The definitive guide to Instagram shadowbans

It’s been six months since I first wrote about wrote Instagram shadowban function. For the uninitiated, that’s the term colloquially applied to a setting Instagram can apply to your account that makes you invisible to new followers, massively reducing engagement and growth. Understandably it’s caused a stir in the instagram-addiction circles, and there’s been a lot of misinformation, denial and confusion about what it all means.

With the incredible Carolyn Mara falling victim to the functionality this week, I thought it was worth checking in and going over the facts of the issue for anyone still a bit confused.

What is an Instagram shadowban?

What people commonly refer to as ‘shadowbanning’ on Instagram is in fact a ring-fencing of accounts that have been flagged as engaging in problematic or suspicious activity (more on that criteria below). For a limited time – usually 14 days – the account’s content becomes visible only to people who follow it. This means their images do not appear under searches, hashtags, location tags or on explore pages, except to users who already follow that account. If someone types in the account’s username under people search, they will still show up and be followable, but they do not appear under any other search parameters.

How long does it last?

In almost all cases it lasts exactly 14 days from the date of the infraction – to the hour. There are occasional reports of shorter or longer incidents, but I’ve never had a client or friend experience this so am not fully convinced that they weren’t miscounting or mistaken.

Why does this happen?

Instagram have been tight-lipped about the shadowban function, simply admitting it is “intentional functionality” for defending against spam accounts. It’s one of several safety features they’ve introduced over the past year to protect their often young and sometimes vulnerable user base, as a part of their wider corporate responsibility.
Previously there were repeat issues with innocuous or family friendly hashtags becoming suddenly flooded with pornographic or violent imagery. The recent news on Russian bot use of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit has shown how vulnerable social media is to exploitation from those with nefarious motives, and this ring-fencing strategy is a viable way to control the spread of questionable material.
Shadowbanning means that untrusted imagery is not seen by anyone who hasn’t chosen to follow the account, and gives instagram time to deal with any ongoing or repeat offenders. Inevitably, as with any algorithm based automated system, innocent users will get caught up in the function too, which is frustrating, but it does feel like an important step to preventing the spread of dangerous or malicious content on the platform.

What triggers a shadowban?

The following are all confirmed ‘shadowban’ triggers:

  • Using an app that tracks followers and unfollowers by name* (because this violates Instagram’s privacy policy and terms of use).
  • Using any other app or service that violates Instagram’s terms of use.* (*Note that this seems random in when it can be triggered – you can be using an app with no problems for months and then suddenly wake up to a shadowban.)
  • Having a post reported and removed (eg for nudity, violence, drugs etc. Be aware that IG have been known to include pictures of kid’s bottoms, stillborn children, breastfeeding images and periods in this category, which could be a whole different post!).
  • An attempted hack or too many incorrect log in attempts. Specifically, if your account is locked pending a security code, or you’re asked to confirm your identity using email. Lesser log in issues don’t seem to be as much of a trigger.(Turn on 2-step authentication, if you haven’t already, to help protect your account from this).
  • Setting up a new account – all new accounts are automatically under a probationary ‘shadowban’ for the first 2 weeks.
  • Copy and pasting the exact same hashtags onto your posts every time. As long as you’re mixing them up a little, it’s fine.

How do I check if I’ve been shadowbanned?

People often first notice something is amiss when their engagement suddenly drops. If you have a business account with analytics, you might also note that none of your engagement is listed as coming from ‘accounts that do not follow you’.
Ignore any third-party websites promising to check if you’ve been shadowbanned for you – they do nothing of the sort and are generally scams. The easiest way is to add a unique or small hashtag to some of your posts, then open an incognito browser window and navigate to that hashtag search page. (Eg https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/meandorlasview. Switch out ‘meandorlasview‘ for whatever tag you’re using. ) If your posts do not show up, it’s likely you’ve been shadowbanned.

What can I do?

  • Wait it out. The easiest thing is to simply do nothing different and wait for the 14 days to pass. You can keep posting but be careful not to do anything that might trigger another shadowban application.
  • Boost a post. I’ve heard positive reports of business users paying to promote or boost a post and having the function automatically removed. Instagram applies a higher stringency to posts that can be boosted, and they need to remove any shadowbans in order for a user’s post to have any reach and earn them any revenue.
  • Tell your audience. In Carolyn’s case, someone unecessarily reporting an innocent image of her kids has had consequences for her creative work that the reporter likely did not anticipate. As a community, we all need to learn to appreciate the difference between abusive or dangerous content and content we simply don’t like – and get better at using these functions appropriately. Talking about what has happened with your audience is an opportunity for everyone to get a better grasp of the issues and to rally around and show support for afflicted users.
  • Nurture your community. If your stats are noticeably lower under a shadowban, it’s a good indication that the majority of your engagement is not usually coming from your followers. Use these two weeks to really nurture and reward the followers you do have and let them know how valued they are. Ultimately these are the people who are truly invested in what you do – the likes and comments from outside of your community are always more superficial and transient. Spend two weeks creating for the audience you have, and letting them know how much you treasure them.

Are there any lasting consequences?

As far as we know, no. It’s likely it remains as a flag somewhere as your account but only as a way to track repeat offenders. As many users will encounter a shadowban at some point – either simply by starting their account, or making a simple error, it would be unreasonable for this to count against users in the greater picture of algorithms and discovery. 

Got any questions about shadow bans? I’m here to help and answer whatever I can! Grab me in the comments or swing by my Instagram and drop me a DM!