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Instagram purges millions of ‘fake’ profiles

Justin Bieber lost more than 3.5 million Instagram followers after the photo-sharing service deleted a large swath of users.
Justin Bieber lost more than 3.5 million Instagram followers after the photo-sharing service deleted a large swath of users.Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Instagram Purge has arrived.

On Thursday, the photo-sharing site deleted more than 18.9 million users from its rolls in an effort to “maintain the best possible experience on Instagram,” it said in a post to its customer support section.

The deleted profiles had a few purposes, many of which violated the service’s guidelines. Some were zapped because they aggressively advertised goods and services in high-profile users’ comment sections.

Other deleted profiles existed as ghost accounts that were essentially brokered on the open marketplace; because follower counts on social networks like Instagram and Twitter are now seen as a metric of popularity by advertisers and entertainment executives, the market for fake followers on these services has grown. (One social media brokerage, undaunted by the crackdown, charges approximately $70 for 10,000 followers.)


According to data compiled by the Boston-based programmer Zach Allia, some of Instagram’s highest-profile users were hit hard by the purge. Early adopter Justin Bieber lost 3.5 million followers, knocking his total down to 20.2 million; Rihanna, who recently returned to Instagram after a flap over topless photos, lost 1.1 million followers and is now at 13.2 million.

An account capturing the adventures of a Sheriff Woody (from “Toy Story”) doll had its follower count cut more than halved, although 2.2 million users continue to follow the toy’s travels.

Perhaps the most dramatically affected user was @chiragchirag78, whose following count dropped from more than 3.6 million to eight; the user has since left Instagram. A social media brokerage is claiming that his account is available for $3,500 — a discount from the original price of $5,000, although the ad still claims that he has followers in the seven-digit range.

Meanwhile, popular Instagram accounts devoted to nail art held on to most of their followings. @nailsvideos only lost 23,000 of its 3.6 million followers — the lowest percentage loss of Instagram’s top 100.


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Maura Johnston can be reached at maura.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @maura.