It is not uncommon these days to hear of an Instagram account that was deactivated or unfairly removed. We have learned that Instagram does not investigate pictures or accounts that get removed; it is based on an algorithm and bot from a number of reports that deem the account to be either inappropriate or unfit. Instagram claims to take their harassment and bullying seriously; however in a world where LBGTQ people are still considered “inappropriate” where anything we do is considered “adult content” or “pornographic,” then this raises the question “Is our community actually truly safe from discrimination and harassment?” I wonder how a bot knows the difference between appropriate and inappropriate. If an account is unfairly removed through the number of reports from someone’s bullying, then how does a bot tell the difference? It doesn’t. Therefore, Instagram does not allow for the playing field to reach equality.
It is not news that homophobia remains a constant threat against LGBTQ people, including apps like Instagram. Users do not have to show their face, or validate their identity, and some create a fake “catfish” account and anonymously report from the safe confinement of their homes and phones. These users can be anywhere, amongst anyone, and can be identifying “inappropriate content” to their hearts desire, leaving hateful comments, or throwing rocks from the shadows, as I like to say. My question still remains: Is Instagram actually taking their harassment and cyber bullying seriously?
My own account, @joeputignano, had 264.2K followers and disappeared last week when Instagram decided to delete it without word or warning. I woke up in the morning, and it was gone. I was someone who had been harassed since the inception of my account and had been very public about that harassment because I was trying to get help to stop it. It wasn’t a minor harassment either; it was an army of people with fake accounts using homophobic slurs and remarks to report every photo I posted. When the bullying increased into a stalker situation, I had to bring in law enforcement. One or several people created fake accounts harassing my then boyfriend and his family members, and the stress of this actually created a ripple effect, which ended up destroying the relationship because he was endlessly and publicly humiliated.
I emailed Instagram Facebook—its parent company—for days on end, and posted everywhere, but not a single person responded. During the current year, I had an imposter account—one that used my picture but changed my name—continually report me. Even though I, and others, had reported him, Instagram elected to remove my account while his still remained. It wasn’t until I posted this on Facebook that enough people reported this fake catfish account and had it removed. I wasn’t even safe from harassment and bullying created by a version of myself.
I was a latecomer to Instagram and jumped in when I saw its marketing potential after I had finished a tour as a performer with Cirque du Soleil and published my memoir Acrobaddict. I advocated recovery from alcohol and other drugs in and outside of our community; I had been a homeless heroin addict and wanted to show others that there was another way to live life. The amount of people I was able to reach through Instagram was astounding, and I am still lucky and humbled that so many people came to me for recovery help and guidance. As followers increased, I found lucrative offers, using my unusual gymnastics and contortion skills, and I can say it allowed me to find work much easier than traditional auditions.
Instagram and other social apps aren’t all rose gardens, and I am well aware of the egotistical side and psychological aspect of Instagram: its likes and our negative attachment to it for fulfilling gratification. I am guilty of falling victim to this and continue to work on this aspect of myself that desires gratification from others to like me. But as most of us know, getting likes doesn’t feel authentically validating because we know we are much more than a perfected image of ourselves. I even wrote a story called “The Id, the Ego, and the Social App;” however, I eventually found a way to create a flexible business while I was finishing college, and I believe many others have done the same. Getting likes felt nice, but making a living and helping others find recovery was authentically validating.
Therefore, when I woke up last Tuesday and my account, @joeputignano, was gone, it seemed as if my business was robbed from me. I began to research what happened and found many other LGBTQ accounts that had experienced similar ends to lucrative careers through the hands of “haters, bullies, and harassment.” In the LGBTQ community, we have always had to hustle because, let’s face it, we still aren’t given the same opportunities as others, and Instagram became a great marketing tool for drag queens, dancers, actors, models (who are not industry height), and the creative folks our community cultivated through the constraints of shame. The anti-gay argument continues to remain, stating that our content is adult or pornographic, but we all can pull up countless non-gay accounts that are showing the same exact content that remain up and running. Clearly, this is a double standard, even without bringing up the argument of how celebrities show nudity and Instagram looks right over it.
This type of action affects all of us because it is obvious there are many non-gay people in the world who still see our community as inappropriate, and they can report our accounts and have them removed without any say. It is a mathematical equation; therefore, there is no equality. Without equality, we are shamed, and shame basically says and teaches us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. This psychologically continues to tell many of us that we are unlovable—because there is something wrong or “inappropriate” with us and we are not treated fairly or . . . equally.
So, I have to ask Instagram and Facebook: Do you truly take bullying and harassment seriously? Is it offering equality or are we just going to continue to get erased, swept under the rug, placed back in the closet of homophobia, and treated unfairly?
***UPDATE: As of this morning, May 2nd, 2017, my old Instagram account @joeputignano was reactivated. This is a small victory, but there are still mountains to climb for all of us. Thank you everyone for all your support and kind messages. It is my hope that others facing the same problem will achieve the same results. Alone I can’t, but together we can!***