The scariest story around the fire at Social Media Camp? The Curse of the Instagram Shadowban.

Shadow banning is the first thing every social media marketer’s mind goes to when they experience sudden drops in engagement or reach.

It’s a scary thought that all your great content might be secretly hidden from the very people you want it to reach.

So even though Instagram CEO Adam Moserri recently announced to the world, in no uncertain terms, that “Shadow banning is not a thing,” it’s hard not to be suspicious when your engagement is going awry.

Well, I say no more ghost stories! Let’s throw some light into the shadow(ban) and find out the truth with a little radical first-person journalism. That’s right: I’m going to try to get shadow banned on Instagram. For the good of society! For truth! And because Hootsuite asked me to!

Let’s do this.

Bonus: 14 Time-Saving Hacks for Instagram Power Users. Get the list of secret shortcuts Hootsuite’s own social media team uses to create thumb-stopping content.

What is a shadowban?

Before I ruin my digital reputation, a quick primer: A “shadow ban” is when a user is blocked or muted on a social media site (or online forum) without their knowledge.

You haven’t necessarily broken any of the terms of service explicitly, but you’ve been doing something that the admins or moderators aren’t happy with… and they’ve quietly gone ahead and punished you by hiding or obscuring your posts and comments from other users.

How is this different from a straight up ban? It’s stealthy! No one tells you you’ve been shadow-banned, and you have no way to appeal a shadow ban.

(Do you have chills yet?)

On Instagram, that might mean your posts are no longer appearing (or appearing far less frequently) on your followers’ feeds or on the Explore page. Basically, Insta is trying to ice you out.

At least, that’s the theory. Even though “shadow-ban” is in the Oxford dictionary now, social media sites deny this practice is happening. And no one has really been able to prove it.

Still, plenty of people who have experienced an unusual dip in engagement or reach are convinced there’s something more happening behind the scenes. Is their content just not appealing to their audiences anymore? Has the Instagram algorithm changed? …Or are there bigger forces at play? (Cue the Serial theme song.)

Methodology

To get shadow-banned, I was going to have to behave like other people who claim they’ve been shadow-banned from Instagram in the past — walk a mile in their #shoes, if you will.

There are a couple of common activities that users tend to suspect are driving the shadow bans:

  1. Using too many hashtags
  2. Using irrelevant hashtags
  3. Writing generic comments on a bunch of other people’s posts

Basically, behaving like a bot.

I decided that over the course of the week, I would post some content that normally would get high engagement, but alternate between tagging it with 30 related hashtags (e.g. #vancouver, #vancity), and 30 unrelated hashtags (#skateboarding, #elevator).

Instagram post of Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver BC

digital orca sculpture near the Vancouver Convention Centre

I’d also spend some time popping onto random Instagram posts I found on my Explore page to do my best bot impression, saying “Nice post!” over and over and over again.

Nice post! comment on various Instagram posts

I selected some beautiful imagery of Vancouver from a free stock photo site to pair with my obnoxious tags. I thought that would be imagery that would normally get a decent amount of engagement, so we could see if my tag-a-palooza really had a negative impact.

One caveat: I did write captions for each of my posts explaining that I was trying to get shadow-banned, so that my friends wouldn’t think I had been hacked by some talented, Vancouver-obsessed photographer. Not sure if that impacted the experiment at all, since I was more focused on the hashtag-and-comment effect, but I just thought you should know, because I am an honest scientist (whom some say is basically on par with Marie Curie at this point)?

Instagram post featuring view of Stanley Park seawall in Vancouver BC

Importantly, I also talked to my friend who believes he’s been shadow banned, to mentally prepare myself for this journey. He wished to remain anonymous, because now he’s scared of Instagram, so we’ll call him… Bramp.

Attempting to promote some of his artwork a few months ago, Bramp was copying the same collection of hashtags from an artist with a similar style. “The first post did great then the next did worse and then the next did worse than the last until it was only getting at most 100 views from hashtags,” he says.

Bramp started experimenting. And when he removed those hashtags that he’d been using, his reach exploded again.

Bramp now tries to mix up the hashtags he uses and searches for tags to make sure none of the ones he’s planning on using are banned.

Obviously this is just one anecdotal story, so we can take it with a grain of salt. And Bramp himself — dear, sweet Bramp — still isn’t 100% sure what, how or why his own drop in engagement happened. “I haven’t done a lot of testing in that area because I don’t like being shadowbanned,” he says. Fair enough.

So I guess that leaves me to take one for the team. Here we go!

Results

TLDR: I tried to get shadow banned… and couldn’t.

In fact, in many ways, my shadow ban experiment got me an incredible amount of engagement. People were asking me to explain what shadow banning was. And not just my mom, I’ll have you know: various Millennials in my life were also very curious.

Meanwhile, over in the digital realm, my followers were being annoyingly active and supportive in the comments.

supportive comments on shadowban post

I used Hootsuite Analytics to check out what my engagement rate has been for my normal posts over the last three months. Then I compared them to this week’s series of posts, which I’m calling “The Shadow-ban Sessions” (working title). There’s definitely a dip — but still, looking pretty good.

My engagement this summer has been at 17% (I’m popular and now you know it)…

post engagement rate 17.98% via Hootsuite Analytics

This past week, though, it plummeted to 9.87%.

post engagement rate post-shadow ban experience 9.87%

posts table with likes and comments

Looking at Instagram’s in-house analytics, though, my reach seemed to be the same.

Here’s my reach for each of this week’s posts…

reach for each Instagram post in the past week

…and my reach for my posts from the past three months.

reach for Instagram posts in the past three months

Some of my shadow ban posts are among the top 10. So… I guess the hashtags actually worked to help me?

Bonus: 14 Time-Saving Hacks for Instagram Power Users. Get the list of secret shortcuts Hootsuite’s own social media team uses to create thumb-stopping content.

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However, when I looked a little deeper into each post, it seems like the inaccurate hashtags really weren’t doing me any favors. While my #vancouver-themed series of hashtags were still earning me exposure…

post insights 21 actions taken

… my irrelevant hashtags (e.g. #teen, #kansas) were bringing almost no new users to my account.

irrelevant actions post insights no actions taken

But really, it makes perfect sense that irrelevant hashtags wouldn’t attract any new eyeballs. Why would someone looking for #italiano click on my photo of Vancouver’s most well illuminated bridge?

I wouldn’t say I’ve been “shadow banned” so much as I’ve been “correctly noted as being a liar.”

Overall I’m frustrated that I didn’t get banned or have a hard conclusion. But maybe by having no clear answer… I’ve found the greatest conclusion of all?

I had a strong audience who was already engaged.

I was posting quality photography, with fun authentic captions (IMO).

Maybe I had made myself impervious to shadow banning by (accidentally) using good engagement practices.

What do the results mean?

Likely, there is no “shadowban.” Instagram is just trying to improve the experience for all users by removing bots and bot-like behaviour. If you’re not providing value, it actually does make a ton of sense that Instagram wouldn’t be rushing to bump you up in the algorithm.

I still don’t have cold, hard proof that shadow banning is real. But the fact that I tried to get shadow banned and didn’t really feel any effects seems to indicate that if you’ve got great content (ahem) and a loyal audience, using quick-and-dirty hacks isn’t going to hurt your engagement.

If you’re just starting out though, abusing hashtags or spamming other people probably won’t get you much attention from the Instagram algorithm.

In other words: it’s probably best to not act like a bot!

If you’re trying to grow your audience quickly, I get why it’s tempting to go full-on with hashtags, try to tap into a trending topic or overdo it with the commenting. But true growth on Instagram doesn’t come from shortcuts.

You can’t buy followers, and you can’t game the system. To build real, meaningful engagement takes time, patience, creativity and authenticity.

So put the hashtags down (slowly… carefully… that’s it) and head over to study up on ways to increase engagement authentically. And then I’ll see you at the social media campfire, where I’ll be telling my own spooky tale, of the Friends Who Were Too Engaged On Your Experimental Instagram Post and Ruined Your Data Collection, OoOOooh!

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