The rise of spam on Instagram (and how I fight against it)

Infographic depicting man being bombarded by automatic social media comments
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the classic ‘Spam’ sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, exasperated diners at a café are met with menu choices of “egg and spam”, “spam, bacon, sausage and spam”, “spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam and spam,” or, for something completely different, “Lobster Thermidor au Crevettes with a Mornay sauce served in a Provençale manner with shallots and aubergines, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.” Whether they wanted spam or not, they were getting spam. 

It often feels the same menu options are available to Instagram users, where there is currently a deluge of spam. Over the last few years, it seems to have been a growing problem. On my own Instagram accounts on other friends and photographer accounts I follow, there is spam on the menu every day, sometimes with extra helpings of spam, the comments under people’s posts ranging from Bitcoin ads to accounts urging you to “Send pic to…” or “Wow, DM it to…” 

Simple ways to tackle Instagram spam

The most obvious and immediate course of action is to block individual users that post spam comments so they can’t spam you again. The problem here is that there are multiple (and sometimes seemingly limitless) ‘users’ that have been set up to, for example, promote and grow the followers of a particular Instagram account, so when you block one, another one crops up with the exact same comment or promoting the same account, service or website. It’s like the fairground game of Whack-A-Mole - as soon as you smack one spammer down, another one pops their head up as, only it’s a lot less fun. An uphill battle, it’s frustrating and time-consuming to remove and block spammers one-by-one. Talking to photographer friends and colleagues, I found many were weary and annoyed, as everyone seemed to be dealing with soul-sapping spam pushing, as one friend told me, “Bitcoin, investment options, how to grow your site, ladies wearing very little…” 

Is there a solution? A lot of spam seems to come from bots that automatically generate a response or comment, triggered by certain hashtags. So, for example, if you put out a post with #wildlifephotography on it, their bot might automatically generate a comment, like “Wow, DM it to @” and give the name of the account they’re trying to grow. The spam comments I receive arrive within seconds of a post – too fast to be from a human. Avoiding some of the most popular hashtags might reduce this kind of spam. 

Another way to reduce spam is to limit who can comment on your posts to just friends and followers, or people you follow, or people who follow you, as it means random spam accounts or bots aren’t able to leave comments. 

However, there’s a setback. Many photographers want to grow their audience. Restricting who can comment on your posts to people already following you and what hashtags you use can limit growth. That’s a personal call to make, to strike a balance. 

Really clever ways to tackle Instagram spam

But there is an option available that can make a big difference. Instagram users can block certain words or phrases from being used in comments. So, for example, if you’re being spammed with people or bots pushing Bitcoin, you can block any comments mentioning Bitcoin. It’s simple enough. In the top right corner of your Instagram account, tap on the three horizontal lines to pull up a menu. Go into ‘Settings And Privacy’. Scroll down to and click on ‘Hidden Words’. Scroll down again to ‘Manage Custom Words And Phrases’. Tap on that, and you can manually enter any words or phrases you want to block, such as ‘DM to’, ‘Send pic’, ‘Investment’ or ‘Bitcoin’. Once you’re done, tap back a step and toggle the ‘Hide Comments’ across from the Off position to On, which activates the block on any comments with selected troublesome words or phrases. 

A happier Instagram life awaits, with spam, if not eradicated, significantly reduced. If other spam comments appear with different phrases, you can add those to the list of Hidden Words. 

Given the scale of the problem and how user-unfriendly spam is, though, it’s surprising Instagram isn’t doing more to tackle the problem. Often, it’s crystal clear from their activity that specific Instagram accounts are spamming users to promote a business or build an account. Even when reported, these accounts continue to operate. It would be easy for Instagram to contact such spam accounts, provide a warning, and, if spamming continued, to close down these problem accounts. For some reason, they don’t seem to be doing that.

Many accounts are relatively benign - stressful and a waste of time for other users, but nothing more sinister than people or bots trying to build audiences on their accounts. But not all spam is harmless. Bitcoin or ‘investment opportunities’ posts are potential scams and frauds designed to take people’s money, while spam advertising porn could be the tip of the iceberg of harmful online activity, such as abuse or trafficking. Like many serious issues on Instagram, from cyberbullying and harassment to The Guardian's reported use of the platform for child prostitution and human trafficking, Instagram appears to be falling far short on spam, doing nowhere near enough to protect the integrity of the platform and the safety of its users. 

We contacted the Instagram press office several times to request information and comments on the above issues but they failed to respond. 

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