Secret censorship: what is behind Instagram’s ‘shadowban’ and how can artists fix it?

Everything creatives need to know about the social media platform's so-called "shadowbanning", from how to spot it to how to stop it

 Nick Magwood/Pixaba

Nick Magwood/Pixaba

Insta’ gratification

Insta’ gratification is a monthly blog by Aimee Dawson, our Associate Digital Editor. Looking at how the art world and Instagram collide, each article tackles a topic around the innovations and challenges that spring up when art enters the digital world.

The more you scratch the surface of Instagram, the more a dark underbelly reveals itself. One thing that has arisen repeatedly in talking to creatives using the platform is the so-called “shadowban”. The artist @bernardo_torrens describes this phenomenon as a “secret denouncing” by Instagram. Apparently, a shadowban hides your posts from users who do not follow you, so that all the hashtags you are using to try and expand your reach are for nothing.

You may suspect you have been shadowbanned when someone who does not follow you looks up a hashtag you have used and cannot see your post. People who believe they have been shadowbanned also report a drop in engagement with their content. “I got shadowbanned for one of my posts,” says the artist Nemanja Stevanovic (@pausepainting). “They didn’t actually delete it but every post since then is not showing in hashtags anymore and reach is way down as well”.

Instagram has never formally acknowledged this tactic and, in an Instagram Live broadcast in February, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, even denied its existence entirely. “Shadowbanning is not a thing,” he said. But in a statement released in 2017, Instagram acknowledged that users were having “issues with our hashtag search that caused posts to not be surfaced” and said that the company is “continuously working on improvements”. Hmmm.

So what would cause Instagram to shadowban an account? The most common reasons are believed to be: if you post, comment or follow other accounts too quickly (whether manually or using an automated growth tool); if you use so-called broken hashtags banned by Instagram because they are associated with community guideline breaches; or if you are reported for inappropriate content.

Looking into the issue made me wonder—has The Art Newspaper ever been shadowbanned? My reason for questioning this is actually a reverse of the shadowban symptoms—in recent months, we’ve seen a spike in engagement on our Instagram account (@theartnewspaper.official) while having much the same number of followers. Could we have come out of a bout of hashtag suppression? We often post images of art that Instagram’s guidelines may consider “inappropriate”, such as nudes, and have had posts removed before.

There are things you can try if you think you are being shadowbanned: you can reduce your Instagram activity, or even take a few days’ break; stop using bots, broken hashtags and potentially offensive content; and, lastly, use the “Report a Problem” option on the Instagram app. But if shadowbanning is “a thing”, this kind of secret censoring is somehow worse than Instagram’s more blatant takedowns. It is disheartening for artists and creative businesses sharing their work to receive a suddenly dwindling response from their online audience. No one should have to be scared of their own (digital) shadow.