The Silent Censorship of Instagram Shadow-banning

In this latest round of online censorship, Instagram has been called out by its users for suppressing LGBTQ+ and female-focused content. 

Internet censorship has long been a subject of much debate – reports of foreign governments in Sri Lanka and China using social media blocking as a policy tool to prevent the spread of misinformation during elections sparked heated discussions across the globe earlier this year. 

Social media platform Facebook has received overwhelming criticism against its recent attempts to combat misinformation online via censorship, leading to wider discussions regarding the power private businesses can and should have over freedom of speech. However, the tech giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently refuted previous attempts by allowing politicians to lie in political adverts, in order to exempt Facebook’s responsibility of what users post online. Unsurprisingly, Zuckerberg was met with equally harsh critique. 

In the wake of these scandals, it feels like privacy policies and user guidelines are changing almost daily online. However, Facebook has always affirmed that changes being made are to improve users’ experiences online, not to hinder it.

So when some users on Instagram – which was bought by Facebook in 2012 – noticed their content being suppressed on the site without breaking any user guidelines, and without any notification from the site, they took to their social media accounts to protest. 

Dubbed ‘shadowbanning’, the content will not be removed from the site but will be restricted from accessing tools used to reach larger audiences. Although there has been examples of suppressed freedom of speech in the media for decades, the phrase was popularised in 2018 following a conspiracy theory that Twitter had restricted search options for Republican Congressmen. 

One such user affected by Instagram’s update is Louisa Foley, who explains the experience of having her work hidden from the site: “Shadowbanning is a way in which Instagram can limit how many people see your content without actually removing you from the site. For instance, your posts won’t be discoverable under certain hashtags, and when searching for your handle, you may not show up even when people follow you already.”

Foley’s account, @arewenearlybareyet, shares her illustrations of nude women and aims to subvert the male gaze by reclaiming ownership of the ‘Nude’ for self-identifying women. She uses her account, which has amassed more than 11,000 followers, to advertise her online shop of prints and T-shirts.

“Before I realised I was shadowbanned it was hard not to feel like the work I was putting out was crap and I was losing it a bit which really affected my creativity and general self-worth,” Foley admits. “Once I did realise, it just made me feel frustrated that Instagram was hiding my work and censoring people’s bodies even though I’d created a project to fit around Instagram’s guidelines.”

Illustration by Louisa Foley for BRICKS No.6, The Body Issue  

“Shadowbanning is like someone ignoring you without telling you they are ignoring you. For me, shadowbanning has stopped people knowing I exist on Instagram.” Says fellow illustrator Venus Libido, who first noticed her account had been targeted when she saw a sudden drop in followers, likes, comments and engagement on her account. 

“It made me feel really angry at first because I have built an entire career around this platform,” Libido explains. “All of my income is dependant on this one app, and I spent a lot of time and energy working towards building a platform that is there to help others and most of the time myself also. My work is often controversial and so I know I’m being silenced.”

Shadowbanning is like someone ignoring you without telling you they are ignoring you. For me, shadowbanning has stopped people knowing I exist on Instagram.

Venus Libido

Libido’s account similarly shares female-focused and sex-positive content with her 129,000 online followers. As well as her illustrations, she uses the account to promote how to be a better ally to the LGBTQ+ community, shares her mental-health podcast The Loneliness Collaboration and highlights her work as an ambassador of Young Women’s Trust.

Suppressing these accounts has been detrimental to both of these women, who rely on the promotion of their work online as their main source of income: “My income has seriously been affected in the last 6 months and I fear it will only get worse,” says Libido.

And it’s not only those behind the accounts who have been affected by this censorship. 

Pxssy Palace is a queer arts collective and London club night. One of its members, A.I.D, is concerned about how the censorship will affect its audience: “For many, Pxssy Palace and other platform/collectives that centre the lives and experiences of Queer and Trans People of Colour are a life resource. Our club nights are where people come to see reflections of themselves, to have a good time and feel safe. Our online presence introduces and [spotlights] creatives, organisers and businesses that feed our community and when our content is restricted it means that people are not seeing and getting the chance to interact with the things that may help them navigate life.”

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this censorship is Instagram’s lack of response – users do not get notified if their account has been shadow-banned, and Instagram has only vaguely addressed criticisms in a blog post

“While some posts on Instagram may not go against our Community Guidelines, they might not be appropriate for our global community, and we’ll limit those types of posts from being recommended on Explore and hashtag pages. For example, a sexually suggestive post will still appear in Feed if you follow the account that posts it, but this type of content may not appear for the broader community in Explore and hashtag pages,” the blog post reads.

The murky language of “sexually suggestive” is dangerous. Subjective factors that do not have identifiable traits (as opposed to sexually explicit content which clearly states sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks as identifiers) leaves users unsure of whether the content is appropriate for the platform until after the account has been hit. And, like a blacklist, there’s no saying what proportion of a user’s content has to be deemed “inappropriate for our global community” for their account to be suppressed, and no saying if the shadowban could be lifted in the future. 

Interestingly, Instagram’s Community Guidelines do specify that, in regards to sexually explicit content, “Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too”. Why then, if non-real artistic depictions of nudity are deemed acceptable by Instagram’s own standards, are the work of Foley and Libido being targeted? The only distinguishing difference between, say, Renoir’s Les Grandes Baigneuses and Foley’s nude illustrations is the gender of the artist, not the content of the image.

“Instagram claims they aren’t targeting specific people and that it’s just a result of the new algorithm – I call bullshit!” Libido declares. “The pattern is clear and it’s obviously targeting people whose voices stand to challenge and evoke. People who fight the patriarchy, trans and non-binary people, queer people and sex-positive accounts are all being shadowbanned. There are endless articles on how to beat the shadowban and trust me I’ve been trying; however, the more I continue to post things about sex and the female body the more they block me. This move from Instagram is only going to, and already has, created a world in which what we see is moulded and dictated by one ideal and brands will have total control over what we see.”

Instagram’s otherwise lack of response to frustrated users only fuels the belief that the targeting of minority groups is deliberate rather than circumstantial, or at the very least that they are aware of the disproportionate impact this has had on marginalised communities.

“The blood life of social media and online platforms has always been marginalised communities,” says A.I.D, “Whether that’s Black twitter, queer Tumblr, or any other space we carve out for ourselves in this digital age, it is us that shapes mainstream culture. The fashion, the language, the music, the radical thought. We create the trends, get punished for doing it, then wait a few months for it to appear white-washed, watered down, and appropriated for mass approval. What this says about online censorship is that it is only designed for some to fall victim. Accounts that centre white, cisgender, straight bodies (particularly men’s) are flourishing, no matter what they post.”

They continue: “The tech industry is largely born of a white supremacist patriarchy. It is a boys club, and the people who manage and monitor these platforms have created algorithms that mirror those ideologies. If we live in a society where there is a long-standing and continued history of women’s, LGBTQIA+, and POCs bodies being disproportionately subject for debate and critique then it is not surprising that those same groups of people are the worst effect here.”

So what is Instagram really protecting users from? We can understand the age-gating of sexually explicit content or even a notification that an individual post is going to be suppressed due to its content. YouTube launched a similar strategy earlier this year that notifies users if a video will be ‘demonitised’, where it can maintain on the site but will not make money from any advertising placements and won’t appear in the ‘recommended’ algorithms or on the YouTube homepage. It’s been a shaky journey, and one with much criticism from users, but Youtube has always maintained transparent about its policy changes and in conversation with its users on how to improve. YouTube’s policy also allows for users to appeal a demonitisation. 

But for Instagram to lurk around in the shadows, slyly updating terms and conditions or suppressing content without any formal notification, only makes the tech giant appear even shadier. 

“I hope that Instagram starts targeting the right accounts,” says Foley, perhaps a little optimistically. “Not marginalised groups of people trying to open up healthy dialogues about sex/body positivity, but people who are creating accounts posting hate speech, abusive material and damaging content for younger audiences.”

WE NEED YOUR HELP! The BRICKS account often gets shadowbanned on Instagram due to our female-focused content, as has our Editor-in-Chief Tori West. For all the latest BRICKS content and to keep up with our events and issue launches, make sure to follow both accounts on Instagram and turn post notifications on.