Instaspam sounds kind of funny when you first hear about it. But that moment when you suddenly get a flood of fake Instagram followers, requests to like a post back or, worse, linkbait comments telling you how to get more followers can make for a serious annoyance.
Los Angeles-based writer and VIA Publication co-founder Casey Winkleman encountered Instaspam as soon as she signed up for the photo-sharing service. “A random account would comment on my posts claiming that I stole their photographs, and then they would post a link to some website,” Winkleman told me via text message. “I always ignored it and never clicked the links. It eventually stopped.” She was lucky.
Others have seen their follower counts drop radically, thanks to Instagram’s tactics at cleansing its network. But if you don’t want to wait for the service to clean house, you have a few methods for dealing with Instaspam at your disposal.
Surge And Purge
The rise of spammy accounts can spell disaster for Instagram users with large followings, such as celebrities or companies, to say nothing of the spam messages themselves, whose suspicious links can compromise accounts of all sizes.
Hoping to protect its photo-sharing network, the company tried hammering such phony accounts—once in April 2014 and again the same December. Instagram didn’t disclose the total number of accounts affected, but judging by estimates, the second sweep looked severe. According to the BBC, the December purge amounted to a mass deletion of millions of accounts. One user who received the wrath of the “Instagram Rapture” was the rapper Akon, who likely felt robbed when the service suddenly stripped him of more than half of his followers. He wound up deleting his own account, in response to accusations that he’d been paying for followers.
Maybe he should have hung in there, because he wasn’t alone: The estimates also claimed Justin Bieber lost as many as 3,538,228 Instagram followers, and online marketer Wellington Campos dropped almost as many, with 3,284,304 disappearing overnight. Instagram’s own account shed a whopping 18,880,211 followers.
Orange Is the New Black‘s Matt McGory didn’t suffer so many losses, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t notice when 11,000 followers suddenly went missing.
There may be 545k Instagram followers left but my 11k spam followers that dissapeared took a piece of my heart w them #instarapture
— Matt McGorry (@MattMcGorry) December 19, 2014
Wham Bam, No More Instaspam?
Up-and-coming British pop rock artist Kieran Strange, whose active social media presence includes 3,152 Instagram followers, regularly contends with junk comments and fake accounts, as well as real users trying to boost their likes.
“People see it as a popularity contest,” Strange told me over the phone. “They want to have lots of followers but not follow a lot of people back.” Over time, she’s noticed the junk tends to fall into particular categories, leading her to map out her own rough taxonomy of Instaspammers:
- Passive spammers: Accounts that have only one photo and a bio that reads along the lines of, “Click this link and get more followers”
- Aggressive spammers: Similar to passive spammers, except they plaster your photos with comments inviting you to “check out this link”
- Logrolling spammers: Typically real accounts manned by actual people, though they wander about asking others to like their photos—that is, offering to trade “likes” for “likes”
Unfortunately, if you want to protect your account from such parties—to make sure your follow numbers don’t get slashed, or just to keep irritating comments at bay—you don’t have a lot of choices. You can flag messages or accounts with Instagram manually, or use an app to help identify or report spam. Another option is to make your Instagram account private, sharing images only with specific people.
Brent Lomas, social media manager for En Garde Arts, advises many of his freelance clients to stay off of Instagram altogether. “I caution clients about their Instagram presences, because the public tends to judge a brand or a person, not just by their social media presence, but by their associates,” he told me. “When you examine someone’s followers, seeing violent or pornographic images is a big liability. I’ve deleted clients’ Instagram and Twitter posts that have been favorited by users with risqué content.”
That may work for some Instagrammers, but for others, switching to a private account is not an option. Bethany Everett, blogger and Instagrammer at Twenty Something Plus, confided in me some of her concerns with changing those settings. “If I make my account private, that will hurt me,” she said. “I want to be easy to find. I want potential followers to see my grid and, if they like the images, to follow me.” Switching to a private account would force people into the opposite flow, she said, with them following first before they could see her images.
Still, she deals with a high volume of spam, so she consulted with other bloggers and found that generic hashtags can work like magnets. Her use of #fbloggers, #style, #fashion and others were part of the problem, so she cut them out and noticed her spam levels fall.
“I’ve had multiple incidences, but default to blocking and reporting,” she says. “If it’s a person who is just engaging in spam-like behaviors (following in hopes of a follow back and then unfollowing after), I just block them.”
If you’re not willing to make your account private, and if switching hashtags don’t help, then your fight with Instaspam will probably involve finding and reporting the culprits.
Instagram offers abuse reporting options, but the process is slow and cumbersome. You have to flag individual comments, posts or accounts as spam or abusive. Certain apps aim to help move this clean-up process along. For example, the app InstaGhost identifies inactive Instagram users, or people who have stopped interacting with one’s account. It doesn’t do the reporting, however—but the IGExorcist app claims to, thanks to features that locate fake followers and remove them for you.
Kasaba Labs, a small Istanbul-based software company, created a free iPhone app called Spotless to automatically remove “irrelevant, unwanted, abusive, spammy, promotion comments on Instagram.” Spotless ties into Instagram’s API, which lets app developers integrate directly with the service. The team identified spammy words—such as “follow back,” “gain,” and several other keywords that spammers might use—and the app logs the spammers. Users can add other keywords into their accounts as well. The app counts Indonesian actor Ashraf Sinclair (300K followers), butt selfie queen Jen Selter (5.6 million followers) and, Aviyente added, Godiva Chocolates as its star users.
Spotless seems like a swift, efficient solution, but its fate seems uncertain. I contacted Instagram to learn more about how the app used its API, and a spokesperson informed me on March 26 that Instagram revoked the app’s access. That was our last communication; the company hasn’t responded to any of my multiple follow-up inquiries. I contacted Kasaba Labs, but messages to the founders have also gone unanswered. Despite the mysterious turn of events, the Spotless app still seems to work. For now, anyway.
Instaspam poses a conundrum for some users, but it will hopefully get better as the service (and its users) focus on purging spam accounts. In the mean time, keep an eye out for the fakers and embrace the real fans—the friends and followers who make your Instagram account worthwhile.