You might have heard of this thing called “shadowban”. Allegedly, Instagram has ways to punish spammy content and counter the rise of bots, fake accounts, etc. What Instagram does is flag the suspicious accounts and consequently slash the reach and engagement that these accounts receive. And that would obviously be a good thing.
The reason why you see this shadowban term surfacing in discussions is that perfectly legit accounts get caught in the Instagram security’s net. I’m sure more than half of these discussions are mere rants by people who cannot manage to grow their accounts and look for someone to blame. Or maybe just the occasional trolls.
But does it actually happen or is it just a myth? Well, unfortunately I can testify it’s not a myth.
My Instagram background
I did write an extensive post about my early days on Instagram. I’ve had my Instagram account @fabienb for years as I created it 2-3 weeks after the launch of the platform. I had recently purchased my first iPhone and I was shooting a lot with it so I immediately jumped at the opportunity to publish online. Nothing too fancy, but I received some recognition as iPhoneographer (yes, the term did exist back then). And I participated in exhibitions here in London as well.
But I never invested too much into it, and I could stay months without publishing any photo.
Since quitting my job, I decided to go back to the platform more seriously and made it part of my business tools. I switched from a personal account to a business one for this specific reason.
I worked hard to grow my account, and there’s been months were the followers number increase was in the range of thousands thanks to my strategies. By the way, these never involved buying followers or using bots.
I was looking at my stats pretty closely every day, and I was shocked to see what happened.
One day, my Instagram Stories were seen by more than 800 people (I had just hit 10K followers) but the day after that number dropped to less than 100. And then again 50-60 the next day.
I could see the analytics thanks to the business account, and I found that nobody was seeing the hashtags. Same with the photos in my feed. I created a hashtag for my dark alleys series, one unique to my photos, but it was not showing anything. My account also appeared as “closed” to some friends who reached out to me to make me aware of it (only happened a few times for a couple hours).
I was a ghost in the Instagram world. I was shadowbanned.
Instagram does not warn you, and there’s not really a “customer care”. The old [email protected] email doesn’t work anymore. The Help link in the Settings panel is not particularly helpful either.
I used the “report a problem” function to write to Instagram every single day but have never received an answer.
My account, and all the business linked to it, was sinking. I stopped all activity while trying to find a solution.
You should know that there is a list of banned hashtags
I found out that one way used by Instagram to counter spam is to use an ever-evolving blacklist of “banned hashtags”. There is no official page informing about that and the list is only published by helpful bloggers. But the list exists.
As it happened, my dark alleys series was showing photos of street, so it came natural to me to use #streetphoto. And even though I changed most of the hashtags in each photo, I kept this one because it was the recurring theme. So it appeared in almost all the 12 photos of the series. But as silly as it sounds, #streetphoto is in the blacklist!
Out of the blue, I am a spammer and I get a shadowban. All for having used the pretty common #streetphoto hashtag.
I removed the hashtag from all photos, of course, and tried to follow all the recommendations I read online (including avoid posting for a while). But 3 weeks on and my account engagement was still limited to a few close friends who had the notifications on.
I’ve had the account for 9 years, but Instagram killed it overnight.
I read online one of the many conspiracy theories around Instagram: it says that if you have a business account you get penalised at times in order trigger the need to invest in advertisement and gain reach again. I honestly find the idea ludicrous, but what if…
So I switched my business account back to a personal one, which in theory is a totally harmless procedure to the account. And guess what? I started receiving engagement again!
I went to check the next day and the views were up again.
I’m glad, but my account is still suffering though. The Instagram algorithm favours continuous content creation, and I have been away for more than a month. Obviously I lost followers, which is not the end of the world, but because I haven’t been around for a while my content doesn’t even seem to be “relevant” to some of my close friends anymore either.
It’s like starting from scratch again.
So, if you read through to here, come to my page (@fabienb) and say hello. And if you like the content, maybe stick around 🙂
I would be very happy to see you there.
The safety net
I wish there was one. Instagram does not make the blacklist of banned hashtags public so everybody is left to their own devices. At least, services like Tailwind constantly tidy up their hashtags lists so if you use such tools you should be safe. I’m sure other services do it too, but I don’t use them so I can’t confirm.
And perhaps now that you’re aware of the issue you can also monitor it and stay safe.