Over the last few days, a teenager named Taylor has spent more than a dozen hours uploading north of 900 photos to Instagram. She listens to music or watches TV while she posts the same photos of millennial pink grids, flowers, and cotton candy clouds over and over. Each one is marked with the same user — escty, real name Bianca Devins — whose tagged photos have become a wall of beautiful images and hopeful messages.
In the early hours of Sunday, July 14th, Devins was brutally murdered. Photos of the 17-year-old’s body were posted to Instagram and then spread across Discord, 4chan, and Twitter. While some well-wishers flocked to her account to express their sadness and support for her family, Instagram became awash with ghoulish accounts dedicated to sharing the photos.
As Instagram engaged in a game of whack-a-mole to take down each new photo, Taylor was one of the dozen or so people who started up an account dedicated to cleaning Devins’ profile. These accounts, mainly run by girls and young women, are determined to fight against a horrific form of digital vandalism. “I wanted to do whatever I could to protect [Devins] and her family from having to go through any more pain and protect anyone from seeing the disgusting images,” says Taylor. It also means they’ve become volunteer moderators, regularly viewing disturbing photos, which some say is to the detriment of their own mental health.
Tag cleaners, as they call themselves, drown out gore, harassment, and more by flooding a user’s tagged photos with pleasant images. It’s benevolent spam. The most prolific accounts are usually reposting the same images ad nauseam in quick bursts. Randomfloweracc, run by a 17-year-old named Lori, uses cartoons like Rilakkuma or Hello Kitty. Naomi, owner of cute.cleanup, is also partial to Sanrio characters and rainbows.
User kanyewestnandos — who posts the same meme of the rapper in a Nando’s — says tag cleaning offers protection that goes beyond simply reporting a malicious account. “It is harder to witch hunt the people who are posting graphic material because they can change their username,” they say. “And if they eventually end up getting reported they can make a new account.” Some photos or disrespectful memes may not violate Instagram’s rules, meaning they stay up. Another tag cleaner, a 15-year-old named Valerie, says that it’s a fast way to push images to the bottom of an account. “If you just report, it is likely that it won’t get taken down immediately and people will have enough time to save the picture and spread it, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” she says.
Instagram appears to have removed all of the tagged photos of Devins’ death, but there’s little to stop abusers from creating new accounts and restarting the cycle again. In the days following her death, The Verge noticed waves of these photos, both originating from the same accounts constantly reposting, as well as multiple new accounts cropping up. Reports filed by The Verge usually resulted in photos being taken down in minutes; but in some cases, that’s all it takes for any user to see them to begin with.
Reached for comment, an Instagram spokesperson told The Verge that “in addition to technology we have in place to proactively find images of this tragic event, we urge the Instagram community to report violating accounts and content to us so we can take swift action.”
For some of the tag cleaners patrolling Devins’ account, that’s unacceptable. “Tag cleaning in combination with mass reporting is the way to combat the trolls,” says Naomi, one of the tag cleaners. “If we only relied on reporting, the tags would still be flooded with ‘those photos’ while IG removes them. Not to mention, IG doesn’t always remove them or they take their sweet time. They also won’t remove memes that don’t use the graphic photo obviously because it doesn’t break community guidelines.”
The account holders The Verge spoke to say that though they’ve never met Devins — many weren’t even aware of her before her death — they feel a connection to her. For some, it’s their close ages. Others see themselves, friends, or online influencers they follow in her. “I didn’t have to personally know Bianca to see that no one deserves this after they’re gone, especially not their family,” says Naomi. “It’s really unfortunate that this tragedy had to be inundated with insensitive memes and sick people who get a laugh out of posting ‘those photos.’”
Even with their best intentions and desire to help, however, many of the tag cleaners The Verge spoke say they feel exhausted. Valerie says that Devins’ death is devastating, even without the addition of the photos. “Honestly, the whole situation has me overwhelmed,” she says. Naomi describes the time posting and tagging and refreshing and reporting as draining. She doesn’t encourage anyone to get into it blindly, especially for those putting themselves in a position to repeatedly see graphic content. “It’s not for the squeamish, I particularly feel some level of desensitization from you know … the internet and shock culture so I felt like I could do this.”
Moderation is a difficult, sometimes even trauma-inducing job for anyone to take on, let alone as volunteers. For Instagram’s tag cleaners, the growing community has proven to be invaluable. Naomi says she shoulders the burden so that others won’t have to. “It’s good to know that there’s others doing just as much as you,” she says. It gives her a chance to rest and unplug “from the insanity that is the internet.” Then, when she feels like she can, she comes back and posts some more.