She Painted a Few Champagne Bottles. Then Came Meta’s Customer Support Hell

She Painted a Few Champagne Bottles. Then Came Meta’s Customer Support Hell

Fashion influencer Lauren Holifield opened up Instagram one day in February and was soon fighting the urge to throw up. “I was so nauseous,” she says. The account she uses to bring in a six-figure annual salary from marketing products to more than 100,000 followers had been banned—shutting off income she needed to support her family and help fund her daughter’s wedding. The app gave no indication why she had been booted.

Holifield texted her husband and pinged her IT assistant, then tearfully began to pray. “I literally thought my career was over,” she says. Only a tortuous week later did Holifield discover that on the day she was banned, Instagram sent three warnings to a secondary email on her account, each saying that someone had reported one of her videos from last year for trademark infringement.

Her followers had loved the three posts in which she adorned bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne with white paint and glued on paper butterflies and Christmas ornaments, a crafty gift idea. Holifield hadn’t mentioned the champagne brand or offered anything for sale, and similar videos can be found across the internet, but someone at Veuve had apparently reported her. Instagram’s emails stated, “Your offer of goods and/or promotion of the sale of goods infringes on their trademark rights.”

Holifield was left asking a question that has frustrated many users of Instagram and Meta’s other social platforms: How do I contact customer support? It can be a trial for anyone but is particularly biting for people like her. Meta has encouraged influencers to make a career out of posting on its platforms—and reaped the profits—but some say the company does not treat them professionally in return.

Holifield’s agent, Sharon Eva, who runs influencer marketing agency Fame by Influence, says she has helped hundreds of creators unfairly booted from their accounts over the past few years. Many of the bans appear to have been incorrectly applied automatically by software. But finding someone to appeal to is nearly impossible. “I don’t know why a company as large as Meta doesn’t have real customer service,” Eva says.

In one small-claims lawsuit filed against Meta in California last year, the owner of a landscaping business who lost his personal and business accounts to an apparent hack alleged, “Meta does not provide any phone number to reach a human being, or a valid e-mail to reach customer support. They make it impossible to get a hold of a human being.”

Meta spokesperson Daniel Roberts says the company provides support in various corners of its app and website—options that Eva contends she exhausted without making progress. “We know that losing access to an account can be frustrating,” Roberts says. “We are consistently working to improve the customer service experience on our platforms.”

Although Holifield got her Instagram account back in February after appealing to a representative of Veuve, she remained locked out of Meta’s ad manager, preventing her from resuming her work on sponsored posts. Her access wasn’t fully restored until WIRED contacted Meta this week about her situation. The company didn’t explain why it suddenly acted; Veuve did not respond to a request for comment.

Frustration with Meta’s support has spurred the development of an active grassroots help community on Reddit with 13,000 members, r/facebookdisabledme. Recommendations shared there include suing Meta, which has worked for some, or buying one of Meta’s virtual reality headsets to get access to a dedicated service team, which is judged to be no longer effective.

Eva sometimes tells clients about the murky trade in which people claiming to have connections to unscrupulous Meta workers offer to restore accounts for a price of thousands of dollars—and the tactic appears to have paid off in the past. Other users have turned to regulators, hoping they put pressure on Meta, but some authorities are getting tired of the pleas. “We refuse to operate as the customer service representatives of your company,” 41 state attorneys general wrote to Meta last month, citing a dramatic spike in complaints from people struggling to recover hacked accounts.

Meta generated $39 billion in profits last year and employed about 67,000 people, but adequately staffing up to better care for users such as Holifield hasn’t been a priority. “If you don’t know someone there directly, good luck getting anything done,” says a former partnerships staffer, who declined to be named to protect his relationships at Meta. “If they’re just looking at the financial numbers, they don’t have any reason to do it.”

To address the long-standing gripes, the company announced in December 2021 that it would be testing live chat support for locked-out or suspended users. Over 1 million people had used the service within the first year, but it’s unclear how the program has progressed. Meta’s Roberts says it remains in testing.

In Europe, new laws such as the Digital Services Act require transparency and redress over bans and other account issues, though how the new regime is playing out is still being studied.

Users in the US such as Holifield have to craft their own fight. The day after her ban, she created a new Instagram account, which is allowed under the platform’s policies, and built it up to 9,000 followers today. “I felt like I couldn’t just not do anything,” Holifield says. “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Holifield started working as an influencer in 2017, posting family pictures from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and talking about her husband and two daughters as well as their outfits and dogs, including goldendoodle Whiskey. Soon the stay-at-home mom was internet-famous and she ran with it.

By 2018, advertisers were interested. Toyota invited her to try out new cars, and Walmart became a regular sponsor through LikeToKnowIt, a service that connects brands and influencers. She built up a stable job and income, and never heard from anyone at Instagram or received a warning about her content.

After Holifield’s account was banned, she watched as other influencers got work with Walmart and Toyota and wondered what it would mean for her future. “What if brands have filled me with someone else and they don’t have me in the budget anymore?” she recalls thinking.

Holifield hired Eva to help get her account back. But Eva warned that the chances of success were impossible to predict. Eva herself had, for reasons unclear to her, lost access in late January to Meta’s Media Support Partner Portal, a channel to more dedicated support for public figures and organizations. Someone else with Portal access offered to lend it to Eva for $5,000 per case; she declined.

Instagram’s email also had said Holifield could appeal directly to Veuve through Corsearch, a company that files takedown requests on behalf of brands such as Veuve and touts “an excellent collaborative relationship with Meta.”

Though her case had nothing to do with peddling counterfeits, Corsearch wanted receipts of Holifield’s Veuve purchases to authenticate them, but the printouts had long been discarded. Her husband went out to liquor stores to ask for copies and retrieved two of the three purchases, from different stores. One was particularly eager to help because his wife followed Holifield and told him about the disabled account. It was a reminder that Holifield’s livelihood had been put at risk in a dispute over $70 bottles of mid-tier bubbly.

Kelley Gordon​​​​, an intellectual property attorney at the law firm Marshall, Gerstein & Borun who was not involved in Holifield’s ordeal, says it’s understandable that Veuve wanted to control its appearances on social media. Any product mentioned on an influencer’s account might be seen by some followers as part of a brand partnership, even when, as in Holifield’s case, she was acting alone and wasn’t hawking anything. “The underlying character and purpose of the account is the catch here,” Gordon says. “It’s within a trademark holder’s right to prevent confusion regardless of whether there’s positive spin on it.”

In the end, though, Veuve relented. After a dozen emails to Meta and Corsearch, Eva got a response from Corsearch saying that on February 21 it had already requested retractions of the infringement claims. Corsearch didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Late on February 27, a friend texted Holifield. “Praise the Lord, your account is back 🙌” She still hasn’t seen any email from Instagram, but it was true. “I was relieved, but I was sick to my stomach,” she says. Holifield took down every post with a Veuve bottle in it and posted a video in which her husband explained what had happened. “We’re back like a phoenix from the ashes,” he says.

Holifield’s return wasn’t complete though. A week later, she learned that the Meta ad manager account she needed to share performance of her posts with sponsors had not been restored. That meant no new deals. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she recalls thinking. “I realized I’m going to have to fight this all over again, and you feel so defeated.”

As she watched her savings drain further, Holifield thought about pivoting to TikTok but felt she’s too old to learn it. Her friends recommended attorneys in case she decided to sue Meta, but she began to think she might have to give up influencer work.

This week, two days after WIRED asked Meta about Holifield’s situation, her ad manager access was restored. She would be able to resume her work with advertisers. “I feel like I can breathe a little,” she said immediately after logging in successfully.

Holifield now fears mentioning companies or showing logos on her Instagram except in cases of a paid partnership. She avoids saying words like dupe or similar, or drawing comparisons between products—actions that have taken down other influencers’ accounts. She’s done with crafts too, and she’ll probably never again utter the name of what used to be her bubbly of choice. With so little support available from Meta, Holifield says, “I don’t want to chance it.”

Paresh Dave

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