Fake News and the Ultimate 4,000-Word Guide to the Instagram Shadowban Problem By Hugh Stephens Posted December 12, 2017 Share on Pinterest Share on Facebook Share on Twitter This post was originally published on April 30 2017, and was last updated on June 13 2018. 2018 update: Instagram confirms ‘shadow ban’ is fake news In June 2018, Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that shadowbanning was never a real thing, and busted various other myths about the Instagram feed and how reach works. The relevant quote: “Shadowbanning is not a real thing, and Instagram says it doesn’t hide people’s content for posting too many hashtags or taking other actions” The Infamous Instagram Shadowban There has been a lot of attention lately about an ‘Instagram shadowban’. This post was written by Sked’s CEO, Hugh Stephens to talk about his perspective. We’ve been following Instagram remarkably closely for over 3 years now. Before starting Sked, I was in social media consulting for 4 years, working with anything from small corner shops through to global brands and Fortune 500 companies – so I’ve spent a fair bit of time understanding the intricacies of how the different social media channels work. I have qualifications in statistics and data analysis (indeed, that was one of the common projects I used to do – work out multi-channel attribution modelling to actually measure real ROI rather than the vanity metrics that were common in the industry). To be honest, I initially wasn’t going to write about the Instagram shadowban, because it actually isn’t anything that “new” – Instagram has had spam management techniques (including shadowbanning) for the whole time Sked has been operating (3+ years). But the level of misinformation and outrageous speculation that is scaring the hell out of everyday Instagram users and businesses has gotten to the stage where I feel I have no choice. My upfront disclaimer here is that I don’t have a secret channel to contact and communicate with Instagram, so I am writing this from what is known publicly, and I’ll make it obvious when I am speculating or guessing something. Anyone who claims that they know the details of what ‘the algorithm’ is or does either works for Facebook/Instagram and is breaking a non-disclosure, or just wildly speculating. Strap in, as this is a long post (almost 4000 words) in an attempt to be comprehensive and explain things as well as I can. I’ll update with any new information as and if it surfaces. Given the length of the post, below is a quick table of contents of what we will cover. Contents2018 update: Instagram confirms ‘shadow ban’ is fake newsThe Infamous Instagram ShadowbanWhat is the ‘Instagram Shadowban’?Aside: what’s the point of shadowbanning?How can you tell you’ve been hit by the Instagram Shadowban?The ’cause’ of the Instagram shadowban: were you getting real engagement to begin with?Will I get the Instagram shadowban by using Sked?How to avoid the Instagram shadowbanOutlandish theories that I think are wrongIt’s because Instagram wants to force everyone to buy adsSharing IP addresses / having multiple people using an accountHow to fix the Instagram shadowban1. Chill out for a bit2. Check your hashtags3. Revoke app permissions that you don’t use or need4. Don’t do dumb stuff that is against Instagram’s terms like buying followers or likes5. Report the issue to Instagram What is the ‘Instagram Shadowban’? In the last couple of months, a lot of people have been talking about an “Instagram Shadowban”. When people talk about the Instagram shadowban, they are referring to having their account flagged or labelled (by Instagram) so that when they post something with a set of hashtags, the post does not show up in the public feeds for that hashtag other than to them and people who follow them. The net result of that is that engagement plummets, with some people saying that 50+% of their engagement ‘disappears overnight’. Now, if you were always getting a lot of likes or comments as a result of using particular hashtags, you’d notice that immediately. Given that a shadowban is a binary situation (either you are banned, or you aren’t), you should see some kind of direct dropoff at a specific date or time. It’s not a situation where you would see a slow deterioration of engagement, and you wouldn’t suddenly get 0 engagement at all, as you will still show up in the feed of people who follow you, and of course they will be able to like or comment on your post. Shadowbanning isn’t new at all, and it isn’t unique to Instagram either. Instagram has used shadowbanning for several years now, so it’s actually not a “new feature” at all. How do I know that they have been doing it for years? Because I’ve seen it happen in the past before. Since the early days of Sked, we noticed that certain (mostly spammy) hashtags would result in this effect. The kinds of hashtags I am talking about there are things like #freeiphone, #win, #free etc – essentially the kind of things that you could easily imagine being used for scams and spam. I’ll come back to this later in the article. Aside: what’s the point of shadowbanning? So a brief aside unrelated to Instagram specifically. Shadowbanning is a technique that has been common in social channels for quite some time, as it is a very effective way to manage spam or often trolls. Shadowbanning was first used in bulletin boards and forums, and yes, is also used in channels like Facebook and Twitter. The idea was that when you shadow ban a user rather than ban them, they think that everything is okay, they just conveniently can’t annoy other people. When you ban them, they get pissed off and will register tons of new accounts and start being actively malicious, which isn’t in anyone’s best interest. For example, that’s the idea behind ‘hide comment’ on Facebook Pages (used to be ‘mark as spam’ back in 2010-13). You can hide the comment so that the person who posted it and anyone who is friends with them can see the comment or post, but other people who aren’t friends with them can’t. When used correctly, it can be a very good way to manage a community, as you can address someone’s concerns (or allow them to feel like they are being heard) without causing some kind of all-out comment war. How can you tell you’ve been hit by the Instagram Shadowban? So the next thing I’ve noticed is an increasing number of people saying that they’ve been shadowbanned, when in reality they haven’t. As I said earlier, simply having lower engagement or reach doesn’t mean you are shadowbanned. Keep in mind that Instagram has an algorithmic feed now (complain all you like but that’s reality), which means that things aren’t shown up in chronological order. Recency has always been part of the algorithm (so it’s less likely to surface something from 12 months ago as 1 hour ago), but there are other factors as well, like the level of engagement that you have had with that user in the past. Instagram tweaks that algorithm all the time, like Facebook does. Those of us who have been around long enough will remember many of the times when major tweaks to the Facebook algorithm caused havoc to engagement and community managers. So to check if you’ve been affected by the Instagram shadowban (based on the theory of what this is), use a photo you have recently posted. Don’t try and check a post a month old, because beyond anything else, it’ll be 10 times harder to find. There is a tool linked to from a few other blog posts, but I’m not sure that it’s accurate (many people have wondered the same, claiming that it has reported false positives (saying they were banned when they weren’t) and negatives (saying they were fine when they were banned)). It takes a little bit of time, but it’s not hard to do it yourself. It’s often easier to do this on a computer rather than your phone, so here’s how you check if you’ve been hit by the Instagram shadowban: 1. Post something as you normally would (on your phone), with the kinds of hashtags that you normally post with. 2. Then, jump on your computer and look at one of the hashtag feeds from your account. 3. First logout of instagram.com (if you were logged in), or use a different internet browser or Chrome “incognito mode”. 4. Then go to the hashtag feed. The easy way to do it is go to: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/hashtag/ So if you were looking at the hashtag #instafamous, you would to go to here (no # in the URL): https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/instafamous/ 5. Scroll down the page – you aren’t looking for the ‘top posts’, as these are usually posts from the last 24 hours or so that have a high engagement rate. You are looking for the ‘most recent’ posts section. 6. In that section, go and find your post. The reason it’s easiest to do just after you have posted something is that the most recent post feed is directly chronological. You can check the account in different hashtags too. But if the account or post is shadowbanned, you’d expect it to be banned on all hashtags or none, not just one (for the reasons mentioned above – the ‘ban’ isn’t useful if it is selective, it needs to be all-or-nothing). If your image doesn’t appear in the hashtag feed, I suggest testing a couple of other posts (with different sets of hashtags!) as well to double check. Don’t just assume from one, as it might just be that it was a popular hashtag and you missed it in the feed. There are also questions about whether the “most recent” posts section is actually algorithmic, but looking at a few of them myself, I don’t think that’s the case – the blog post that reported that seems to have a lot of confusion about the difference between the ‘top posts’ section and the ‘most recent’ section. The ’cause’ of the Instagram shadowban: were you getting real engagement to begin with? So why has this whole Instagram shadowban thing suddenly resurfaced, despite being something that has existed for years? I have a theory. A bit over a week ago in mid April, a service called Instagress was shut down by Instagram. Instagress was one of the services (probably the most popular) that some accounts used to automatically follow, unfollow, like and comment on posts. To be clear: that’s (a) spam, and (b) something that Instagram clearly forbids in their terms of service: Customers have asked us in the past if we offer these kinds of services (we don’t, for the reasons above), and if we are ‘compatible’ with using those services. We have always warned them of the risks of using these types of services, and point out that it’s against the Instagram terms. To be abundantly clear, we don’t encourage or support people to use these services, as we don’t think they provide benefit to the Instagram community. That doesn’t mean that they don’t (‘use at your own risk’), but I don’t think that it is worthwhile, even if it “works” in the sense of getting more followers (who may just be others using automated services too, making it a fruitless endeavour – 10,000 spam followers won’t ‘sell more stuff’ or deliver real world outcomes, which is why you should be using Instagram). Because of the rate limits of the official Instagram API (which allows comments to have no more than 4 hashtags and is quite severely rate limited), services like Instagress use Instagram’s “private API”, or the collection of web ‘addresses’/actions that the Instagram app uses to do all of the things you do in the app. Reverse engineering that private API has always been forbidden by the Instagram terms. But clearly Instagram is cracking down on services like Instagress, and so I anticipate that more will be closed down in the coming weeks and months. So what’s the relationship between that and the Instagram shadowban? Yes, people are right to say that if you are a user of these services, you risk your account being shadowbanned or banned, and that’s not new! But for the people claiming that suddenly their engagement has dropped in the last week or two, my theory is that it’s because auto-like/follow/comment services like Instagress aren’t working anymore. Sure, your engagement may have decreased, but that’s because the spam, automated crap is no longer liking your posts, and it wasn’t real engagement to begin with (so good riddance!). After seeing the major service offering those specific features, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if engagement on public hashtags has gone down somewhat, and you shouldn’t be surprised either. Will I get the Instagram shadowban by using Sked? Short answer: no, if they did, we wouldn’t have a business. I’ve been running Sked for over 3 years now, and our customers are anything from a small business or influencer through to global fashion brands, fortune 500 companies, media brands and more. Our customers manage accounts with follower counts from 0 to 10+ million. If we saw that our customers suddenly all en masse had a massive decrease in engagement, we would tell everyone that we had observed it, and shut down the service while we investigated it and worked out if that was the case. our kI mean that honestly – we did exactly that in December 2015 when we had some spammers started using our service (which had quite different symptoms – it brought our phones offline), which is when we started to review every account that is added to our service by hand against a strict interpretation of the Instagram terms and community guidelines. While some of our small customers won’t be able to afford it, our larger customers spend a lot of money and time on analytics (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for complex tools). They would tell us pretty quickly if there was a problem associated with using our service, and of course wouldn’t use our service! I chose to build Sked in a way that reduces risk to accounts as far as possible, while still being able to post for you. A lot of people don’t seem to understanifferd how we work, but in short is like this: Yes, that is our “wall of phones”. When one of our customers wants to post something to Instagram, we open the Instagram app, click the login button, enter the username and password, choose the photo, type the caption, and so on. It’s literally the same as the way you do it by hand, on a real phone. That’s how we post for customers without using that ‘private API’ that is forbidden by the Instagram terms – we do it the same way that our customers do, on a physical, real phone. So while some of our competitors who just send push notifications try and lump all services in the one bucket, we are able to post for customers (without sending you nudges, alarms or notifications) while still not using that forbidden private API using this weird old school method. We agree with our competitors that using the private API is risky and forbidden – we just disagree in that we aren’t the same (because we are not!). Donald Trump style (although I can say this one is actually true) – any claims that we use the forbidden private API like that are fake news, plain and simple. As we state in that article, our service is higher risk than doing it yourself, because we need your password to post for you, and whether it is a friend, an agency or a service like ours – there are risks associated with giving out your password! We obviously work very hard to secure those password though, and from my work as a consultant, we do a far better job than many marketing agencies (an Excel file on a shared drive or Dropbox account is not a very secure thing…). How to avoid the Instagram shadowban So you aren’t shadowbanned, but you want to avoid it. What should you do? When developing content, we recommend focusing on your business objective or goal rather than hashtags. Keep a close eye on your actual purpose for using Instagram. For businesses, this might be ‘selling more stuff’ for example, or ‘driving foot traffic into our restaurant’. That’s why you are using Instagram, not ‘get more likes and followers’. Instagram released a statement back in March about ‘the hashtag issue’ (their words for it): And I think that’s great advice! Posting good content that is unique and that your users want to see is going to be the best strategy to both avoid being labelled as a spammer, and to see results. Some of the other pieces of advice we give from 3 years of experience: Don’t post the same images/videos over and over. That’s a spammy thing to do, and is easily detected by Instagram. That’s why Schedugram doesn’t let you post the same posts over and over again – firstly, Instagram users don’t want that, and secondly, it’s spam! Don’t use the same hashtags or captions on every post. Every now and then I’ll see an account that copy/pastes the hashtags across every post, and you’ll see things like a photo of a park with the hashtag #kitchen. Come on. Even if you do Post good quality, unique content. Don’t just post stuff you find on the web or stock photos. Post good quality and unique content that is relevant to your brand and business. Don’t use services that automatically comment/like/follow/unfollow users. This is against Instagram’s terms, and you risk your account being banned (to be honest, that’s more likely than a shadowban) if you do so. Just because you can use 30 hashtags every time doesn’t mean you should. Instagram doesn’t let you use more than 30 hashtags. But just because that’s the limit doesn’t mean that you should use 30 every time! We find that accounts that are using lots of hashtags all the time have higher rates of upload errors, which is why users now see a warning when they insert more than 20 for a post. Don’t try and game the system. Facebook (who own Instagram) is not full of idiots. They have some of the smartest people in the world working on their services (including spam management). Gaming the system by doing things like putting hashtags in the comment of the post, then deleting and re-commenting with a different set of hashtags after a few hours (and all sorts of other techniques and theories people use to game the system) is both unlikely to work in the long term, and may end up having your account flagged as dodgy. Add value to the Instagram community. Our focus as a business is on helping brands add value to the Instagram community. That’s why we have restrictions like not letting people post more than once in a 15 minute interval (which annoys spammers who try to sign up for our service, which is the whole point). We love Instagram just like many other users, and don’t want to see it overrun with crap. Outlandish theories that I think are wrong People have also hypothesised about all kinds of things that cause accounts to get shadowbanned. Here’s why I think they are wrong (my opinion only!). It’s because Instagram wants to force everyone to buy ads This is a dumb theory. Sure, it might make sense – some kind of Machiavellian Instagram overlord is ruining our engagement so that we buy ads to prop it up. But that’s unlikely to be the case, because that’s … kind of obvious, and would probably end up getting caught up in some kind of anti-trust legal case. Variations on this include ‘Instagram has penalised people after moving to a business account from a personal account’, which is also (a) obvious to see if that was the case, and (b) unlikely. Sharing IP addresses / having multiple people using an account Some of the articles claim that the Instagram shadowban is caused because of IP addresses, where you might be using Instagram from an IP address in Washington DC and then suddenly something else happens at an IP address in (say) Tokyo, Japan or San Francisco. While I don’t have conclusive evidence to refute it, I don’t think that is the case. Firstly, the solution would be to only ever allow one session (like Snapchat does – if you login to Snapchat on another phone and open the app on your original phone, you are instantly logged out), which would be pretty easy to implement. Secondly, it is extremely common for brands both big and small to manage accounts from multiple locations. If you hired a marketing agency (or had a globally distributed team), you would suddenly have people using it from a different location, often at the same time. If Instagram was going to ban people because of multiple IP addresses using the account, then you would never be able to hire a marketing agency! So while I can understand it’s a good theory, it doesn’t really hold up to practicality. Businesses and agencies are an important part of Instagram’s business model – they’re the ones who run ads. So Instagram isn’t going to do something that would invalidate any value for those businesses and agencies. How to fix the Instagram shadowban Okay so as I’ve established, not everyone is shadowbanned (so actually confirm that first…), but there are situations where content is taken down or hidden on Instagram. The guidance below is a good guide to Instagram use generally (IMHO). 1. Chill out for a bit If your account has been flagged as spam all of a sudden, then stop what you’re doing, because that’s why you probably got flagged. If you’ve been (automated or otherwise) going on a like/comment/follow spree, stop all activity for a while. Maybe even ease up on posting to Instagram for a few days (or stop using hashtags) and then try again. 2. Check your hashtags “Broken hashtags” has been a thing for years now. As I mentioned earlier, accounts using things like #like4like, #freeiphone or #win often ended up with those posts not showing up in hashtag feeds for other hashtags included in the post. A Google search for broken hashtags will find a host of articles back from 2013 and before about this issue! These ‘broken hashtags’ are often reported to be ones with not-safe-for-work content on them (and might be totally innocuous – like #skype allegedly), but our experience has been that it’s usually (a) obvious (like the kind of hashtag that a lot of pornographic content ends up on, or spam), or (b) kind of random, often without an obvious cause. One thing some users do is go back through all of their old posts and delete the hashtags one by one. That has been reported to work in the past. 3. Revoke app permissions that you don’t use or need People often authenticate their Instagram account for other services or tools, and then stop using them. Sometimes this is fine and doesn’t cause any issues (who cares) but for some of the dodgier tools out there, they might then start liking or following other accounts (without your permission!) as part of selling that to other businesses (which is against Instagram’s terms…). It’s always good practice to periodically: Change the Instagram account password – and change it to something non-obvious (not the business name or ‘password’ or ‘1234567’ etc – something random!) Revoke any app permissions you don’t use anymore. You can do that by logging into instagram.com on your computer and going to the manage access page in your account settings. 4. Don’t do dumb stuff that is against Instagram’s terms like buying followers or likes Buying followers or likes can be an easy way to try and bump yourself up and make yourself popular. But it’s often fake accounts anyway (so you won’t be helping your business, just chasing a useless number), and per above, Instagram isn’t stupid and will work it out eventually. 5. Report the issue to Instagram On the Instagram for Business Facebook Page, when people report these types of issues the Instagram support response is to report it through the Instagram app. If it is some kind of bug or issue with the account, that will hopefully mean that someone looks at your account and sees that you have been incorrectly caught up by the algorithm, or might be able to give you more information. You can contact Instagram support / report the issue on the Instagram app by going to your profile -> options and follow the prompts to the help / report an issue section. If you’re looking to carve out hours in your social media workflow, sign up for Sked’s 7-day trial. Our all-in-one Instagram scheduler allows you to automatically post images, carousels, Stories, videos and more. Tag locations, users and products and manage all your hashtags in one place to save 5+ hours every week. Have questions? Let us know in the comments below. Find the post helpful? Please share it on your social networks to get the news out. We all need to do our bit to combat ‘fake news’ ;).