December 30, 2020 at 6:52 am EST | by Brody Levesque
Instagram’s anti-LGBTQ trolls use algorithms & zap gay influencers
Instagram, gay news, Washington Blade
Matthew Olshefski and Paul Castle (Photo courtesy of the couple)

SEATTLE – The never-ending war by LGBTQ+ creators to protect their accounts against bullies who manipulate the automated fiefdom that is Instagram, has once again claimed another casualty as two gay Instagrammers had their account disabled with no apparent hope of appeal.

The reason is that the social media company, owned by Facebook, is built on a system that makes it nearly impossible to restore an account, have a fair hearing with human interaction, or even receive email communications to dispute the company’s seemingly arbitrary decisions to disable or delete an account.

This allows the anti-LGBTQ+ trolls who target LGBTQ+ people nearly free reign.

There is a long history of the Instagram “systems” targeting LGBTQ people, based on the ability of online trolls to be able to manipulate those systems. In May of 2017, Joe Putignano, the author of the bestseller “Acrobaddict” and a gay man who is also a Cirque du Soleil performing artist, model, and a Broadway performer wrote in the Huffington Post,

“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?”

He then added, “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.”

Like most people caught up in the never-ending vortex of non-communications and auto-response, Putignano, also received no answers. However after a concerted campaign of Facebook posts and publicity the social media company relented and reactivated his account.

For husbands Matthew Olshefski and Paul Castle, not unlike Putignano, they now also face the never-ending battle with the social media giant trying to regain access and reestablish their account disabled due to the anti-LGBTQ forces that bully the community at large and Instagram which makes no allowances to stop this scenario from repeating.

Matthew Olshefski and Paul Castle (Photo courtesy of the couple)

Shortly after Matthew and Paul went on their first date in 2016, they started sharing their stories and talents on the internet.

Paul is an artist with a rare form of blindness, and Matthew is a classical violinist who survived a cult in his childhood years. Bonded by their love of the arts, and a shared understanding of “overcoming the odds”, not only did Matthew and Paul become social media influencers: They fell in love and got married.

Along the way, their combined creative forces garnered 100,000 instagram followers, 150,000 TikTok followers, 200,000 Facebook followers, and over 15 million YouTube views.

Matthew shared his beautiful violin music; Paul shared his paintings and illustrations; and together they shared a love story built on unconditional support and a deep admiration for each other.

When the pandemic forced the world indoors last March, Matthew and Paul started their own podcast called “His and His” which touts itself as a “conversation between husbands.” Each week, Matthew and Paul discuss different topics relating to their experiences as gay men. From coming out, to dealing with homophobia, to getting married.

“We had no idea our podcast would resonate with so many people around the world. We have received countless messages from listeners thanking us for giving them the courage to be themselves,” says Paul. “We were so humbled.”

At the launch of their podcast, Matthew and Paul also started a joint Instagram page simply called “Matthew and Paul” where they shared daily pictures along with essay-style posts about their lives together.

“I was stunned by the reaction to our Instagram page,” says Matthew. “I had no idea our stories would bring hope to so many people. Every day we received hundreds of messages from people around the world, thanking us for being so open about our lives and experiences.”

Within a handful of months, the Instagram page grew to 33,000 followers.

“We’ve been creating social media content for over 4 years. This was the fastest growth we’ve ever seen. Something was really connecting with people,” says Paul. “We were thrilled to be representing a same-sex relationship in such a positive way.”

Matthew and Paul’s social media presence began to shift from hobby, to part-time work, and finally to a full-time job. By May of 2020, social media influencing was their primary source of income.

Then, on the morning of December 20, 2020, Matthew and Paul logged onto their shared Instagram account only to find…nothing.

It was gone.

A single message appeared onscreen informing them that their account was disabled for violating Instagram’s terms of use. A second window revealed the “violation” in question.

“Your account has been disabled for pretending to be someone else.”

Matthew and Paul were stunned. Pretending to be someone else? For the past 4 years, all Matthew and Paul had aimed to do was be their most authentic selves. It was, in fact, the most frequent comment from their fanbase.

“It’s ironic that we were accused of being someone else,” says Paul, “when our fans and followers thank us for being ‘real’ on a daily basis.”

The next window prompted Matthew and Paul to submit photo identification and await an email from Instagram within 24 hours. An email never came.

“While we waited for the email, we did some research online and discovered people in similar situations waited over 2 months to hear back from Instagram” says Matthew, “and others never heard back at all.”

Meanwhile, their many fans were concerned and confused. What happened to the daily pictures and stories of love that had provided them with so much hope?

“We love bringing this kind of content to the world,” says Paul. “But it’s more than just a bunch of pictures and posts; it’s a message of equality and representation in a world where homophobia still thrives.”

They have been left wondering: Was the takedown an act of discrimination?

“We want answers,” adds Matthew, “but more importantly, we want to get back to what we were doing, being our most authentic selves.” 

This is not an issue that occurs in isolated circumstances either it is widespread on the Instagram platform. Adding to the frustrations of LGBTQ users who have lost access to their accounts is the fact that like most of the IT/Internet companies in the San Francisco Bay area which have gone remote as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its continuing grip on California and elsewhere, Instagram is not staffed except remotely.

A source knowledgeable of the company’s operations but not authorized to speak to the media told the Blade that almost complete reliance on the automated systems and next to no human oversight as a result of the remote virtual work environment has developed into a backlog of disputed decisions on accounts that have been disabled- as a direct result of the algorithms being tripped by repeated so-called ‘complaints’ over content in particular.

The Los Angeles Blade has reached out to Instagram for comment but has not received a response.

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