Over the past few weeks, the PetaPixel tip line has been flooded by reports of Instagram ‘shadow banning’ accounts. This practice, ostensibly limited to business accounts, is destroying engagement on these photographer’s profiles.
The term “shadow ban”—also called “stealth” or “ghost” banning—refers to banning a person’s account without them knowing it. From their perspective, everything seems normal, but nobody else can actually see the photos or comments or videos they’re posting.
In the case of Instagram, these “bans” seem to be limited to the tagging system. According to several reader reports, and confirmed with screenshots sent to us by the affected users, their images are no longer visible on Instagram’s hashtag pages when the page is viewed by someone who does not follow their account. Several photographers sent us screenshots proof.
Here’s just one example. In the first shot, you see the original photo complete with the two hashtags #soexcited and #howheasked.
This photo is visible on those hashtag pages… as long as you’re the person who posted the photo. However, when the photographer logged in using a new account, her image is suddenly gone, no longer visible under “recent,” as you can see from screenshots 2 and 3:
Other photographers showed us similar examples. When viewed from their own account, the photos are right there where they should be, but when you’re logged in from a personal account that doesn’t follow that business profile, they’re gone.
Here’s one more example. Viewed from the photographer’s business profile, the circled photo is there. Viewed from another account, it’s gone:
Ideally, a “shadow ban” should be invisible, but the photographers who are emailing us noticed the issue because engagement on their photos dropped precipitously.
“I noticed about a week ago that my engagement just cratered. I was getting about 1/3rd of the normal likes, and they were almost entirely from people following me already,” one PetaPixel reader told us. “There are apparently a lot of us, none of whom seem to know anything about why this is affecting us, and having no luck getting any response on multiple reports to Instagram.”
In fact, Instagram has responded publicly to these concerns, but in a way one reader called “hopelessly inept.” In a post on the Instagram for Business Facebook page, the company admitted there was a problem, but offered no solution. Instead, they basically told people to stop relying on hashtags:
“When developing content, we recommend focusing on your business objective or goal rather than hashtags,” reads the post. “Having a growth strategy that targets the right audience is essential to success on Instagram.”
As you might imagine, this response didn’t much please the users who have seen as much as 2/3 of their engagement go out the window with this “bug.” How are you supposed to target any audience if you can’t reach anyone who doesn’t already follow you?
But when pressed about when a software fix might be implemented, Chelsey of the Instagram Team only had this to say:
Based on Instagram’s response and the fact that followers can still see these photos, it seems these accounts aren’t being “shadow banned” in the traditional sense. A true ban would mean losing all visibility, and followers, at least, seem to still be seeing and interacting with the images. But these accounts are being seriously stymied.
Some users claim they’ve been at the mercy of the “shadow ban” for months, and there are user reports online complaining about this as far back as January. Some have ‘fixed’ the issue by converting back to a personal account, others by logging in from a different device with a new IP, but none of these fixes seem to last long or cover everybody. And judging by the increasingly desperate emails we’re receiving, the problem is only getting worse.
Given that hashtags are the main discovery mechanism on Instagram, an issue like this is no laughing matter. What’s worse, nobody knows if this is a true bug, or some algorithm that is treating highly active accounts as bots and reducing their visibility. Instagram, in the meantime, is still being opaque about the issue, labeling it simply, “issues with our hashtag search.”
If you have had issues with this, please let us know in the comments. In the meantime, we’ve reached out to Instagram for comment and will update this post as soon as we hear back.