What, exactly, is an Instagram shadow ban? 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.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, “did Instagram shadow ban me?”, 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. You can do this same Instagram shadow ban check yourself from a different account than your own (that isn’t following you). There are a number of online tools that promise to do this check for you, but they’ve been found to be inaccurate. Test it yourself manually to know for sure.
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.
Can an Instagram shadow ban be fixed? Is it permanent?
Personally speaking, I’ve used Instagram’s “Report a Problem” feature to ask about having my Instagram 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.
[UPDATE 12/29: I’m shutting down my Instagram account and moving to a new one. Follow my new account here.]
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 suffering from an Instagram shadow ban? Are you shadow banned on any other social media services? What triggered it? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know more.
[UPDATE 11/30/17: So I’ve noticed a new wrinkle in how Instagram detects shadow bannable posts. While my new account has largely been without problems for most of the year, once a month or so a single post of mine will be shadow banned. The curious part is that even if I delete the post and repost it with only a single hashtag (common or uncommon tags), the post remains shadow banned. It appears Instagram is keeping a database of shadow banned images and using image recognition to detect when they’re posted. I can’t prove this, but it seems to be the only viable explanation right now.]
FML… I’ve just been shadow banned on Instagram too. It happened about two weeks ago and I noticed right away. I suspected something was wrong with my account and this confirms it. Thanks for writing this! I guess I’ll write about it on my blog now so other people can be aware of it. This really SUCKS. Guess I’ll have to start over.
Yikes! This is quite disturbing. Do you know what triggers a shadow ban? Does instagram deal them out or can users shadow ban other users? Thanks for the post!
There’s no way to no for sure — Instagram keeps their back-end processes away from public scrutiny. It’s unlikely a specific user would have any direct control over another user’s ban status, but it’s also entirely possible that user reports, cumulatively, could contribute towards a ban. We just don’t know.
I don’t know what triggers it, maybe using bad hashtags behavior but I did find a nice and easy workaround shown on http://www.rockingbhootni.com/2017/04/instagram-shadowban-and-workaround/
If that helps.
Hey, I think I have been shadow banned too. I created a new account a few weeks ago and it was going very well in the likes and followers department until yesterday. I am having exactly the same problem as you 🙁
Ryan, I’ve done a LOT of research on shadow banning… Hey, I dig that first picture. However, unless the picture is of breastfeeding, showing nipple on IG is technically against their terms of service and THAT could get you shadow banned. If you have even one person report that image, it could get shadow banned. Just sayin. Sexy image. But against the IG TOS.
Have you figured out any way to get the ban lifted? I have just been shadowbanned and I don’t have any pictures that would violate the terms of service, nor have I ever engaged in any spam like activities (bots, etc). Thanks!
I’ve heard from a few other people that simply leaving it for a few days and deleting hashtags off your recent photos will get you unbanned in about 10 days. Not ideal but worth trying!
Hey Amanda, thanks for taking the time to read the article and leave your feedback. Rest assured I’m well versed in Instagram’s TOS. The images displayed here were merely for a literal interpretation of “shadows” as opposed to anything to do with Instagram-appropriate content. I always censor anything that would run afoul of Instagram’s rules. That being said, Instagram has a well-known process for dealing with images that violate the TOS, which is to remove them and warn the user. The reason shadow bans are problematic is that they punish the user in some way for an unspecified violation and without informing the user. So even if my censored images triggered a ban, Instagram is still being super shitty by not being transparent about it.
It’s also worth noting that I had two accounts impacted — the other one is one that I dedicate to cityscapes, landscapes, and travel photos, which of course contains nothing even close to violating the TOS.
I just got shadow banned on IG and I’m just a new-ish account with under 200 followers and a non-business setup. It’s really frustrating because it’s like what’s the point as a photographer if no one can find you or discover your images…
Do you know that if you use some of the banned hashtags in a description, it stops your image from showing in all other hashtags, too? Let me give you an example…
#hello #love #great #sex
#sex is a limited hashtag, so when you put it in such a hashtag line, your photo is invisible in other 3 hashtags too? Maybe this is the problem…
Yep, this is a well known Instagram limitation going back a few years. It is not related to a shadow ban. In your example, the user would quickly be able to see that their hashtags had not worked, instead of being tricked into thinking they worked as with a shadow ban.
I too have realized I am now shadow banned. I believe what triggered it was a hack attempt. I was notified by IG on March 20 that someone in Moscow had tried to log into my account, and I had to reset my password to ensure security. Ever since, my hashtags work as if my account is set to private, although it is and has always been public. Looks like I’ll have to make a new profile, which sucks since my current one dedicated to film photography was getting some good traction after years of use. (great pics btw)
Wow. I had the same exact hack attempt, except mine was from China. It redirected me when I opened IG and yah, ever since that password change i’ve been having issues. I thought however it wasn’t a hack attempt at the time, that it was a legit instagram thing.
Same Exact thing happened to me but from China and have been shadow banned since.
This just happend to me and I could definitely cry now. I’m trying to build my business and I’m now up to 1100 followers (gained in the last two years). I don’t want to start over from scratch…
Hi Ryan, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with my account, and I think I’ve been shadow banned. I started a secondary account dedicated to my woodworking/diy hobby about 7 months ago. As of now, I have 62 posts and 221 followers. My personal account has 238 posts and 383 followers. I noticed something was wrong shortly after starting my secondary account. I would post the same image on both accounts, and would immediately start getting likes from random accounts and followers on my personal account, but on the secondary account, I would only get a few sporadic likes throughout the day, mostly from followers. I try to post at least a few times per week, and have stopped posting the same image on my personal account as much, but growth has been incredibly slow. I only see 10-15 likes on most posts, but I do usually gain a couple of followers each time I post. At first I thought it was just because my account was new, but my personal account doesn’t have that many more followers, but has way more engagement with the same content. Super annoying. Sometimes I think about starting a new account, but since I don’t know what I may have done to cause this, I don’t know if it would help.
Just happened to me heartbreaking
I just made my account and was shadow banned on the first day using it. Here’s a list of actions I did, one of these got me shadow banned!
I had a profile pic, wrote a little bio, posted a single photo, safe for work, it was of a book. I wrote a little caption and in the first comment I wrote 30 hashtags. Lots of common overused ones and a bunch of more relevant ones. Got 24 followers and about 40 likes on the photo. Most people who liked my photo who weren’t marketing companies or bots, I’d go through and like one or 2 of their interesting photos. Anybody who followed me I generally followed back if their posts were somewhat similar or once again, not a bot account.
I sent one person a message and then a photo of an upcoming post, they responded and followed me, I followed them back.
My bio was full so I tried to add an email in the website spot. It didn’t work and just set it as “@gmail.com” and it automatically logged me out and my account was completely gone. Not sure if it’s related to changing the website. I went to bed and in the morning the account was still unsearchable. I went to forgot password and was able to do that, and it gave me my account back, but everything posted is shadowbanned like described in the article.
Luckily it was only one day of work so I’m going to delete the page and try remaking it. Hopefully I can use the same username!
Just went through with the post and wanted to share a useful link which will give you a workaround to bypass shadow ban without create a new account.
I guess there’s lots of different bans besides the shadow ban, Instagram algorithm is made of different mechanisms, and works under different parameters, several factors determine how good or bad your post will perform at the end, in my case my posts gets a lot of love the first 15 minutes, averaging +20 likes per minute, however, after the minute 16 the activity suddenly goes to hell, crater, dip, after that minute the post barely get 10 likes per minute and gradually drops, is normal that your posts lose momentum as time passes by, but that momentum dissappear pretty fast, that means someone or something is turning off the lights on my post and is not necessarily a shadow ban.
Thanks for your article. Very interesting.
Mine is a little different case study:
I have the same problems you described, which means that I posted some pics and I get way less likes than espected and almost all of these likes are from my followers. Usually the first people to like, in the very first minutes I post something, are not followers, as you all know. But this does not happen anymore, since two days, at all.
It might seem then that I got shadow banned. But..
If I search my pics on the hashtags, I cannot see them, with my own account. I even have a personal hashtag (1year365pics), used only by me and partially by my girlfriend, and my last two pics don’t show up.
Same thing on the location. I don’t show on the location’s feed.
I also tag pages on the pic, though. And there I appear. I don’t know though if that’s visible only to me, as you described.
I only have one personal and public account. I post only pictures of landscapes or behind the scenes of my film work, and I never used inappropriate hashtags, as far as I know at least.
I heard it could also be that I used “dead hashtags”.. might be. I didn’t try yet, but it looks to me like I got some sort of shadow ban.
Actually, I just tried to share a random pic with my personal hashtag and the location, and it works.
My advice therefore is to try checking all hashtags and find out which ones are faulty..
Hey Christian, there has been a wide-spread hashtag issue on Instagram over the last two days, above and beyond the normal everyday occurrences. It’s possible you’re being impacted by that right now. You can see some discussion of this at https://www.reddit.com/r/Instagram
Thanks! I actually might have found the cause for my ban (at least it would be something that makes sense to me):
a couple of days ago I got a Twitter notification via email saying that a friend of mine sent me an Instagram link (see attachment – I actually got it today again). https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4787a9b61c289bc14e64a58250a6fab4dc7f0c02a0e09aebdf5dba2da877d6a0.png
I opened it without thinking, and I got to one of those spam pages (not even on Ig, though). Anyway, maybe the IG algorithm thought I was a bot spamming around and shadow banned me.
This would make sense to me.
I now contacted IG sending the screenshot, let’s see if, when and how they react.
It happen to me now. and I realise it right away. I am posting great pictures with normally 120 likes or more and now I am only getting 20 likes from my followers. I think it is because I switch my account once to private, then back to public, then back again to private and back again to public….or it is because I tag taylor swift for my post that is using her music, or several times using music from celebrities as my make up video background….(Although I notice in my caption that the music belongs to them and not to me)…..I dont know what to do now.