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Can Too Many Hashtags Get Your Instagram Shadowbanned?

Posted by on April 5th, 2019

The Instagram Shadowban is a contentious topic, because Instagram claims it doesn’t exist. Yet there are plenty of users out there who can give you data about their dropping follower count, lower like numbers, and disappearance from hashtag feeds.

Shadowban? What?

The term “shadowban” has its origins all the way back to the 1980s. At least one particular web forum had a system where certain posters could have a setting enabled on their account via admins. This setting restricted the user’s access in such a way that they would not know it was happening. They could still read the board, they could still post, but when they posted, no one else would see their posts.

This typically worked as a punishment simply because many users deserving of a shadowban are self-absorbed enough to not care much about the interaction, and would assume people are ignoring them for some reason rather than anything else untoward happening.

Instagram Shadowbanning Posts

This kind of stealth ban has been happening in a variety of different platforms in the four decades since. Hacker News, Craigslist, Reddit, Twitter, and perhaps Instagram have all participated in the practice.

Instagram’s official stance is that they do not partake in any form of shadow banning. They claim they don’t take such actions against accounts. If they want someone banned, they’ll just ban them, after all. There’s no reason to do some underhanded trickery to hide them instead.

If a user experiences unexplained drops in engagement and their posts not being visible in the hashtags they use, what could it be if not a shadowban?

Possible Cause: Bot Proliferation

One of the primary potential causes of issues on Instagram is using bots. A lot of shady Instagram promotion software either uses bot networks or uses other accounts linked to the software to cyclically engage with each user of the app. Basically, when you authorize such an app, you’re letting it like and comment and even follow other accounts from people who use the app. You get your own engagement and follows out of it, because the existing app roster is applied to you, but it’s still all fake.

Instagram Bot Software Example

Instagram doesn’t really have a hard time detecting these kinds of strategies. If your account suddenly starts liking a lot of content that really doesn’t have anything to do with your niche, when you start spamming out a ton of low effort one-word replies, and when you follow a whole lot of people that may or may not be doing the same things, it’s pretty obvious.

This isn’t likely to get you shadowbanned, though. Rather, Instagram may restrict your posting privileges for a day or two at a time, and in the mean time, they will be banning or deleting bot accounts. In extreme circumstances, you may be mistaken for a bot account and may be banned. There’s no reason for Instagram to shadowban you when they can just ban the accounts associated with breaking their terms of use.

Possible Cause: Decaying Strategy

Your user demographics and preferences will change over time, and so too should your content and marketing strategies. If you’re seeing a decrease in engagement and follows as you post, there are possible causes beyond just a shadowban. For example, maybe you’ve been posting at a specific fixed time, which you calculated to be the peak hours for your audience. Yet, you performed that calculation years ago, and by now the peak hours for your audience have changed and you’re missing them.

The same can apply to content strategies, hashtag usage, and basically every aspect of your marketing strategy other than your own niche. Part of marketing is adapting to the changes in the market. You aren’t being shadowbanned, you just aren’t capturing the full value and attention of your audience anymore.

Possible Cause: Instagram Algorithm Changes

Similar to the above, Instagram does change the way their site works from time to time. Much like Facebook and much, much more like Twitter, they just can’t leave well enough alone. Sure, many of the changes are minor and behind the scenes, but they have an impact that can be felt if you’re measuring your engagement in the hundreds rather than the millions.

IG Algorithm Illustration

Sometimes when Instagram makes a change, what they’re doing is changing the sorting or the prioritization of different hashtags or different qualities in content. Maybe they have discovered that users don’t seem to react well to certain keywords, so they demote the visibility of those kinds of posts. Who knows! Instagram doesn’t publish the inner workings of the algorithms. All you can do is monitor your metrics and, when they dip, check the news to see if anything has changed dramatically.

Possible Cause: Reports

Another cause of possibly limited visibility on your account is reports of spam from users. Instagram has a largely automated system for processing spam reports, and if it trips on your account, they’ll remove your access to certain features and potentially even ban you. Again, though, this doesn’t share all the hallmarks of a shadowban. It’s just action Instagram will take against you if you’re violating their terms.

On the plus side, if you’re not actively spamming and actually violating the rules, it’s entirely possible to get any action reversed. Sometimes competitors use botnets to mass spam reports against you, and that can trigger an automatic ban without much review. You can petition Instagram to appeal the decision, and if you haven’t actually been spamming or breaking the rules, you will likely be reinstated.

Reporting a Post on Instagram

Can this get you shadowbanned? It’s possible, I suppose, if they’re detecting just a hint of spammy actions but not enough to get your account shut down. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of this happening in an actually verifiable way, though. After all, you don’t get to see when you’re being reported.

How Hashtags Engage the Shadowban

You’ll notice that nothing I wrote about above has anything really to do with hashtags. That’s because I wanted to cover them more or less on their own. Hashtags are such an important part of Instagram that they deserve the attention, wouldn’t you agree?

The Instagram shadowban exists, but not in the way you typically think of it. In fact, it’s not a setting applied to an account, but rather a system applied to certain hashtags. Posts made using “restricted” hashtags will seem to be shadowbanned, because they don’t show up in hashtag feeds and they will seem to get a lot less engagement.

The trick is that this has nothing to do with your usage of hashtags, but rather the community usage of the tags.

Therefore, using too many hashtags in a post will not cause that post to get less visibility. You can use up to 30 hashtags on a given post, and many people recommend using the full 30. That’s because every hashtag you use puts your content in another feed, so the more exposure you get, the better off you are.

The only way you might be using “too many” hashtags is if you’re one of those people who can’t limit yourself to 30. If you’re repeatedly creating a second block of 30 and using your top comment immediately after posting to use them, you might end up being labeled a spammer. Instagram doesn’t like this practice, though it’s not to my knowledge against their terms of use.

Using the same hashtag repeatedly is also not likely to be too dangerous. It’s only when you’re using the exact same set of hashtags on every post that it starts to look spammy. I can’t imagine it’s a very good strategy in either case, though. If you’re not changing your hashtags to match your content, what are you even doing?

The actual cause of the shadowban in terms of hashtags is when hashtags are hijacked and misused. This happens constantly. Think of it like a storm passing through a state, locking down one city after another, clearing up when it passes.

Hashtag Hijacked

Instagram is a photo sharing social network, and every such network sooner or later is picked up by the “adult” community. People posting porn, either of themselves, to sell, or to encourage subscriptions to one site or another, are commonplace. Sites either need to deal with it, embrace it, or ignore it and eventually be overrun. Sites like Imgur allow it tacitly so long as it’s not in a public gallery. Sites like Instagram don’t have those kinds of private features, and so they restrict it entirely. In fact, some say they go overboard with what they’re willing to censor, but that’s an entire discussion I’m not going to have in this post.

Since the adult content community is not able to thrive in the light, they take to underground techniques to survive. Basically, they kind of collectively pick a hashtag and start using that for their content. Sometimes it’s a nonsense hashtag, just letters and numbers mashed out by someone choosing to use it. Sometimes it’s an adult-oriented hashtag, like #instansfw or #implied. Sometimes it’s something completely different, hijacked. For a while, #dogsofinstagram was taken over by the porn community, pushing out the dogs. If you’re really interested in finding it yourself, other people have gone into more detail about this topic.

I don’t know why people insist on using Instagram for this, since there are millions of actual porn sites out there, many of them offering tons of free content. Just go to one of those! There’s no reason to try to corrupt Instagram instead.

In any case, when Instagram detects that a hashtag is being used primarily for porn, they shadowban it. You can see this in action in a lot of existing tags like #sexy.  Very little content is posted up top, and it very rarely changes. Below, where the live feed would be, you instead see a message. “Recent posts from #sexy are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.”

Hashtag Hidden

Other hashtags may clearly have content in them but show none of it. #impliedmodel is one that shows zero posts even if you post using it. These are tags that are actually banned, essentially because Instagram decides they have no value outside of adult content, which they don’t want on their site.

For the second case, those tags are basically nonexistent. If anything, using them means your content will be flagged and possibly removed as adult. For the first case, however, Instagram routinely reviews their decision. #dogsofinstagram was shadowbanned for a while, but has since recovered.

Basically if the tag is benign or in use otherwise, Instagram will block it temporarily. Using it will look like those posts are being shadowbanned, when it’s really the hashtag. After a while, once the porn users have left for a different tag, they will remove the block on the tag and restore it to normal functionality. That can explain the shadowban being “lifted” when it really has nothing to do with an account directly.

So no, using too many hashtags cannot directly get you shadowbanned. The only way it might is that, the more tags you use, the more likely you are to run into a tag that has been taken over and blocked temporarily. Always check your tags before you use them, even if you’ve been using them for a while!

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