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 suspicious accounts and consequently slash the reach and engagement that these accounts receive. And that would obviously be a good thing.
You see this shadowban term surfacing in discussions because perfectly legit accounts get caught in 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? 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 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 could stay months without publishing any photos.
Since quitting my job, I decided to go back to the platform more seriously and make 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 have been months when the number of followers increased by thousands thanks to my strategies. By the way, these never involved buying followers or using bots.
I looked at my stats closely every day and 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, the 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 saw the hashtags I used. 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 displayed to anyone.
My account also appeared “closed” to some friends who reached out to me to make me aware of it (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 no real “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 day but 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 Instagram uses to counter spam is via an ever-evolving blacklist of “banned hashtags”. There is no official page informing about that; the list is only published by helpful bloggers. But the list exists.
As it happened, my dark alleys series showed photos of streets, so it came naturally to me to use #streetphoto. And even though I changed most of the hashtags with each publication, 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 on the blacklist!
Out of the blue, I am now a spammer, and I get a shadowban. All for using the harmless (and genuinely related) #streetphoto hashtag.
Of course, I removed the hashtag from all photos and tried to follow all the recommendations I read online (including avoiding posting for a while). But 3 weeks on, my account engagement was still limited to a few close friends who had the notifications turned on.
I’ve had the account for 9 years, and 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 to 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 for the account. And guess what? I started receiving engagement again!
I checked the next day, and the views were up again.
I’m glad, but my account is still suffering. 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 seem “relevant” to some of my close friends anymore either.
It’s like starting from scratch again.
So, if you read through to here, please 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 publicise the blacklist of banned hashtags, so everybody is left to their own devices. At least services like Tailwind constantly tidy up their hashtag lists, so you should be safe if you use such tools. I’m sure other services do it too, but I don’t use them and can’t confirm.
One great tool for Instagram hashtags is Hashtastic. It helps search, compare, monitor and analyse hashtags. To avoid issues as well as grow your Instagram account. I started using it after my issues, and I must say it’s a pretty good tool. I just need to see if I can use it for one month every now and then rather than pay the annual fee. But definitely highly recommended.
Perhaps now that you’re aware of the issue, you too can monitor your hashtags and stay safe.
But it sucks, right?
– Hashtastic update, 2021 –
I have been shadowbanned again, this time for using the #sunriselovers hashtag for a sunrise photo! More on the issue, with a YouTube video, in this other post.