Do I believe that “shadow bans” exist on Instagram?  Insofar as I believe that certain accounts’ hashtags are not “working,” yes.  Do I believe that Instagram has an algorithmic trigger or that some nerdy admin is manually blocking hashtags used by certain accounts? No.  I think this whole thing is one big glitch.

UPDATE APRIL 2017: Please also read this guest post by Tessie Wallace that describes her experience and what she did to fix her shadow ban. 

What is a shadow ban on Instagram?

A Shadow Ban describes a user’s experience when they realize that their hashtags appear to be working just fine to them and to anyone who follows them, but their hashtagged posts are not visible in search for any non-followers.

Hashtags are a search feature.  You can search for posts that have been hashtagged with anything – a hub, like #cameramama, a location, like #atlanta, or anything under the sun, #sorrynotsorry, #boymom, #messyhairdontcare.  It’s a fun way to see all posts that might be related to each other.

When an account gets “shadow banned,” anyone not following that account will not see that user’s posts in hashtag search.

To test if you’ve been “shadow banned” (gah, using all those quotes is exhausting) simply have a non-follower look at your most recent post, note what the picture looks like and how long it’s been since you posted it (the more recent the better – finding a picture posted 4 days ago will take you 4 days to find) and pick a hashtag or two that you used on that post.  You can tap on the hashtag directly from the post to pull up the search.  If the picture doesn’t appear with other pictures posted around the same time, then (du du duuuuuuuunnnnn) you’re “shadow banned.”

Why all the quotes, Amanda?  Because “shadow ban” isn’t really a thing.  It’s a thing to describe a thing.  Called a hashtag glitch.

It’s a huge conspiracy theory that assumes that @kevin and @mikeyk are sitting in their glitzy Silicon Valley HQ dreaming up evil, maniacal pranks to play on users that violate their Terms of Service.

I got news for yas… That is not happening.  Smart business people do not play games with their companies or their users.  The goal of any company is twofold: Make Money and Keep People Happy.

One could argue that restricting abusive behavior such as spam and nasty porno stuff falls under the Keep People Happy category.  Well, ok, but if someone violates the TOS, it’s pretty clear that their account will get “really banned” not just “shadow banned.”

Ok, one could argue that “shadow banning” is more effective than “really banning” because it prevents abusive users from continuing to open up new accounts once their accounts get shut down.  I’m not buying it, folks.  These are nerdy smartie-pants folks that work for Facebook & Instagram, and I’m sure they can figure out IP addresses and such.  And, if the user just continues to be abusive, their accounts will continue to get shut down.

On the topic of making money, Instagram makes money via advertising – selling ads to companies that show up in your feed.  If you get frustrated about your hashtags not working, and decide to leave IG altogether (many have!) then IG won’t get to show you these ads.  The number of active users will decline.  Businesses won’t buy IG ads because they won’t trust the company.  None of these results are good for the bottom line.

Well, what about the claims that Twitter and Facebook use “shadow bans?” Twitter actually sends the user a notice letting them know that their posts will be banned for a certain length of time.  There’s nothing shadow about that.

Facebook has denied that it “shadow bans” its users.  (FB page owners do have a built-in feature that will allow them to shadow ban comments from certain people.  So, if some troll keeps making rude comments on my photography business page, I can make those comments invisible to everyone except the troll. I think it’s a fabulous little feature, actually.)

But here’s my strongest case for why this whole thing is a big glitch: There is no rhyme or reason to it.  It affects all types of accounts, from all types of users, many of whom have never posted anything crude or abusive, many of whom have never used spambots.  Users who have never violated the TOS or Community Guidelines.

If you do violate the TOS and CG, then expect for your account to get shut down at some point.

Here are a few reasons some have speculated that will get you “shadow banned”:

Using too many hashtags.  I think we all now know that you can use 60 hashtags.  Do you not think that the smart folks that work at Instagram know this?  Don’t you think that all of the employees of Instagram and Facebook also use IG regularly?  And somehow they see posts with 60 hashtags and think, “gee…that’s funny, I thought we only allowed 30….”  If IG only wanted you to use 30, they’d only allow 30 and they’d fix the loophole that allows 60.  Plus, many accounts that are functioning normally use more than 30.  Finally, IG has never publicly said anything regarding the limit on hashtags.  If they just couldn’t figure out how to close that little loophole, they’d just release a statement saying you’re only allowed to use 30.  They’d update their TOS.  Then, they’d create a little algorithm that would detect users that use more than 30.  And they’d ban them or have a little pop up that says, “You’ve exceeded the limit of hashtags for this post.”  (Wait…that already does happen!)  But honestly, they’d just figure out a way to close the loophole. That would be easiest.

Being a part of an Instagram Pod or Engagement Group.  Again, it’s just too easy for those smart people to figure this out.  For the exact same reasons stated above, I’m not buying it.  I have over 100 people in engagement groups.  A random handful have reported “shadow banning.”  If IG were against engagement groups, they’d release a statement, update their TOS and develop a way to detect EG activity.  If they can figure out how to live stream a video from Atlanta that people in Australia can see and interact with….I’m thinkin they can figure this one out too.

A few other things…  Personal or business account – it doesn’t matter.  Many speculate that IG will soon make you pay to use hashtags (similar to Facebook’s business page pay to play arrangement.) But personal accounts are just as affected.

Using a third party plugin or program to post does seem to render your hashtags invalid.  One major culprit has been the Lightroom plugin.  I have heard from many of you and have tested it myself, and it seems that once you post natively, from within the app, from your camera roll, the issue is resolved.

Did you know that Instagram DOES indeed have a blacklist of hashtags?  They’re not all pornish and cuss words either!  Some are quite benign.  Using even ONE of these blacklisted hashtags will cause ALL of your hashtags not to work.

Now, I know we can all trust that everything we read on the internet is true and fact, but in reading hundreds of comments on other articles regarding the “shadow ban” while doing research for this post, many smarty-pants programming types have commented that, in their opinion, it looks like a glitch.  A side effect of too many users, too many posts and not enough server space capacity.

I tend to agree.  There is no pattern as to who has been affected and who hasn’t been.  None at all.  It appears completely random. Sadly, people that are clearly using apps to automate their follow/unfollows and likes/comments have not been affected.  I know who you are, and I’ve tested your account.  (But just stop, because the fun won’t last forever.  IG’s algorithms are getting smarter and smarter and your account will get “really banned.”)

So – if IG is so smart, why can’t they fix this?  I think it’s a server capacity situation.  You can’t just fix it, it’s one of those things that takes time, or else the whole thing will collapse.  You’ve heard those doomsday news reports about people flinging themselves off bridges because gmail was down for 2 hours, right?  Can you imagine if IG went offline for 20 minutes?  Armageddon, folks.  They need to somehow fix this thing while not disrupting the whole thing.  I know nothing about nothing, but that doesn’t seem to be an easy fix.

Ok, so you’re “shadow banned.”  Now what?

Give up and go elsewhere?  Where?  Facebook? (outrageous laughter) (eye roll)

Snapchat?  (Yeah, where you’ll really find it easy to grow your following. (Big eye roll.)

Do you create a new account and hope that it doesn’t get shade thrown down on it?  (Well, I’ve talked to many of you on your third account and you just keep on having issues.  Starting a new account doesn’t ensure that your hashtags will work.)

Ok, so let’s start backwards… What are the end results to having your account “shadow banned” or can we now say, having your hashtags broken?

You experience a drop in new followers and a drop in engagement.

Ok, so how can we circumvent the hashtag glitch to increase your followers and engagement?  Remember, your existing followers CAN see your posts, both in their feed and in hashtag search.  The glitch only applies to non-followers.

First, engage with non-followers.  Go to favorite hubs, like @cameramama, @thecandidclass, @ourcandidlife, @candidchildhood, and there’s a BUNCH of new hubs – too many to list.  Go to those hubs.  Find features that you enjoy.  Go to the featured photographer’s page and follow and ENGAGE with their posts!
Here’s my rule of thumb…I hate to make this public, cuz it’s my little secret sauce, but here’s whatcha do:  You go to their account.  You tap from grid view to scroll-posts view.  You like and make a thoughtful comment (thoughtful!) on the first post.  Then, scroll and like the next two.  Quick and simple.

Don’t go nuts here.  Don’t like/comment on thirty of their posts, you’ll look like a kook.  You’ll clog up their notifications and nobody likes that.

But, with the like/comment/like/like strategy, you’ll show up in their notifications and they’ll see you followed them.  They may just follow you back.  (If they don’t and you don’t hear from them ever again, then you can always unfollow them later if you like.  Think of this as a Kinder, Gentler F/UF strategy.)  If they DO follow you back, awesome.  Now y’all can be friends.

Secondly, use hashtags for hubs that follow you.  Do not use hashtags for hubs that don’t.  They’ll never see your posts.  Some hubs follow users, others only follow their own mods.  It’s pretty easy to spot.  Just go to the hub, and if they’re only following 8 people, there’s your sign.  If they’re following hundreds, then go ahead and engage with their posts.  Maybe send a DM to the account or to a mod’s personal account and say, “hey….my account has been “shadow banned.”  I’d love to use your hashtag, would you mind following me back?”

If you get featured on a hub, you’re likely to gain a few new followers.  As always, use theme tags over main tags, for a better chance at getting featured.

Lastly, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…

Improve your photography.  Practice (the best way is through a 365 project.) And increase your education through classes, forums, youtube, creativelive, google… Read all the posts from @CameraMama & @TheCandidClass.  (While you’re there, engage and their followers will see your comments and might just follow you!) Learn all you can and improve.

If Megan Loeks got shadow banned, I doubt it would make much of an impact on her.  It would probably be annoying, but I doubt she’d care all that much.  Anyone introduced to her account through any means would follow her.  Be that.  (Not HER specifically, but “be so good they can’t ignore you.”) Have a style all your own (you develop this through practice.)  Have a positive persona – meaning, have a thoughtfully crafted bio and write thoughtful and witty captions.  Be someone that other people want to be friends with.

(Ninja tip here, folks…Do not, please, for the love, put in your bio anything like: “All photos are mine!  Do not steal my photos!  Must tag me if using my photos!” Oy.  Really?  You come off as angry, confrontational, petty, and insecure.  If someone shares your photo without permission and doesn’t tag you, then send them a DM or comment on the post, or report it to Instagram.  Do not turn off every single would-be follower.  Guess what happens when I come across a bio like that?  I move right on by…. I do not tap Follow.  True story.)

Ok, so what else… What else can you do if you’ve been affected by the Great Hashtag Glitch Nightmare of 2017?

Report a Problem from your settings.  It might help.  Maybe not.

Uninstall/Reinstall your app.

Change your password.

Switch to/from a business/personal account and then switch back.

Unlink/relink your FB page.

Be certain NOT to use ANY third party apps that hook into Instagram’s API.  Especially any programs or plugins that post for you.

I don’t think pods have anything to do with it, but for Pete’s sake, do not send the same post to 7 different engagement groups.  Overkill much?  To have 200 followers and 67 comments on a post looks bizarre.  And if you’re worried about trippin some trigger that would get you banned, that’ll do it.

I think that’s it…What questions or suggestions do you have?  Have you been affected?  What are you going to do?