking, it’s not about “where” you go – it’s about what is left.

Before I was deleted: soliciting, links and petitions

As I mentioned, I’m an academic, pole instructor, blogger and activist. My content is a mix of pole routines and tricks to promote my classes, posts to share my research and/or media coverage about me, blogging reviews and personal content. I share my blog bloggeronpole.com, direct people to my Buy Me A Coffee profile for classes and to my petition (more of that in a sec). My last picture was with my 92-year-old grandma, whom I’d seen again for the first time since the pandemic began, after we lost my grandpa earlier this year. So why had my profile been temporary deleted?

The only thing I could think of was my petition. Together with activists, artists, sex workers, athletes and creators, I set up a change.org petition against Instagram’s anti-sex Terms of Use published in December. That petition is nearing 120,000 signatures, and if it gets to 150,000 it will be one of change.org’s most signed petitions ever.

I started talking about it, and sharing it again, on July 11. A variety of accounts in my network had been deleted, so I had asked Facebook policy, with whom I had been in touch since December, why that might have happened. As the slideshow below explains, the combination between “offering or asking” communications via sharing links or direct messaging with the posting of “sexually suggestive imagery” might be enough for accounts to be deleted for soliciting as per Facebook’s sexual solicitation policy. With many of the deleted or warned accounts sharing ONLY the petition link, it was fair to think the petition had become as ‘risky’ as an OnlyFans link in the eyes of Instagram.

When I gained this information from Facebook Policy and asked the accounts I work with to share the petition, a variety of users who put their name to the initial petition said they had trouble sharing it, or that they were receiving warnings about deletions or content restrictions. Some of them only had the petition as the main link they sent people to.

Given I had received direct apologies from Instagram about the shadowbanning of pole dance in 2019, and given I’d been communicating with Facebook Policy directly since December 2020 (if you don’t believe this, it’s been fact-checked by inews.co.uk and The Daily Dot), I thought I was reasonably safe in sharing the petition.

Maybe I wasn’t. My account was deleted with no warning, no strikes, no nothing. I had no right to know what I’d done, and I didn’t know if I could get it back. My 18,000+ followers were gone. My main research, networking and promotion tool was gone. My outlet of self-expression was gone.

Just because a ‘freak case’ got deleted, it doesn’t mean this is new

You may be thinking of Donald Trump’s deletion, but actually, account censorship has been affecting sex workers, pole dancers, activists and artists way before the former POTUS got booted out. Instagram was these people’s main source of income, their main network. Their lives, livelihoods and mental health were directly affected.

Just as an example, my friend @katsandcrows (sex worker activist Rebecca Crow) got deleted at 725,000 followers in 2020 after staging a protest outside London’s IG HQ. Countless accounts were “purged” after the ToS came into force on 20 December 2020. Posts by Black plus size models such as Nyome Nicholas Williams or by sex toy and lingerie brands were being deleted or shadowbanned way before The Don was sent packing by social media.

Some of us came back because we are ‘freak cases’. The mere fact that I’m an online moderation expert researching censorship and being censored is oddly ironic and random, newsworthy. But not everyone has my connections to get their profile back – and the fact that, despite those same media, Big Tech and academic contacts I got algorithmically deleted in the first place is pretty worrying.

Getting my profile back

So how did I get my profile back?

It was a mixture of being loud and pulling strings like crazy. I emailed my Facebook policy contacts right away on the evening of 20 July. Being based in America, they told me they were investigating it stat.

I emailed my contacts at Instagram Press in the UK, to whom I’d spoken when the shadowbanning apology (also fact-checked by the Canadian news) came through. I hit up my journo contacts all over the place, and I also tweeted like crazy, getting attention from journalists, activists and academics, my main network on Twitter.

The day after, I managed to recover access to my back-up account (the only real one is here, below) and my pole wife @unicornpower kickstarted a chain of support that led people in my network – pole, sex work, art, sport, sex ed – to report my account being deleted. I was blown away, humbled and overwhelmed by how much support I received, support that I can only hope the sex workers who are being deleted will receive as well.

Around 5 PM UK time, someone at Instagram press in the UK told me my account was about to be restored. Half an hour after, it was back.

This is where the mystery started.

Questions, worries, concerns

At the moment, I have no idea what happened. IG press said it was a moderation error, and that I had not violated any guideline. Facebook policy told me by the time their employees looked at the account, it was already active, so they could say nothing. But a Facebook employee in my network (who’ll be kept anonymous here) told me they reported my account being deleted by mistake internally, and while they can’t reveal why that happen, they guessed it was a series of algorithmic false positives kicking off an automated deletion.

In short, I still don’t know what happened, or what kicked off those false positives – I really do hope it wasn’t my grandma, lol, because otherwise, Instagram… I really do have questions! What I do know is that it was incredibly distressing, and that it felt like losing my voice, my network, my livelihood, and years of work. It probably felt exactly like what the thousands of sex workers, creators and artists felt when their accounts were deleted beyond recovery – except that I, unlike many of them, have (for now small) academic and non-social media related sources of income.

But what happens when a sex worker says: “Check out a link,” or “Send me a DM” when that doesn’t link to an OnlyFans?

What happens when a sexy, non-SW account does the same?

And why do sex workers who send people elsewhere (e.g. OF) get targeted when they’re not soliciting directly through IG?

Why do users get no warnings about deletions?

All of these questions show the power imbalance and the sense of powerlessness that are typical of the life of many creators, particularly the naked ones. The fact that human and algorithmic moderation seem to be so separate, and the fact that average users have no power and no direct line with platforms, shows how disempowering existing on social media is for women and marginalised accounts.

I was told FB/IG are working towards making sure that sudden and random deletions like these don’t happen again to my profile.

It shouldn’t happen to anyone. Not just me. And we should all be fighting for other users’ right to better appeals, more transparency and opportunities to express themselves.

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