In a blog post earlier this month, I detailed a problem with Instagram hashtags not working properly. Toward the end of the article, I theorized that, “My account is being limited/throttled in some way where Instagram may show my own photos to me as normal, but is hiding them from other users during hashtag searches.” If this thing had a name, it would be an Instagram shadow ban. And that’s exactly what’s happened to me.
What’s a shadow ban?
Let’s talk about shadow bans in general first. I first heard about the practice of shadow bans on Reddit, where it was used as a tool to silence undesirable users — mostly spam accounts, bots, trolls, and other useless fluff that didn’t contribute to the site in any meaningful way. After a shadow ban was applied to a Reddit account by a moderator, the user it applied to would see no difference while using the site. They received no notification about the new limitations placed on their account, hence the “shadow” part of the name — they were in the dark about what happened to them. To other users, all activity from the shadow banned user was hidden from view. In some cases, some shadow banned users continued commenting and posting for months or even years after being shadow banned without ever realizing their status. Despite the fact that their comments earned no replies, no upvotes or downvotes, and no reactions of any kind, they kept posting.
Shadow bans have since been used on Facebook and Twitter as well. On Facebook, the administrator of a Facebook Page has the ability to shadow ban specific comments in addition to their normal ability to block users from a Page completely. By hiding a comment on their Page, an admin assures that only the comment author and the author’s friends can see the comment, but no one else will be bothered by it.
Shadow bans are a double-edged sword. When used properly and effectively, they can keep social media free of the toxic elements that often cause their downfall. But those who dole out shadow bans can also easily abuse the tool, with unintended consequences as a result.
In the case of Reddit, shadow bans were a heavy-handed punishment only meant to be used in extreme circumstances. But because Reddit lacked other tools at the time for dealing with these issues, the shadow ban hammer came down swiftly and often on users who didn’t necessarily deserve it. Reddit has since cleaned up their disciplinary system and given moderators better tools to deal with undesirable users without resorting to shadow bans.
How does an Instagram shadow ban work?
First, it’s important to point out that we don’t yet know what triggers an Instagram shadow ban. It could be a manual restriction put in place by an Instagram administrator, or it could be something triggered automatically by an algorithm detecting user behaviour.
Here’s how an Instagram shadow ban works and how it happened to me.
About six months ago, I noticed that my small but steady gains of Instagram followers had dried up, and in fact my follower count remained stagnant or slowly decreased day by day. It wasn’t too long after that when I realized that nearly 100% of my likes were coming from users who already followed me. While it’s quite normal for a majority of likes to come from existing followers, I could always count on effective and relevant hashtagging to drive a few new eyeballs towards my posts. But that dried up and I wasn’t sure why.
I continued posting, hashtagging, trying every technique I could think of to get my likes up and get my follower count up. I varied posting times, hashtagging techniques, and subject matter. Nothing worked. I switched my Instagram account to a business profile to get access to Instagram analytics. When I did that, I noticed that my posts were only reaching a number of people equal to about one-fifth of my follower count. Impressions were equally low. This told me that even with my careful and extensive hashtagging, it was possible that somehow, some way, Insatgram users weren’t seeing my posts in the hashtag indexes.
So I did a little test. I made a post recently with a relatively unpopular hashtag, one that only had a few thousand posts associated with it. I then immediately checked the hashtag to see if my post was in the index. It certainly was. Everything looked normal. Then I switched to one of my other Instagram accounts (which is following my main account) and checked the hashtag again. The post was still there. Everything looked normal. Then I unfollowed my main account and checked the hashtag one more time. Suddenly, the post was gone. Vanished. Invisible. Hidden in the shadows, you could say.
Instagram shadow ban!
I repeated the test with a few more posts, hashtags, and accounts, to make sure that this wasn’t just a glitch. The repeated tests showed the same results — I am definitely shadow banned.
To recap, Instagram has eliminated my ability to use hashtags but provided me with no notice of doing so. My posts appear normally to me and my existing followers, but anyone who isn’t following me will never see my posts in a hashtag index, limiting the growth and exposure of my account, and thus my business.
Why are shadow bans used anyway? Why not a regular ban?
“Regular” bans on social media have been around on most platforms forever, but they come with a catch. Because the user is informed that their behaviour has gotten them banned, this can in turn lead to even worse behaviour from the user who is angry about being banned. It’s not unusual for a banned user to create new accounts for the sole purpose of harassing the banners, complaining loudly, and causing even more trouble than before as some sort of revenge tactic for being banned.
Shadow bans avoid all that, because the user doesn’t know they’ve been banned. Ignorance is bliss. They go about their trolling or spamming or what have you, blissfully ignorant that their posts are having zero impact on their victims. Because the posts receive no engagement, the social media channels hope that this will cause the undesirable users to eventually give up and go away.
So while shadow bans have good intentions, sometimes regular, well-meaning, non-abusive users such as myself get caught up in them and we have no idea why. This is problematic because we can’t take steps to correct whatever problems might have triggered the ban.
What can be done about an Instagram shadow ban?
Personally speaking, I’ve used Instagram’s “Report a Problem” feature to ask about having my shadow ban rescinded. I haven’t heard anything back as of publication time, but I’ll update this post if I do. Not holding my breath.
All social media services need to be more transparent when it comes to tools for dealing with abuse and undesirable activities. Shadow bans are a lazy, non-confrontational way of dealing with abuse and better tools need to be developed. Shadow bans are easy to circumvent (create a new account) for any dedicated troublemaker. Same goes for device identifiers — they’re easily spoofed, and cheap, app-ready, smart hardware devices are easy to come by (unlocked off-brand Android phones can be had for less than $30). Silicon Valley is filled with some of the smartest people on Earth — surely they can figure out solid, effective ways to curb abuse without cheap tricks like shadow bans. Right?
Are you shadow banned on any social media services? What triggered it? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know more.