Locked out of Instagram: In social space, no one can hear you scream

If a highly visible member of the tech press can't get a social account fixed, users are screwed. Maybe these communications giants could benefit from some government regulation.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Image: ZDNet

The more deeply embedded social media becomes in our communication culture, the more terrifying it can be when a social media service cuts off access, either deliberately or due to an error somewhere in its system.

Instagram TOS violation

Instagram doesn't seem to like me.

I recently experienced an incredibly fruitless runaround from Instagram in an attempt to get access to my account.

My Instagram story begins in March. I hadn't gotten around to using Instagram before. But with all the work on 3D printing I've been doing, I thought it might be nice to share images of my projects in progress. Additionally, I have an adorable puppy and I take lots of great pictures of him with my iPhone 6s Plus.

I tried to sign up. After connecting my email account, phone, and Facebook account, I attempted to log in for the first time and was presented with the following message: "Your account has been disabled for violating our terms."

Uh oh. As I am a relatively visible journalist, I wondered if perhaps my account had been hacked, or in some way claimed by someone else and defaced. I tried contacting Instagram through its website. Despite numerous contact attempts over a period of several weeks, I received no response.

My next step was to reach out to the company's PR representatives. It's an unfair advantage that many of us in the tech press have, but those of us with a bit of influence are usually able to get a response from PR reps.

[Note that all of my correspondence -- except for some duplicate messages -- has been anonymized, scanned in, and made available for you to read, making this a matter of open, public record.]

I emailed the PR agency to ask for an appropriate contact. When one was supplied, I wrote a more detailed email describing my concerns.

After a relatively short time, I was provided with a link where I could report what I suspected was a hacked account. I went ahead and followed the instructions, up to and including sending an ugly picture of myself that's about as close to a police line-up shot as I hope to ever have taken.

ugly david instagram photo

Gotta admit. That there's a handsome man.

Four days later, Instagram responded, stating:

The problem has been resolved. If you'd like to sign up for an account or add this email address to an existing Instagram account, you should now be able to.

I wasn't told if the account had been hacked, or any other details, but I was happy the problem was "resolved."

But it wasn't

When I tried logging in, I got the same "Your account has been disabled for violating our terms" message. So I replied to the message I'd gotten -- the one telling me my account was resolved. I included a copy of the error screen, and asked for it to be fixed (again).

I received a reply from Larry in Community Operations asking for more information. So I provided him the long set of details I provided to both the PR agency and the Report a Hack service. Sigh.

The next day, Larry got back to me. "We don't currently offer personalized experiences on Instagram or individual technical support. Please visit the Help Center."

I replied again, this time explaining that I wasn't asking for a personal experience (I don't even want to think about what that might be). I stated that I had been concerned my account was hacked, that I had been informed by Instagram that it was resolved, but that it had, in fact, not been resolved.

Recall that I had reported my account had been hacked. Recall that I had been told that my account problem had been resolved. Recall that I've been talking to a support representative about said problem. Recall all that because here's what I was then told:

It seems like you're trying to report that your account was hacked. Please visit the Help Center to learn how to file a complete report.

Yep, they sent me back to the beginning. It was as if the previous month's worth of correspondence had never happened. When I pointed this out, no one ever replied to me.

My wife asked, "Why don't you simply sign up to Instagram with another email address or name?"

There are a few answers to this. First, I use my name with my other social networks, Second, I'd like to understand why Instagram insists I no longer have a good name. Third, I'd prefer to use my main email address, not some throw-away address made up simply to get around Instagram's ban. But finally, and most important, Instagram won't let me link to my Facebook account. Instagram loses a lot of value if I can't share on Facebook.

So yes, I could spoof my way into Instagram, but that's not the point. The point is that Instagram's support has been unacceptable. Most social network account management support is unacceptable. This issue needs to be made visible, and often enough to give the social networks reason to do their jobs better.

I am not alone

Others have run into the social media access roadblock.

In the article, "So your Twitter account is hacked? Reset, tweet, pray," the Committee to Protect Journalists talks about how difficult it can be to get support from Twitter if an account is hacked:

Email addresses on the Help Center page are either missing or very hard to find, which may explain why @digiphile concluded his Tweet by suggesting that you add a dose of prayer to your efforts.

The Apple-centric site Cult of Mac ran an article aptly titled, "Our Facebook page has been hacked, and it's impossible to get it back." The site was hacked last year, and Leander Kahney states:

We're trying desperately to contact Facebook, but the company offers no customer support whatsoever. There are no online submission forms, no support email addresses, and the phone automatically hangs up on you if you call. It's impossible to raise a human being over there.

Eventually, they managed to regain access, but not through normal means:

We contacted someone at Facebook through a reader in Chicago, who happens to work for a big newspaper. He had a contact in Facebook's media team and called her up.

It's not what you know. It's who you know and who they know. These examples go on and on.

Online sales site StackSocial, whose Facebook page has 319,339 likes, was hacked last June. In a blog post, the company describes it:

The entire Stack team has been working tirelessly to fix the issue, but Facebook's deeply lacking customer support system has rendered our efforts futile to this point.

They eventually regained access, but they didn't say how.

Another example is the case of Ido Simyoni, who runs an active travel and food blog. His account got hacked, and he attempted to contact Instagram:

If you are being hacked on Instagram you need to contact Instagram's support and wait till they get back to you, if ever. And I say if ever, because during the past four years I'm on Instagram, they never replied some emails I wrote them.

Ido eventually got his account back by -- and this is a story all on its own -- appealing to the humanity of his hacker, who returned access to him.

Business Insider reports about social media foodie Sarah Phillips, who waited five days for her Instagram to be restored.

Google+ star Ivan Makarov, who has nearly 2 million followers, posted about Instagram:

There seems to be no way to contact Instagram support because all their help pages are dead ends and there is no way to submit a support ticket.

Each of these examples shows how difficult it is for those of us with considerable influence to gain any support from the major social network providers.

Regular users, who don't have Internet-wide platforms from which to rant, have it more difficult. Here's one user's story:

No help from Facebook

Here's another:

No help for grandmother

The bottom line is simple: we rely on these systems to connect us to our family, fans, friends, and colleagues. They have become as central to us as the phone was to folks back in the last century. But if there's a problem, we're almost always stranded, with no support and seemingly no interest on the part of the social network giants in helping.

Epilogue to my story

I sent an email message to Instagram's PR agency informing them that I was planning to write this article and offering Instagram the opportunity to rebut, correct, or comment.

After 11 days, I got no response.

On the advice of my editor, I sent another message to my contacts at the PR agency informing them that we would give them another four days to provide a comment.

There was no response.

I still do not have access to my Instagram account.

If a highly visible member of the tech press can't get an account fixed, users are screwed.

I am not a proponent of additional regulation. Once in a while, though, it becomes clear that big communications companies like Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), and Twitter need some mandated guidance.

If these services can't be bothered to provide users with support, perhaps it's time we reached out through the long arm of government and required them to step up and do the right thing.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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