instagram: a level-headed look at ‘shadowbanning’

The Instagram changes keep on rolling in, and the latest round has ruffled a few feathers online.

I try to hang back on commenting too soon on these things because there’s always a lot of panic and rumour. On this occasion, it’s also not something I’ve experienced personally, or any of my clients or students have reported experiencing, which makes it harder to wade in. So I’ve hung back a little & tried to suss things out.

Therefore, the following is based partly on reading (links at the bottom), and partly on conjecture based on my weirdly obsessive Insta insight.

‘Shadowbans’

Years ago I ran an internet forum with friends. We had one member join to troll everyone with vile, far-right politics, and he was persistent, bullying and cruel. After trying various techniques to get rid of him, we hit upon the relatively new concept of a shadowban.
Unlike under a standard ban from a site or forum, a shadowbanned user sees nothing unusual. They can log in as usual, respond to posts. What’s different is, nobody else can see them. They’re shouting – or posting – into the abyss. 
It’s cruel and hilarious – and it’s not quite what’s happening on Instagram.

People are calling what’s happening a shadowban because it functions superficially similarly. Some users – and we’ll look at the who & why in a minute – find their engagement suddenly plummets. Everything looks to be as normal from their end, so it’s hard to figure out why – until they log out, or check for their posts from an account that doesn’t follow them. Then they see that their post is not showing in any of the hashtag grids that they have posted with. They’re essentially invisible.

The significance of hashtags

I’ve talked before about why hashtags are an essential tool for getting your images seen on Instagram. Without them you’re essentially posting as private, to only your followers. So suddenly being removed from all hashtag visibility absolutely would account for a big drop in engagement, and is worrying indeed.

But why would this happen?

Bad behaviour

It’s been suggested that certain behaviours might make a user vulnerable to a ‘shadowban’. Remember that any process like this is going to be entirely automated, given the sheer volume of accounts using Instagram every hour – so there’s going to be a big margin for error. 
Essentially it’s the same bad practice I always advise against in my podcast and courses – which may go some way to explaining why none of my clients have reported it.
Things like:

  • Repeatedly using the same hashtags, every day
  • Using bots or automated likes
  • Follow-to-unfollow practice, either via automation or manually
  • Repeatedly leaving low value, unoriginal comments 
  • Behaving in any inauthentic or system-gaming way

To remove a ‘shadowban’ then, a user needs to refrain from these activities. Reports suggest bans can lift in a couple of days, and that taking a break from posting at all might be beneficial if you think you’re affected. However…

My take

I’m not convinced there is a punishment-and-reward system at play. Instead, I suspect they’ve simply started to do what I’ve been expecting for some time now, and introduced an algorithm for the hashtag pages.

When Instagram removed our chronological home feeds, they took away the ability to see content by recency, and instead took control of what we see and when. There are obvious benefits for them as a business in doing this – the ability to keep users engaged, direct them to trends or content that they want to promote, and most of all, the advertising potential. 

There are already algorithms that determine how we see our Home feeds, our Explore pages and Search results, and these are entirely individual. What I see will not be the same as what you, or anyone else sees when they log into the app. They are based on your own individual activity.

The one place that was the exception to this was the hashtag pages. Search for a tag, and you could see any posts in chronological order, with most recent showing first. It allowed people to continue to browse by recency instead of using the pathways IG had selected.

A few months back, the algorithm method was extended to the top hashtag grid – you know those nine posts at the top of any hashtag you search for? Those stopped being universal – now they’re the top posts for you, based on what you usually like and interact with. (Or, if we’re being a touch more cynical, based on what Instagram wants you to like and interact with πŸ˜‰.) You might be top of the grid for yourself, but not for your husband, for example, because you both tend to like and click on different things.

It seems reasonable then to assume that they would next be extending this to hashtags as a whole. Certainly, this would cause some people’s posts to not be visible to all accounts – because, a little like the Explore page, you have to earn your exposure there based on the quality of your posts. This is sometimes called a ‘goodness score’ – based on things like how many comments, likes, clicks, saves, replies, follows you get. 
The better a post scores, the better your exposure for that, and probably your next, post.

If you’re playing the system or using bots, then of course, your score is going to be screwed. You’re interacting with hundreds of accounts, many of whom will never return the favour. Your ratios are low, your demographics are all over the place and you’re probably receiving an awful lot of likes from other automated accounts in return. Instagram’s system has no idea who to promote you to, so you’re never deemed relevant to any particular hashtag, and you’re rarely visible on the grids.

On the other hand, if you’re using good practice, hashtagging appropriately, interacting within your niche and being a real human being – hurray! You should be fine! You might see a slight decline in your daily engagement, but that should be in line with everyone else on instagram, so nothing to worry about.
And when a post does hit the hashtag grids, it’s likely to reap way more visibility than previously, and you’ll see posts going a bit nuclear like we did with the ‘top hashtag’ grids before Instagram algorised (I made that word up) them.

And breathe.

Phew! Did you make it through all that?
There’s lots more to say – about what this means for community, and for the future of hashtag browsing, but until anything is definite, I tend to err on the side of wait-and-see.
What I will say is, you don’t need to panic. And unless you were engaging in spammy behaviour, you don’t even have to change what you’re doing! Just keep creating, keep sharing, keep reaching out, and of course, keep checking back here & on my podcast for future updates πŸ’•πŸ˜‰.

 

Update (6th May 2017) 

I chatted with a representative from Instagram in Germany today, who said that there was a glitch, and it has now been resolved. He said that they don’t even use the term ‘shadowban’ within Instagram, and that the only mechanism they have that functions slightly like that is used on spam accounts.

His final words to me were, “it should not be affecting normal accounts any more”. 

Now, who’s for a cup of tea? x

 

Sources & further reading:

  1. What is an instagram shadow ban, and have you been impacted?
  2. Photographers claim Instagram is ‘shadowbanning’ their accounts
  3. I got shadowbanned from instagram: here’s what I’m going to do
  4. What is an Instagram shadow ban?

  • Wedding Biz Academy

    Ahh – I have been wondering what this ‘shadowbanning’ was. I guess anything that makes the platform a more genuine place has to be to the good. I am finding on my business Instagram, that yes – I get many more likes (though not many) on my posts but they are all automated/spammy/rubbish! I am also struggling to find my target audience on IG – they just don’t seem to be there which is strange. Most of my followers are not in the UK & they are all digital marketers! Aaaargh. I’m off for that cup of tea!!

    • So frustrating when this happens! I’m sure your audience DO exist on insta, but finding where they hide out and what sort of tags and content they’re using might take a little detective work. Providing valuable content to your community is the best way to attract them πŸ™‚

      • Wedding Biz Academy

        Thanks Sara – I will find them one way or another!! Lol!

  • What I’m noticing most is how SLOW engagement is – likes and comments are trickling in over time rather than a big burst right after posting…

    • Me too πŸ™ I can’t see a change in the algorithm for hashtags yet. They’re still in recency order and the top posts are the same for both my accounts (I’ve checked by unfollowing myself). Maybe they’ll bring the change in slowly like they did the main algorithm.

      • Yes, you might be right about that Jenny. But also, it will still be and look chronological, it’s just that it’s not *all* the posts that have been posted recently. Just a selection. Does that make sense?

        • Yes it does. Sadly just realised I’ve been shadowbanned from my own hashtag #thefloralseasons πŸ™ I don’t understand as I haven’t even tagged many of my own photos with it. It feels like quite a chore these days does Instagram.

    • Yes! Days as opposed to hours, right? Also, people who are seeing less hashtag engagement are seeing increased engagement from their actual followers, which is no bad thing in my book… interesting times!

    • Kate X Design

      Yes! I’ll think a picture has bombed and then the likes keep coming. Like the little engine that could! πŸ™‚

  • Lynn Hill

    I’ve noticed a slowness up until a few days ago. However, things seem to be picking up again, now that I am interacting and engaging more with others. A bit like being in a room with lots of people. Standing in a corner will get you nowhere, but start chatting and making yourself heard, may just do wonders. Kettle’s on btw.

    • Yes! Engagement is always always key, and it’s one thing that no algorithm can ever interrupt! Say something worth reading, and people will chat! πŸ˜€

  • I’ve noticed that my likes and comments build up after a couple of hours up to a day or two. Also when I view my insights it tells me that my post has made a high number of impressions, but my likes and comments are on the lower number, I wonder if this has something to do with the algorithm or the stats aren’t accurate? However I’m happy that the more I keep up with my own engagement that seems to do the trick! Helpful post Sara.

    Kayleigh

  • This is interesting! I noticed in the last week or so my likes per picture are about half what they’d usually be for no reason I can fathom. I don’t have a huge following so it’s a relatively small decrease but perhaps this is the reason for it. Definitely something to keep an eye on in the future I guess.

  • This was very enlightening in a way Sara, I went and logged out/erase an application I used to use I forgot I had running on my phone, It was one of those to see who was following me so i could go and follow them back if I liked their content; it was so difficult to keep up with all the movement back then so I used it for a while. Just in case that counted as fishy behaviour… *Eeek* Makes me wonder!

    Also, not so long ago I changed to business profile and I’ve read that might affect me, as IG put my account in a different slot -so to speak-, what do you think?

    I feel like overall my IG is going to the pits these days, I know is partly my fault because I can’t afford to be there as I used to but at the same time it feels like I’m posting without hashtags {I haven’t run any ‘test’ though}, it’s so discouraging!. Although if I look for the silver lining, I can tell ‘my tribe’ does feel delighted with the content I create, the love I get from them is what keeps me going :)x

  • I had no idea this was a thing (or maybe a thing). O_O I’m kinda bummed to hear that the hashtag top 9 grids aren’t universal. I was so excited when I saw one of my posts in the top 9 for #collectedtreasure last week. =/

    Small thing, Sara, I noticed a typo in your #3 in further reading! <3

    (Just looking out for you, blogger to blogger!)

    • But it’s still a great thing, because it means you’re top of the hashtag for your right people, who are the ones who matter! And sometimes you’re top for a number of different niches, which is when you see the engagement spike.
      Thanks for the typo heads up! Off to fix it now πŸ™‚ x

  • I don’t know about the algorithm for top posts being different. When I’m logged in, my most recent photo is in the top 9 for “intonature” (or at least it was an hour ago when I checked).

    However even when I pulled it up in my browser and didn’t log in at all, if I check the hashtag I’m still in the top 9. The only difference I’m seeing is that at the time I looked, I was the second one in that top grid while logged in, and the seventh when I’m logged out.

    It’s all so confusing. However, I *am* seeing my engagement levels climb back up again thank goodness!

    • Yeah, it’s a funny thing. It seems like with Explore, you can be deemed as super relevant and shown to everyone, or deemed as a bit niche and shown to just those people. You can usually tell which you are based on your engagement for that post!

  • Paula Solar

    I think I’ll accept that tea, and an aspirin if you have one.

    I think that when we got that link circulating on twitter I kind of lost it, I thought that was the end of it, that Instagram hated photographers and creators and that was tricky and evil and a bully and manipulative… I might need to reread this to see if I’ve understood everything all right, but I’m taking a different look at it now, and chaning a few things on the go (see, tomorrow’s photo). I still think it’s manipulative though.

  • Kristy Westendorp

    But I haven’t done anything spammy and my photos don’t show up under hashtags unless you’re following me. It’s a real thing that is happening. I don’t mean my photos don’t show up in the top grid. I mean they’re invisible except to me and others in the hashtag feed. That’s including for a custom hashtag that’s just for my business. It only shows photos where other people have tagged my business. I wish it were as simple as an algorithm but it’s either a punishment or a glitch.

    • That’s interesting. Are you sure that *nobody* can see your posts under those tags, e.g. your custom hashtag? As opposed to just most people not being able to, for example. Sorry you’re dealing with this – it’s really crap!

  • trona

    this is so insightful thank you! I did wonder what was happening with the top posts so that explains it (I CANNOT wait to start your course, looking forward to much more of these kind of insights) <3

  • Pingback: Top 4 reasons why our engagement is proly dropping on Instagram | Naomi DSouza()

  • I really like the way instagram works now, it’s stops things feeling boring and as others have said, pictures gain visibility later and for longer, it feels similar to FB’s algorithm.

  • Missy Logan

    Thank you so much for writing this! I also had no idea this was a thing. Do you have a quick tidbit for how much you need to alter your hashtags from post to post. I am sure like most of us I have groups of hashtags in my notes that I copy and paste then add more that are relevant to the post. Is that ok or is it necessary to start from scratch each post? Yes tea is a fab idea. x

    • very good question, Missy! I was doing the same thing. I also really don’t know how to go from here. At the moment I am avoiding every single hashtag I used before but I am still in purgatory it would seem.

  • Lynne Marie

    Thank you for this helpful post, Sara. This happened to me (or at least I think it is happening) a few days ago and I was completely blindsided. After all, I don’t have bots or follow to unfollow. I simply followed all the advice being given to newbies: “hashtags are essential” “Use them use them use them”. I went from being highly seen with many likes to very very heart wrenchingly few in one post. I think I overused the same hashtags (I didn’t know you shouldn’t do this!) It is all so difficult and disheartening, especially for those starting out, trying to do good work. At this point I never know what I am going to do wrong next. Hopefully the info will get out there with Instagram Advice givers that folks shouldn’t overuse hashtags (and what exactly “overuse” is)

  • Ingrid Hofstra

    Well, I like what you’re saying here and I definitely agree with your take on this. BUT, I have been playing the rules. Never paid for anything, try to comment on regular basis, don’t use the same hashtags every day etc.. And I have been shadow banned according to a test site, and according to the same website, you have been too.. What seems to help is to add the hashtags in the description area rather than in a separate account. I know many people who have earned a decent following in a fair way and they have the same problem now.. What do you think of this? xx Ingrid

    • That test site isn’t working properly, as far as I’m concerned. When I was banned, and I had verified with several people, it kept saying I wasn’t.

      • Steph

        This is exactly the same situation I am in, what’s your situation now? Has your ban been lifed?

        • Yes, thankfully! I should note, though, that I’ve only had random posts banned, and sometimes just one post in a day whereas the others I’ve posted the same day have been ok! Is it your whole account?

          • Steph

            Yes, I just got mine back! I went back through all my posts for the last three months and got rid of any duplicate hashtags (any that were mentioned twice), got rid of any really overused ones, and tried to keep ones that had around 300,000 posts or under. I also changed to back to a personal account. I think the thing that did I was, I deleted all the hashtags from my most recent 4 posts. Then i went back in added varied ones one by one, changing up the orders and being more selective with which ones I used. I also used UNDER 30. I’ll do this for a few weeks before I start using 30 again. It’s really annoying because there is one particular account i came across today where they’ve used like 46 hashtags spread over their caption and first comment. I’ve never done that, and yet it still happened to me. Glad we’re back online!!

          • Oh my gosh, so much work just to use a platform that we all *want* to be on! Ugh. I’m so glad you’re back! And I hope whatever they’re up to, they introduce some transparency soon because they’re sucking all the joy out of Instalife!

  • Pingback: The current world of Instagram | The Food Photography + Styling Guides()

  • This is literally the most sensible, logical explanation I’ve read on the shadow ban. I was shadow banned for one day and it was pretty rubbish but c’est la vie? Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Pingback: Some comments on Instagram Comment Pods – meandorla.co.uk()

  • Pingback: On Perception, Shady Instagram Growth Tactics & The Dreaded Numbers Game - The Online StylistThe Online Stylist()

  • I’ve been seeing a massive drop in engagement for about two weeks now and it’s not showing any signs of returning to normal yet. I suspect it’s because I’m using the same hashtags but I’m not sure how to get around this? I have a travel theme and I’m posting loads of photos that have been taken in the same areas, so the hashtags are, inevitably, going to be the same, and I’m not really sure what to do about it?

  • Good to know it was confirmed as a glitch, although if that’s been fixed, my account has been plumeting since then despite me doing similar actions to before, regularly popping in, exploring, looking at other feeds of my followers, interacting with hashtags and my feed. I’m seeing my photos in hashtags, but the last couple of days has been a shocker. Admittedly it coincided with better weather which impacts it with people being out and about with families but it’s very slow and I’m struggling to get half of the interaction I did before. I’m debating totally switching the times I post, even though I’m usually around the key times of day.

    • I relate 100% to that. Haven’t really change my behaviour and yet, plummeting as you say. As for the weather part, in my case don’t think it has anything to do with it πŸ˜‰

  • Thank you for sharing your perspective on what everybody seemed to be talking those past weeks. So now, hummmm… I wonder, is this top hashtags algorithm is the reason I kept doubting the efficiency of being featured in the top hashtags? I say this, cause I realized that my posts often make it to the top hashtags, but I barely see the beneficial factor. Could there be some truth to that…?

  • Pingback: Podcast 15: What brands look for in influencers, with Sally Gurteen – meandorla.co.uk()

  • Steph

    I have just had this happen to me last. It’s incredibly crippling. I am not a bot! I’ve been more engaged with liking and commenting on people’s images because they’re great! I got featured by Fujifilm UK on their instagram feed and I had a surge in activity on my feed. Perhaps that may have triggered something I don’t know. But this is scary, I don’t like the fact that instagram haven’t addressed this matter properly.

  • Leanne Marshall

    Interesting read. Thanks.
    I am just not gaining any followers at the moment. I feel like my content has got better and I am getting more likes and comments but the followers just don’t seem to go up! πŸ˜“

    I would love it if you could have a quick glance at my Instagram and see what I am doing wrong… ☺️ My username is @lem_blog

    Leanne | lemblog.co.uk