On an app that’s all about communication, why can’t I talk to anyone at Instagram? #nigeria | #nigeriascams | #lovescams

This summer, provided that there are no lockdown restrictions or (knock on wood) an outbreak of a new Covid variant, I will be getting married.

The story leading up to our ceremony is a classic of the lockdown-era romance; watching Netflix films over the Teleparty, Facetiming while making the same meals,  struggling through a Chloe Ting workout, socially distanced walks, falling in love over late-night  Whatsapps.

By the time things did return to slightly normal in the summer of 2021, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I proposed on Regents Canal on a warm, slightly rainy day. Reader, she said yes.

At this point in the story, we’d fast forward to the wedding scene, complete with the white dress, grand marquee and fancy canapes. Sadly, what most of these films and TV shows don’t tell you, is how difficult it is to plan a wedding in the first place – finding a venue, rigorously analysing types of cutlery, endless conversations about chairs.

A few months ago, this task became even more arduous when my Instagram account was unexpectedly disabled – a service that, while rarely used in my personal life, became fundamental in order to contact and communicate with independent artists, illustrators, craftspeople and decorators with whom we wished to work.

It turned out that at a time when so many creators have found themselves having to adapt their businesses to Instagram’s – and by extension, Facebook’s – commercial infrastructure, getting locked out of it cut me off from a significant portion of the global creative economy.

I’m still unsure why my account was deleted. As I’ve tried to log in over the last few months, Instagram informs me that “Your account has been disabled for violating our terms”, taking me to a page that lists hundreds of reasons why an account might be deleted from the platform, which range from copyright infringement to the distribution of underage sexual imagery.

There is no way to contact anyone at Facebook for support – not even so much as an email. The best the platform offers is a request for an account review, requiring a user challenging a ban to send a picture of themselves, holding a piece of paper with their details, to a general email account, and wait to hear back eventually.

There is no limit to how long this review process can take. On forums I’ve scoured, users whose accounts were disabled reported that the process could take between five days to well over a year. As you will have probably guessed by now, nobody has responded to any of my 28 emails asking about the progress of the review, let alone whether it could be sped up.

Currently, my best guess is that the ban was the result of sending similarly written emails to artists enquiring about pricing, only to then be considered a spambot by the platform’s moderation algorithms. The uncertainty, the lack of clarity and closure, feels disorientating, a punitive punishment for a misunderstanding that could otherwise be easily resolved through a quick phone call.

Yet, thousands of people have found themselves in Instagram’s imposed state of limbo – from small retailers to niche creators and influencers, some of whom have paid tens of thousands of dollars to hackers in order to restore their accounts (although in many of these cases these backdoor dealers turn out to be scammers).

That so much money is spent trying to recover Instagram accounts illustrates an obvious, though much less talked about problem with platforms. While user numbers expand, algorithms are employed to manage the majority of content moderation, the human element of social media usage further dissipate.

Platforms like Instagram encourage us to incorporate it into our everyday lives – from running small businesses and promoting our work, to posting personal pictures of ourselves, our friends, even our deepest, intimate feelings.

Yet, in doing so, it establishes a dehumanizing relationship with its users – one in which it continues to extract and commodify its data while leaving its users open to phishing scams, abusive comments and even blocking entire groups of people from documenting and broadcasting protests.

In almost all these cases, Instagram has cited problems with its automatic algorithmic moderation systems, publicly promising to fix the problem of everyday users being stuck in limbo, with few feasible alternatives for their digital social life.

Yet, a combination of a complicated, ever-changing set of terms and conditions, along with Facebook’s continued reliance on algorithmic moderation software means that whatever patches and corrections it might make retrospectively, ordinary users will always be at risk of being stuck in limbo.

Indeed, for users in countries such as India, where Facebook products are considered to be ‘the internet’, getting your account shut down is akin to being cut off from the Internet entirely. The continued dependence on automated algorithms has human consequences, as I found out a few days after my account was disabled.

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Deep into my Instagram is a picture of myself with a school friend who passed away a couple of years ago. To my knowledge, it may be the only picture I have of him, so losing this would also mean losing part of my memory of him forever.

Perhaps I was foolish in believing a multi-billion dollar company in San Francisco could be entrusted to keep my teenage memories safe. At the same time, I suspect that my situation isn’t novel, and will in fact become more frequent as Facebook and other technology companies demand more of our information as they transition toward Web3 and the Metaverse.

In this future, it won’t just be cherished photographs that could be lost as a result of a misunderstanding, but whole swathes of people’s lives – in which they find themselves in a perpetual limbo, waiting for the permission of a tech company to simply be allowed to exist at all.

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