On Monday, Instagram started showing some users a popup message explaining that it will soon take away their ability to post “links stickers,” which many creators use to send their followers to other sites, digital stores, and platforms where they can make money. Instagram doesn’t allow adult content on its platform, but many adult content creators use it for promotional reasons, inviting their Instagram audience to follow them to other platforms or personal sites.
Link stickers are an option in Instagram’s ephemeral Stories feature, where users can add an external link to their photo or video. In August, Instagram removed the ability to link and send users off platform by swipe-up on a story and replaced it with a “sticker,” a small clickable icon that hovers over the image.
“Starting October 25, you will no longer have access to the link sticker because you have shared content that violates our Community Guidelines,” the message said. There is no option to appeal this decision, only an “OK” button and a link to the Community Guidelines.
An Instagram spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement: "As part of our efforts to limit the spread of harmful content that violates our Community Guidelines, we'll restrict people who have repeatedly or severely violated these policies from using the link sticker. However, we're investigating an issue where people may have mistakenly been notified that they will be restricted, and we're working on resolving this as soon as possible."
Many of the people who first started speaking out about this change were in the adult industry, sex workers who are often the first people to experience censorship and discrimination online, before it trickles to the rest of a platform’s users.They suspect that Instagram is taking away their ability to use link stickers because of adult content they post on other platforms, and that this decision is just the latest move from a company that discriminates against sex workers.
“For a very long time now (about 3 years) IG has been working on ways to force sex workers, erotic artists, and queer creators off of it’s platform,” Annie Brown, founder of Lips, an alternative social media app for women, non-binary people, the LGBTQIA+ community and their fans, told me. She received the notification that she will no longer be able to use link stickers.
Instagram did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“One of the first ways they did this was to remove stories with swipe up links to outside, subscription sites like OnlyFans,” Brown said. Instagram has removed posts that use hashtags like sex, sexy, lesbian, gay, bi, body love, body positive, and trans, she said, so people have to find new ways to work around the algorithm: “That’s why you will oftentimes see accounts spelling out the term sex in various ways like ‘s3x’ or ‘seggs,’” Brown said.
Sex workers and models helped build Instagram’s success, but are among the first to be harmed by these changes. Instagram’s moderation decisions are often contradictory, and it’s difficult to find a human to speak to for help, so users are not always sure why their content was removed.
“If IG has the power to remove access to certain features that directly impact your income/business, the very least they could do is ensure that their moderation process is fair, consistent and unbiased,” erotic artist Exotic Cancer, who got the notification on Monday, told me.
“I think it’s important to state that the online censorship of sex workers has huge implications for other marginalized groups as well,” Brown said. “In other words, we are all in this together.” Sex educators, body positive activists, erotic artists, queer creators and more are reporting receiving this ban.
Liara Roux, a sex worker and author, uses Instagram’s Stories and linking feature to promote her new book. She also got the notification that her link stickers would be removed.
“It becomes infinitely more difficult to share my story when I’m being censored in this way,” Roux said. “It feels even more painful that I see artists, musicians, and actors with institutional backing post nudity freely while sex workers are forced off of mainstream social media.”
Exotic Cancer told me that she’s “constantly” in violation of Instagram’s guidelines, although unfairly. She relies on Instagram to promote her art, and this will seriously hurt her business, she said. “From what I’ve noticed, it appears that sex positive female accounts can not get away with posting the same content that male-led accounts can... It sets an unfair double standard and makes the guidelines more unclear and inconsistent, which then leads to wrongful content removal resulting in damage to the creator.”
Thomas J. Allie, an adult content creator who also relies on Instagram’s reach to promote his work, told me that links in Stories are his primary means of promotions for all of his services; more people interact with Stories, he’s found, and since users can’t post links anywhere on the platform except for in profile bios, engagement through Stories is significant. He said he’s gotten warnings from Instagram before about breaking Community Guidelines, but never any explanation of what he’d done wrong.
“Sex workers have always been held back,” Allie said. “Our means of making a living aren’t ‘mainstream’ enough and it seems to agitate advertisers who partner with these sites.”
It’s not only sex workers and erotic artists getting this message, however. Other artists and photographers are also receiving this ban. Photographer Kethy W told me that she’d gotten two violation notices in the past; one that her Stories are against Instagram’s guidelines on adult sexual solicitation, and another that they’ve gone against guidelines on nudity or sexual activity. Her photography isn’t explicit or soliciting sex, but is flagged anyway.
“As a creative, I've been using Instagram from the very beginning to build a platform and career which was very rewarding at first,” she said. “Sadly, it's become harder to use by the day... Instagram's become extremely authoritarian with its censorship and control. I haven't violated Instagram's community guidelines and yet they get to decide without proper appeal.”
Content creator Megan Bitchell told me that she’s sure she’s never actually broken any guidelines, but suspects that Instagram’s algorithm has flagged her content unfairly in the past. “I just have big boobs and posted a picture of myself with a link to my Cash App,” she said. “I used to post lewds on my Instagram story with a link attached to my Cash App which worked as a horny tip jar, but now if I can’t do that it’s definitely going to cut into the money I would make from men online sending me money. I’m definitely never posting any lewd images on Instagram again because I’m worried I’m gonna get banned, so I’ll just stick to Twitter in the future.”
Several Jewish content creators are also having their link sticker privileges revoked. Liora Rez, executive director at StopAntisemitism.org, told me that in the past, they’ve had content removed, but were able to contact the platform and have it resolved quickly.
“We believe many Jewish advocacy accounts (including ours) are being targeted by bot farms and mass reporting campaigns; rather than removing the hateful content, Instagram's extremely flawed AI systems are targeting the accounts exposing the hatred versus the source of the hate,” Rez said—the organization uses the link feature on Instagram to help its audience find calls to action or share safety information. “Instagram removing our ‘link’ ability eliminates our ability to fully communicate with our audience, essentially censoring us while creating safe spaces for antisemites,” Rez said. “This backwards methodology is maddening and needs to be addressed immediately.”
Writer Jordyn Tilchen told me that she uses her Instagram platform to educate followers about Jewish issues and antisemitism, but Instagram has flagged her content several times in the past. “I think Instagram’s algorithm may in part have trouble distinguishing from educational content calling out hatred and bigotry from actual hatred and bigotry,” she said. “For example, they may flag a post of mine for mentioning Hitler, or an educational post showcasing threats Jewish people receive, and flag that content as the actual threat when that’s simply not the case at all.” Tilchen said this will hurt her ability to combat misinformation through Instagram; her page has been reported by antisemites, she said, while Instagram fails to take action against accounts that threaten her in her direct messages.
“All in all I believe there is a HUGE problem within Instagram’s moderation process,” Exotic Cancer said. “The discrimination is unreal. Sex positive female creators seem to be targeted disproportionally, constantly violating the guidelines wrongfully and unfairly.”
“It seems even if you follow Instagram's community guidelines, you don't get a say,” Kethy W said. “This affects freedom of speech and the right to communicate with the platform about an issue. I've used their help support many times to state my case but there's been no response. I hope that changes, I do.”
Oct. 19 4:22 p.m.: This story has been updated with a statement from Instagram.