Earlier this year, Anna Azhar found herself puzzled when the engagement on her company's Instagram page plummeted--seemingly overnight. At the time, her Hertfordshire, England-based jewelry brand, MoonlitCreatures, had almost 23,000 followers and she didn't think she was doing anything different or wrong.
So, she Googled it, and slowly began to puzzle together a cause, which matched the accounts of others. Her posts had been hidden on Instagram's discover page--leading her to self-diagnose the rumored phenomenon that Instagram bloggers and theorists had been recently posting about. She had been "shadow banned."
Shadow banning, also known as stealth banning, refers to a practice in which apps, forums, or websites will ban a user from the site or app in some way, but will not alert the user that the site or app is doing so. Usually, the ban imposes limitations on how you might interact with other users, along with your visibility on the site. Reddit users regularly post about shadow banning on the site, and earlier this year, Twitter was shadow banning misbehaving users but calling it account limiting.
While shadow banning happens at various websites, Instagram users have been most vocal about this type of banning recently. Google searches for the term have significantly spiked since early April, especially when searched with the app's name.
Instagram has never given an official statement on the alleged practice of shadow banning. It only commented on its hashtag policy when Inc. reached out. It ignored an earlier request for more information regarding shadow bans, specifically.
The lack of explanation has given people like Alex Tooby, a self-described Instagram educator, cause to extrapolate. She and others have concluded that the ban--on Instagram, at least--is a direct response to spam-like actions that conflict with the platform's guidelines.
But what if you're not a spam bot hungry for fake comments and you're just a business owner like Azhar looking to engage new customers? Here's how to avoid the mysterious shadow ban on Instagram.
1. Keep it real
Molly Marshall, the social media and digital marketing strategist behind Molly Marshall Marketing, suggests thinking about how your behavior could be perceived from the perspective of a user. Is the content misleading, or is the hashtag being misused in an attempt to get in front of a particular audience? If you were searching for one thing, but kept getting shown another, wouldn't you be frustrated?
That's a big no-no, says Instagram spokeswoman Emily Cain. "We work hard to create a safe and open environment for everyone who uses Instagram," she says. "While our goal is to preserve hashtags on the platform, the safety of our community is our number one priority, so we will take steps to limit the spread of violating content and hashtags that are being abused by making them unsearchable."
What's more, adds Marshall, even if Instagram doesn't block you, you'll be turning customers away by misusing hashtags. "When users log on to their social media accounts, they are mostly there to engage with friends and family," she explained. "If the behavior of businesses on Instagram gets too obtrusive, users may leave."
2. Avoid automating apps
Azhar thought her issues may stem from spam bots following MoonlitCreatures. She says she spends about an hour each day blocking and deleting fake followers. To save time, Azhar uses a third-party app to delete spam in chunks.
That's a mistake, says Marshall. She advises people to stay away from third-party automating apps completely. Especially, she says, never use or hire someone to manage your accounts who uses third-party apps that automate your engagement activities on Instagram.
Instead, she suggests interacting with your followers directly. Respond in the comments to users with genuine greetings and questions, as it proves that there is an actual human running the account. She adds that you should avoid comments like "Nice" or emojis, since bots usually use those.
3. Don't use banned hashtags
Nick Drewe from the social data workshop the Data Pack consolidated a list that details banned hashtags (and an update of more recently banned hashtags) that you can search through before you post. Fair warning: Most of these tags are not safe for work, although some seem altogether benign, like #kansas.
In sum, Instagram bans hashtags that are explicit, go against its terms and conditions, or are dangerous to the community. These are hashtags that encourage nudity or violence, or disobey other community guidelines. But it also partially bans hashtags that are consistently being abused, by hiding the latest posts within the hashtag's page but allowing the relevant top posts. As an example, the hashtag #boho only displays top posts since it was frequently misused by users.
It wasn't until Azhar went through each of her posts that she realized she was using commonly abused hashtags. After clearing all of her posts, her engagement returned to normal. She was using #boho on some of her photos, since her jewelry has a bohemian style. As a result, all of her posts were being hidden from the hashtag's feed--whether or not a specific post used the #boho hashtag.
4. Switch up your hashtags
Of course, even if you don't use banned hashtags, you might still get dinged. Marshall notes that repetitive use of hashtags is even enough to get you flagged as spam.
"There are so many options for hashtags. It's ideal to mix it up every couple of days" adds Marshall. Besides, by using a variety of relevant hashtags, you'll continue to present your content to a larger audience.