Have you heard about the Instagram shadowban?
Did you know some of your Instagram posts may not be coming up in hashtag feeds or top posts?
I received a rude shock when I realised some of mine might not have been. And then I checked some other really popular travel bloggers and it turns out some of theirs haven’t been either.
First off, let’s go and check your account. You can do that here:
[Sidebar: This article is the result of reading other bloggers’ experiences as well as an evening’s worth of testing to come to my own conclusions. Read to the bottom to see what I learnt.]
It’s important to know that accounts aren’t shadownbanned, individual posts are. The reason for any sort of shadownban (on any platform for that matter) is to remove (or reduce the impact of) spammy, inappropriate, or pornographic material on the app. Basically, they want to reduce abuse and have people use the platform the way it was intended.
A lot of theories have been thrown around, and naturally, Instagram have yet to make comment on any sort of shadowban except to say that there have been some issues with the hashtags, which they hope to fix soon. This could be true, or it could be spin, we will probably never know.
Around the same time as users started noticing the shadowban (i.e. in the first half of 2017), Instagram had been aggressively shutting down the Instagram bots that allow users to post automatic likes and comments, and put the follow/unfollow game on autopilot. Some of the big names were Instagress, Archie.co, and Mass Planner, and were shut down to improve the level of real engagement on Instagram.
To be honest, I applaud this. The number of insincere, generic comments on my posts have significantly decreased since this has happened.
I don’t see this as a coincidence at all, and think it is all part of Instagram’s plans to weed out spammy behaviour.
With that said, I can’t see any evidence to show that using these bots have lead to users being shadowbanned. Though I would expect Instagram does monitor this activity and wouldn’t be surprised if it does contribute.
The only correlation I can see is putting a stack of hashtags in the first comment.
Yes, I know. This is perhaps the least spammy thing we do on Instagram. In my opinion, this cleans up your post so that followers don’t see a crap ton of hashtags in the description.
Let me give you some examples.
Here is @jackson.groves, an awesome dude and incredible adventure photographer. We met on a media trip last year.
I hope it’s not too small, but in the left image you can see the shadowban checker list out all the hashtags that Jackson has put in the first comment.
Second example: this is @mappingmegan. A travel blogger I highly respect who you might see in many blogging Facebook groups. The below image shows that most hashtags Megan has used have been shadowbanned, but one was published fine. Guess which ones were posted where?
That’s right, the image was posted no problems to the tag stream of #streetart, which was included in the description. But all the rest, which happened to be in the first comment were not published.
Are you sensing a pattern?
The last example is my own account. Now, on my second most recent image I was in the same camp as Jackson, so I posted a new photo to put this to the test. This time, I didn’t put any hashtags in the first comment. And look what the shadowban tester returned:
I’d say that’s pretty conclusive, but feel free to run your own tests. I did these in a matter of minutes.
Ok one last test.
I just posted a new photo to Instagram with some hashtags in both the description and the first comment. I went immediately to the recent posts for a hashtags to check and everything was coming up Millhouse.
The shadownban tester confirmed everything was fine. See the image below. These screenshots taken immediately after posting.
My first reaction is that I only used 15 hashtags instead of my usual 30 so perhaps that is seen by Instagram as “less spammy” (groan).
My second reaction is that maybe it takes some time for the shadowban to take effect.
And now, almost 2 hours later, I’ve come back to check it again. Low and behold, the shadowban has come into effect:
Interestingly, I can still see it in the top and recent posts of some of those hashtags, and I checked this while logged out as well.
I kept checking, and the post has actually stayed in the top posts for one of the hashtags. Many of them were competitive hashtags so I can’t tell for most, but it is clear that it is still visible in the hashtag search.
Later has said that using the same hashtag repeatedly could be seen as spammy by Instagram. Again, I disagree, because when you’re in a certain niche, the same hashtags probably genuinely apply to most every post. Meg Jerrard of Mapping Megan made the good point as well on the Break Into Travel Podcast that if you are on a media trip and need to use their hashtag for every post, you will be using it a lot and the last thing you would want is for the location hashtag to stop working mid-trip. (This podcast was actually what sparked this whole investigation, so thanks Alexa and Megan).
Unfortunately, our opinion of what is considered spammy is of no importance to Instagram.
I can’t really verify this, unfortunately. But again, there is a correlation. I have two major sets of hashtags that I use for every one of my posts. I probably use each 50% of the time with some destination specific ones thrown in for good measure. I did some back testing on some of my photos from the last few weeks and they are all hidden from hashtags.
Like we discussed, Instagram wants to keep their platform kosher, and anything that is being abused will be taken away. This includes hashtags, so if a hashtag is being used for, shall we say, untoward purposes, the hashtag itself will be banned. This could be something real obvious like #porn, or something innocuous that could have just been hijacked by porn posters like #newyears.
I honestly don’t know why #newyears is banned. Or #dogsofinstagramfor that matter. Plann have written an article on banned hashtags and there are some really curious ones on there!
All that to say, if you use a banned hashtag in your set of 30, according to Later, your post won’t appear in any of the hashtags you used.
I just went through both sets of my 30 hashtags and none of them are on the banned list so I know this isn’t why my posts are shadowbanned.
So going back to my last example above, where it looked like the photo was fine, but then 2 hours later it was banned. When I noticed, it had around 230 likes.
Well, not long after, I noticed that our mate @jackson.groves had also recently posted a new photo. I didn’t take a screenshot, but it was posted “18 minutes ago” and had over 700 likes (pretty impressive, no?).
Anyway, since his was banned much quicker than mine, I thought perhaps time is not a factor but likes.
To bring this theory home I visited @littlegreybox_phoebe, whom I also met on the same media trip. Wonderful blogger too, please check her out. Anyway, Phoebe had also posted a recent photo, this one 5 hours ago. Like the rest of us, Phoebe uses the first comment for hashtags. This photo has 172 likes and is currently not in the sin bin.
Then I scrolled through a few more of her photos from a few days ago and I noticed a startling correlation: any post with hashtags in the comment and more than 200 likes goes in the banned box, anything with less than 200 likes is fine.
Then I went and back checked a few more of mine. I found one with 185 likes from December 2016, hashtags in the comment, and still banned.
This suggests that maybe accounts can be shadowbanned as well, but the hashtags in the first comment continues to be relevant.
It sounds hard to believe, especially for a cynic like me, but what if, when they posted that message to Facebook saying they were looking into a problem with their hashtags, they were telling the truth?
What if, based on my analysis above, through some bug in the software that somewhat innocently hashtags are being left out of the recent posts by accident?
All I’ll say is it’s possible.
I just scrolled all the way back to a photo of mine from August 2016 to check if it was banned too. I happen to know that this is where I started putting hashtags in the first comment. I also remember seeing some of my photos come through in the top posts for some low competition hashtags so I know they worked at some point.
But now when I use the shadowban checker it says on those old images “this post is banned”. 🙁
Then if I look at one from April 2016 that has the hashtags in the description, it is of course fine.
I honestly don’t know.
There are so many things that could be causing shadowbans.
But there is also one thing that is common to every test I did: that hashtags in the first comment are likely to be shadowbanned.
I am going to switch up my hashtag strategy and use the description for hashtags instead of the first comment. I am also going to come up with more hashtags to use so that I have more variety.
Peta Pixel have done some of their own testing and it seems that some users have genuinely been affected by the shadow ban.
It could be that the issue has now been fixed and therefore hashtags are working properly again, but that doesn’t explain why the shadow ban tester was showing images as banned when clearly they are appearing correctly.
Perhaps the tester just isn’t as accurate as they think, whereby the images can appear in the app, but not through the API they use. This is feeling more and more likely and I would love some other people to weigh in on this.
So my final advice is this: if you think you might have been shadow banned and you know that you sometimes engage in practices Instagram considers “spammy”. Give it a break for a few days, come back fresh, try putting hashtags in the description with the dots and see if you see much improvement.
If you have any experience with this, or even if you just have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. Leave me a comment below and let’s see if we can, as a community work this out.
Luke works a regular 9-5 job, and his salary he calls his travel fund. He and his wife spend most of their time in negative annual leave due to this expensive yet incredibly rewarding hobby.
Luke travels for 3 reasons: becoming immersed in a different culture, finding the less obvious attractions, and for hectic bragging rights back home.