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Why Instagram Users Can Lose Thousands of Followers Over Night

Posted by on April 29th, 2019

On Instagram, your follower count is basically your life. If you don’t have many followers, you aren’t worth following. Influencers snowball their influence through growth, whether they seed that growth with artificial followers early on, or they grow simply by virtue of being influential in other areas online or off.

That’s why it can be shocking, even devastating to wake up one day and find your follower count dropping by incredible numbers. I’ve seen people with 10,000 followers wake up one day with 2,000 less. I’ve seen people with millions of followers wake up one day with millions less. This isn’t the kind of issue that only concerns those with a ton of followers, or those with small audiences; it’s an issue everyone who uses Instagram will contend with sooner or later.

I can think of five different reasons why you might lose a significant number of followers over night. Some of them are your fault, and others aren’t. Let’s look at those reasons and see if there’s anything you can do about them.

Database or Display Bugs

This first reason is actually very rare, in that I can only think of one time it has happened in all of Instagram’s history, at least on a broad scale. Of course, that’s because it happened very recently, only a month or so ago as of this writing. If you saw a lot of followers drop over night and panicked, but your account seems to have recovered, this is probably the reason. So what was it and what happened?

In the middle of February of 2019, mass panic started to spread throughout Instagram. “Another purge!” came the cry. Dozens of articles appeared, all speculating on whether or not Instagram was initiating another purge, or if there’s another reason why accounts were losing 2% of their followers literally over night. Two percent doesn’t seem like much when you’re a small brand with a few thousand followers, but huge brands would have a loss of millions, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

More on purges next, but for now, we’ve seen that the drops from February were neither a purge nor permanent. Some have even grown significantly: BBCNews, for example, lists 7.3 million in that document above, but has 8 million as of this writing.

Instagram denied that this change was any sort of purge, though they have performed purges in the past. The fact is, this was simply a glitch in the system. Instagram confirmed this fact on Twitter on the 13th of February, and posted an update later stating that the glitch would be fixed the next day.

Instagram Follower Bug

So what actually happened? Well, Instagram didn’t come out and say anything about it. The best I can figure is that some kind of de-sync in their data centers caused displays for follower counts to show as lower. It could have been cached values, it could have been data loss or a server crash leading to the platform using old data until a restoration could be performed, or it could just be a strange display bug in the way profiles showed followers.

Now, I don’t have a million-follower Instagram account for my own use, so I can’t exactly check into the analytics or dig deeper into Instagram’s servers, or anything like that. This is all speculation on my part.

The fact is, sometimes things like this happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. If a temporary loss of a percentage of your followers is emotionally or mentally devastating, perhaps it’s time you drew back away from Instagram and diversified. Putting all of your eggs in one basket is a great way to be wiped out if something happens. How would you feel if this was an adjustment in data accuracy and reflected your real follower counts?

My advice is that, if you lose a massive number of followers in a very short span of time and you can’t figure out why it happened, don’t panic. Wait a few hours or a day, and check Instagram’s official blog and their Twitter account. Though, why they used Twitter to disseminate this information, I have no idea. Still, it’s an official communications channel, so it’s worth monitoring.

If it’s happening to other people, chances are it’s either a purge or it’s a glitch. If it’s a glitch, Instagram will acknowledge it and fix it. If it’s a purge, they probably won’t acknowledge it, but you’ll be able to tell from what other accounts are hit and how strongly they’re hurt by it. If no one else seems to be affected, it’s probably something more personal.

Instagram Purged Fake Accounts

The “Instagram purge” is a real thing that Instagram has done several times over the course of their existence. So what is it, can it affect you, and what can you do about it?

First of all, to understand a purge, you need to understand why it happens. A purge is basically Instagram reviewing their records and their user database. While performing this review, Instagram changes their algorithm or enforces existing rules. They simply widespread delete any account that is flagged as being a fake account in some way.

Instagram Followers May Change

Fake accounts are a way that some people use to gain advantage on the site, either with followers, with engagement, or with comments. A lot of the time when you’re buying followers from a seller on Fiverr or another low cost source, what you’re doing is paying someone to mobilize a fleet of bot-controlled fake accounts to follow you.

There are a lot of ways you can identify whether an account has fake followers, ranging from simply browsing through them to using an audit tool. These tools generally look at public pieces of information that can indicate an account is fake. Is the name a real name, a real sounding username, or just something nonsensical? You can be pretty sure that an account like this one, with one spam post and only a few hundred followers, is definitely a fake account:

IG Spam Account(If that account is gone by the time you’re reading this, it’s just a dumb account with the Xbox logo for a profile picture, named “xboxofficial.peele” to make it look like it’s an official account. At the same time, it only has a few hundred followers, no profile information, follows thousands of people, and only has one post, which is a scam about winning a free Xbox. It’s clearly just used as a phishing account.)

Instagram has a lot of reviews that catch accounts and delete them on an ongoing basis. Spam accounts come and go, but that’s never going to cause a sudden drop of thousands or even millions of accounts literally over night. And yet, that still happens. So what’s going on?

Periodically, Instagram initiates a purge. The purges are either a change in the rules to make them a little more strict, or a change in enforcement to crack down on accounts that normally slipped through the cracks.

In a sense, you can think of a purge like Google’s Panda update. It doesn’t get rid of anything of value, it gets rid of terrible spam accounts. If you lose followers from it, good! Those followers had a zero percent chance of ever buying your product or making you money in any way. The don’t click links, they don’t share posts, and if they engage, it’s a very robotic sort of engagement you paid for. Once they’re gone, your conversion and click rates should rise.

Instagram has done several purges before, and they’ve said they will be cracking down on bad engagement and bad accounts again in the future. You can bet that more purges are coming. That’s why the big glitch up above was initially considered a purge: there’s evidence that another purge is coming.

Example Hashtag Purged

Part of the problem is simply that purges are inconsistent. That spam account up above has existed for years. Purges miss accounts, and purges often catch some but not all of what they’re intended to catch. In a sense, it’s like playing a huge game of whack-a-mole, except the hammers are automated by robots with selective blindness, while the moles number in the millions and can reproduce faster than the hammers can hit them. It’s kind of a disturbing game when you consider it in that light, really.

You Did Something Wrong

The third possible cause of a loss of followers is the first of three that only happen to you. So, if you see a huge drop in followers, but none of the usual Instagram-based news blogs are reporting on a purge and no one is complaining about a similar loss, you can consider it something happening only to you. So that begs the question, what did you do?

There are a lot of different things you can do that may cause a loss of followers. Did you post a contentious or inflammatory piece of content? If you rile up your users a lot, many of them will leave rather than try to keep you around. People boycott brands all the time because of some action or position those brands have taken. Sometimes, a brand doubles down on some racist sentiment and is abandoned en masse because of it. Sometimes, people try to boycott Nike and end up boosting sales.

Nike Outrage Increases Sales

Other causes of follower loss can be more benign, but still potent. If you’re a brand that usually posts content in one sort of aesthetic, switching to another aesthetic entirely can either revitalize a stagnant audience, or it can cause problems and drive users away. If you start posting content of a much lower quality or a vastly different tone – going from produced photos to cameraphone selfies – it can dramatically hurt your follower count.

Someone Mobilized Against You

In some cases, the reason you’re losing followers is a bit more insidious: someone is mobilizing against you. Similar to the sorts of negative SEO attacks, review bombs, and other actions, I’ve seen a few accounts lose followers when people with a bone to pick go through your follower list and just start mass reporting the accounts they find. Real or not, those reports can get people banned, and it can cause a huge hassle for everyone involved.

Now, this isn’t super likely to happen and it’s not very likely to work very well. I consider it an option only when every other option is exhausted, or when you can prove that someone has a vendetta against you and is bragging about making you lose followers. This is the kind of problem that is either going to catch and remove fake followers, like a mini-purge, or is going to temporarily remove followers until those people can be reviewed and have their accounts restored. It’s a hassle, but it’s not really damaging to your brand.

You Violated the Rules

The final cause isn’t really a follower loss so much as it is a dramatic suspension of your account. When you break the Instagram rules, they can sanction your account. This can lead to the removal of your content or the suspension of your account, as well as the suspension of specific abilities, like access to ads.

Instagram Terms

If you’re violating rules, you’re caught, and your account is suspended, you can often appeal the suspension. It might be a temporary suspension, or it might be permanent, depending on the violation. It’s up to you to figure out what you did and how to appeal it.

Even if you get your account back, sometimes you can lose a lot of followers along the way. Be careful when breaking rules, and try to avoid doing it whenever possible.

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