Javrock / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Gabe Kenworthy, a 22-year-old freelance content manager for some of Instagram’s most notorious meme pages, was up at 2 o’clock on Christmas morning. He was sitting on his parents’ couch searching for heartwarming holiday content to post when he realized something was wrong.

Just after he sent his partner some memes for approval, Kenworthy’s phone exploded with texts. Jonathan Foley, the owner of a network of meme pages with millions of followers, including @SocietyFeelings, @Deep, and @Positivity, told him that Instagram had shut down his accounts without warning, along with a slew of others.

Instagram regularly purges batches of accounts that the platform says violate its terms. And this is not the first time Instagram has cracked down on spam during the holidays. In December 2014, the company deleted hundreds of thousands of accounts in what became known as the “Instagram rapture.” But rarely does a strike affect so many notable pages at once. Some memers have estimated that more than 500 accounts were shut down over the past few days, including pages with millions of followers, such as @ComedySlam and @Pubity. Even @God was suspended on Christmas. “Instagram is the Grinch this year,” said Ryan, a 20-year-old who lost a network of pages with more than 1 million followers and asked to be referred to by his first name only because of concerns about hacking.

“We’ve seen behavior on Instagram whereby some usernames … are stolen or traded,” an Instagram spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday. “We do not allow people to buy, sell, or trade aspects of their account, including usernames. We are consistently taking steps to disincentivize and stop this behavior, including removing accounts that violate our policies.”

What frustrated many memers most about the mass ban was that they had no recourse and no way to learn more about their situation. Dylan White, a 21-year-old who ran @Jaw, a popular account that posted memes and pop-culture news along with photos of men who had strong jawlines, said he had been running his account for three years and had never had a problem with it previously. “This is my full-time income, so it’s very detrimental to my livelihood,” he said. Ryan was also worried about the money he lost in the crackdown. “I was trying to eat dinner and socialize with my family,” he said, “but knowing behind the scenes everything I’ve built, my entire net worth, was just gone before my eyes.”

Several memers who were also affected said that they hadn’t obtained their accounts improperly, though they could be taking the fall for bad action by previous owners. Some users, including Ryan, also had personal pages and accounts banned, ones that they knew they had founded from the get-go.

Theories circulated throughout the day on Kik, where owners of the largest meme pages on Instagram communicate. Some suspected that Instagram was cracking down on a rogue employee who had illegitimately claimed these usernames using an internal dashboard years ago and then sold them. In screenshots of Kik chats reviewed by The Atlantic, some people also wondered whether the purge was somehow tied to people’s devices, since Instagram has been known to punish spammers by deleting all the accounts associated with a specific device or IP address. Another theory was that Instagram accounts that switched too frequently between public and private were targeted, a tactic that large pages had been exploiting as a growth hack in recent months.

Most meme account holders will likely never receive a detailed answer on what, exactly, they did wrong, but bans such as this serve as a powerful reminder of just how volatile and unregulated the Instagram meme industry is, and how little it’s tended to by the platform itself. Ben Cohen, the entrepreneur behind @BasicBitch, who has since sold off his large Instagram accounts, said that despite the vast amounts of money some meme accounts generate, they’re subject to almost no oversight.

Some popular memers, such as @TheFatJewish’s Josh Ostrowsky and @FuckJerry’s Elliot Tebele, have successfully tied their real-life personas to their Instagram handles, but most large meme accounts operate anonymously. In fact, it’s that very anonymity that allows these pages to transform themselves into a brand. Barak Shragai, the co-owner of @Daquan, told The Atlantic earlier this year that he considers Daquan’s anonymity a key advantage to the growth of his page, which has more than 11 million followers. Shragai says it allows followers to project their own personality onto the page and prevents followers from reading a meme through a particular lens based on who posted it.

But the disorganized, sometimes scammy way some meme pages do business, coupled with the fact that the main account holder is often obscured, makes dealing with them a unique challenge for Instagram. On the one hand, the platform relies on large pages and meme accounts for growth. On the other, it has a responsibility to protect its users from spam. Networks such as Twitter and Tumblr have previously taken an approach similar to Instagram’s Christmas campaign: mass-banning anyone remotely affiliated with terms-of-service violations.

The unfortunate consequence of this type of approach is not just that some innocent account holders unjustly lose their primary source of income, but also that an entire class of accounts that generate massive engagement are ignored and deprioritized. Since Vine’s public fall, platforms have begun to recognize how critical influencers are to their networks. YouTube has had a robust creator-relations team. Snapchat was forced to recognize the power of influencers after initially dismissing them. And Instagram has made a heavy push in the influencer space, courting big social-media stars at events such as VidCon and BeautyCon. Yet meme accounts, some of which have larger and more engaged followings than certain traditional social-media stars, remain largely ignored.

The Christmas meme purge has only exacerbated the relationship between Instagram and these types of accounts. One group of memers who are adamant that they never engaged in any type of banned behavior plans to press the company to establish a representative to field requests from the most successful creators. The move wouldn’t be unprecedented. Instagram and Facebook have a large internal team that deals with requests from publishers; if anything, pages such as @SocietyFeelings or @Jaw have more in common with some modern media companies and influencers than with average users. BuzzFeed, for instance, has scaled its main Instagram account to more than 4.4 million followers by posting memes and screenshots of tweets.

“We are our own BuzzFeed,” said Declan Mortimer, a 16-year-old who ran the @ComedySlam account, with more than 11 million followers. Kaamil Lakhani and Jonathan Foley, who work together on @SocietyFeelings, said they were even in the process of building a dedicated website, as accounts such as @Daquan have already done.

“It seems like Insta values celebrities more than anyone else,” said Mitchell Burke, a 17-year-old who lost several pages in the purge. “If you’re a content account, you’re treated as an average user. You could have 10 times the following as these celebs and still get treated like an average person.”

Swish Goswami, a 21-year-old entrepreneur, lost @Swish, a basketball-themed news and meme account, and @JumpMan, a sneaker-themed account. He said that at the very least, Instagram should offer support for pages with more than 1 million followers and offer a dedicated person to “look at captions, tell us how to license content properly, how to credit it, how to manage copyright. Questions like these are not ones people should have with bigger pages.”

Despite the Christmas setback, most meme account holders mentioned in this article said that they weren’t planning to abandon the platform anytime soon. But the incident served as an acute reminder of how quickly they can lose it all and be forced to start from scratch. “We’re playing on rented property,” said Goswami, “and that’s just so apparent now more than ever before.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.