In January 2021, the Instagram account for Julia Rose’s magazine, ShagMag, got banned from the platform.
Rose received a message saying that the account for the online pinup publication had violated Instagram’s rules regarding nudity and impersonation. She had tried to play by the rules, but her posts had been reported and suspended multiple times for alleged nudity. She said she reached out to Instagram to appeal but had no success.
For influencers like Rose who rely on Instagram for the promotion of their work as well as sponsorship deals, losing an account can be a massive blow to their income, leaving them desperate to get it back at any cost. But Rose had one more option. After her appeals to Instagram went unanswered, a friend put her in touch with a man who told her he could help her get her account back — for a price.
The man claimed he had a connection to a supervisor at Facebook, which owns Instagram. He sent her a contract saying he could restore the account, as well as her personal account, which had also been banned for alleged nudity, in exchange for $65,000 and a 2.5% stake in her company. The contract, which has been reviewed by BuzzFeed News, came from an LLC currently registered in Florida that promised it could not only restore her accounts but protect them from future takedowns.
Rose, unwilling to give up part of her company, didn’t take the deal, and whether this man truly had a Facebook insider is a mystery. (He refused to answer questions when contacted by BuzzFeed News, and Facebook declined to comment on Rose’s allegations.)
Rose’s experience is not unique. Multiple people who operate on the fringes of Instagram’s community guidelines, such as adult performers and cannabis influencers, told BuzzFeed News they’ve resorted to desperate measures after losing an Instagram account, turning to dealers who say they have a back door to the platform. These dealers, who often claim to either work for Facebook or know someone who does, charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for their work. If the account gets deleted again, the price goes up.
While some of these people appear to be scammers who have no actual power over Instagram’s moderation, sources in the influencer community who BuzzFeed News spoke to said it appears some of these dealers actually have access that allows them to instantly restore an account.
It’s good business. When creators’ appeals to Instagram are met with silence, many say they feel they have no choice but to pay up. Cannabis influencer and business owner Olivia Alexander told BuzzFeed News these types of business dealings have become an open secret in the creator economy.
“They pay the money, they get their account back, and they don’t talk about it,” she said.
In response to the allegations in this story, a spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News that if the company discovered its employees were soliciting funds or coordinating secret efforts with creators to reinstate their accounts, it would be a serious HR violation. They did not confirm or deny knowledge that any Facebook or Instagram employees were involved in the schemes.
But hypothetically, the spokesperson said, creators should know that anyone claiming to have under-the-table access would be operating outside of the platform’s regulations, and anyone who engages with them runs the risk of being exploited.
“Any individual who reports to be able to help people get back into their account is most likely doing so with malicious intent, i.e., scamming or phishing the person on the other end,” they said. The company is trying to improve its internal system for flagging accounts to ensure bans are being issued fairly and appeals are handled quickly.
“We want Instagram to be a place where people can express themselves, but we also have a responsibility to keep people safe,” the spokesperson said in an official statement. “We try to write policies that adequately balance freedom of expression and safety, but doing this for a community of a billion people from all corners of the world will always be challenging. That’s why we are constantly re-evaluating our policies and working with experts to ensure we are in the right place."
Creators whose work is often flagged as violations of Instagram’s community guidelines are the most likely to fall prey to these backdoor dealers. Anyone posting risqué content — even if it abides by the community guidelines — runs a risk of their posts being taken down, whether by AI or human moderation. The guidelines prohibit nudity, glorifying self-injury, and support for hate groups, among other content.
Alexander, the cannabis influencer, estimates she's spent $25,000 paying to get accounts back. She started on Instagram in 2013 with cannabis culture accounts, growing her business into a digital agency that handles her accounts as well as those of clients.
Around 2015, Alexander said, she started having issues with Instagram taking down multiple accounts she managed, such as her own @weed.bae. (Facebook said it restored the account after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News.) A friend, Mike Smith, put her in touch with a man who claimed to work for Facebook. Smith also works in the cannabis space, running a pinup photography account called Ganja Girls, which he said was hacked and taken down about seven years ago.
“I was devastated. I worked on Ganja Girls since the beginning of Instagram,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Two days after his account was hacked, Smith said, a person he described as a “young kid” with “like 600 followers” hit him up on Instagram.
“He said, ‘I’m a big fan of Ganja Girls, I saw you got hacked, let me help you get your account back,’” Smith said.
Smith said the guy delivered — instantly restoring the account for free. According to Smith, the man said he had access to Instagram’s tools through his job and offered to continue working with Smith.
“He says, ‘Do you know anybody else who needs their accounts back, or unhacked? I’m looking to make some extra cash,’” Smith said.
Though Smith has screenshots of their messages, when contacted, the man denied knowledge of their interactions. Facebook did not comment on the man’s involvement when asked by BuzzFeed News.
Smith also ran accounts for clients, so the two started working together. When someone lost their account, the man would set a fee, and he and Smith would split the payment.
“He did everything — he did unhacking, he did deleting accounts, he did merging accounts together,” Smith said. The charges ranged from a few hundred up to $4,000, said Smith.
He said his contact eventually got out of the scheme, but Smith still has a hookup that does account restoration for him. He declined to divulge their name for fear of losing his access. He said he’s speaking out now because when the first contact got out of the scheme, Smith continued to have issues with his accounts, and the man declined to keep helping him.
With Smith’s help, Alexander said, she not only got accounts restored but paid to get them verified. She suspects Facebook employees are doing this without the company knowing.
“It’s really important people understand that these social media platforms and big tech can’t regulate their own employees,” Alexander said. Facebook did not respond to this allegation when asked by BuzzFeed News.
Cali Rockowitz, an artist and microinfluencer who was previously featured in a BuzzFeed News story, said that over the last six months or so, she’s received multiple notifications from Instagram about her art and merch account, @sorrydadco. Instagram has banned some of her posts and blocked her from using functions like going live. A few weeks ago, Instagram suspended her account for “nudity” and “sexual activity” violations. (When BuzzFeed News reached a spokesperson at Instagram on Friday and sent them a list of suspended accounts for this story, Rockowitz’s account was suddenly reinstated. Until then, she said, she had not heard from anyone at the company for almost a month.) She maintains that her paintings and renderings on shirts and prints that supposedly violated their standards were artistic and “not raunchy.”
Rockowitz told BuzzFeed News that she tried several times to go through the official appeal process to regain control of her account, which had around 15,000 followers. Since selling her art and merch through Instagram is one of her main sources of income, she hastily created a secondary account as a backup.
“My heart dropped when they just deleted my account,” she said. “[The company is] claiming it is adult solicitation and nudity. Neither are true. They are targeting me for my paintings, which are impressionist style, not even hyperrealistic ... The content I post on Instagram is extremely tasteful and in no way soliciting for sex or posting nude images.”
Out of desperation, she got in contact through a friend with a guy they knew that was “super tech-savvy.” The man claimed to her that for $300, he could create bots to file “like 300-400 claims to Instagram” to restore her account to “increase the chances that a case is opened,” his messages to her read.
Rockowitz paid him, but her account remained down, even after several spamming attempts. He did, however, promise her that she would get a refund if it didn’t work out.
“It’s my last hope — I've been filling out forms and sending emails every day for a week now with no response from Instagram,” she said. (The man who coordinated the hack refused an interview with BuzzFeed News.)
Rockowitz was also connected to someone who she was told was “high up in the content department at Instagram,” but they refused to help because they “will not go near anything that is related to sex,” she was told.
Chantal Convertini, a photographer based in Switzerland with over 138,000 followers on her Instagram account, told BuzzFeed News she’s received several notices starting in 2019 for her photographs of human bodies. Most of them are carefully posed and censored, although some feature nudity.
According to Convertini, the account, @paeulini, was recently suspended because she had “used sexual language” and “sold sexual actions,” she said the notice read. (A spokesperson at Instagram denied her account was ever banned.) Convertini said she “laughed out loud” when she got the ban because she thought it was a joke. She attempted to appeal but had not heard from anyone at Instagram for about nine days. Instagram did not provide a comment on what happened with her account.
After her account was suspended, she had a friend put her in contact with someone who worked at Facebook. “All I did was to send my account info and what happened” to the internal contact, she said, noting she did not have to pay for this service. Her account then mysteriously reappeared.
“I have no idea how my account came back in the end. I didn't hear back from them either,” she said.
Even though Convertini has her account back, she is still mystified and frustrated by why her content was pulled down in the first place and by the lack of communication with anyone at Instagram and Facebook.
“[The fact] that we have to explain why we are not a ‘danger to society’ is awful ... I mean, come on. [My work is] just so obviously art and not anything else,” she said. “[Mean]while Playboy and celebs and pornstars have their accounts on Insta and can seemingly do what the hell they want on there. It’s such a big double standard I could roll my eyes backwards.”
In response to this apparent double standard, the Facebook spokesperson stated simply, “We only remove content that violate our policies.” They directed BuzzFeed News to the platform’s guidelines on adult nudity.
This situation is very familiar for adult entertainers, who can be prime targets for takedowns and people soliciting restoration services, according to Alana Evans. Evans is the president of Adult Performance Artists Guild, a union that works with adult film workers, online content creators, and phone sex workers.
The guild’s lawyer, Jim Felton, said they’ve identified hundreds of people in the adult space who have had accounts deleted or suspended by Instagram. Some fall victim to people claiming they can restore those accounts.
“I don’t know for certain who is doing the scamming. We have been told that it’s not employees, other people seem to think that it might be,” he said.
The spokesperson for Facebook confirmed the company has been in contact with the guild to discuss these issues. Evans said her biggest pet peeve is when members get their accounts removed from Instagram with no warning and what seems to be little hope of recovery.
She said the other downside of this shadow economy is that while there are people out there who indeed seem to be able to restore accounts, plenty of others are merely scammers who will take your money and deliver nothing.
“This fraud that’s happening has been prevalent,” Evans told BuzzFeed News, claiming she knows of at least a dozen adult performers who have been “scammed by different groups.”
“That has happened to multiple adult performers, and for the most part, it hasn’t worked at all. Sometimes they get it back for a short period of time and then it goes away again,” she added.
Every time, performers are left in limbo.
“It is such an immense, traumatizing impact,” Evans said.
“Having your brand be able to be out there and advertise, without advertising your direct porn, is important for us because it keeps your fanbase engaged with you as a person,” she said.
Facebook confirmed that the company reinstated four of the nine Instagram accounts (@sorrydad, @hillarylux, @weed.bae, and @paeulini) mentioned in this story. The other five, they said, “were actioned properly” and remain banned. When asked why these accounts specifically were restored over the others, the company rep responded, “There is no singular answer for these actions.”
“Some of the violations which led to account removals were false-positives, and once the content was restored, the individuals were able to regain access to their accounts. That was not the case for all the accounts you shared, and upon further review, some were still repeated violators of our policies, and therefore have lost access.”
The moral and technical issues surrounding Instagram’s sex and cannabis policies and punishments have been controversial for years. Oftentimes, smaller creators trying to advocate for social progress are the ones penalized, while large, commercially successful accounts like @playboy and @hustler continue to be able to post similar imagery freely.
Facebook/Instagram did not specifically address this when asked but maintain, again, that they only take action against accounts that violate their policies, however their algorithm is triggered to do so.
Creators in these communities want Instagram and Facebook to set healthy and consistent standards — especially for pro-sex and cannabis posts that are meant to be provocative and not dangerous.
Convertini said she wants Instagram to “have a responsibility towards our society’s norms and standards of how a body is seen.”
“It is very dangerous how [Instagram] cuts off artistic nude expression,” she said. “They portray a world in which a woman in lingerie, in super short clothes, posing sexy and suggestive, is totally okay, while any portrait or any expression of nudity in a nonsexualized context is taken down or shadowbanned. I cannot believe that they are not able to program a better algorithm, or that they don't find any better solutions for this problem.”
Creators also want the company to know that an AI-triggered ban can be so easy on its end to inflict but has a lasting, stressful impact on users who now depend on the platform for their incomes.
“The desperation I felt,” Rockowitz said. “Instagram is so big that they don’t really need me or my business, but they took down my whole source of income. Everything I’ve built. They don’t have the perspective of the lives they could be ruining by a click of a button.”