Shadowbanning: It’s Shady Business

One of the best lines that was ever said to me about Facebook was this: “Facebook is in the business of making money for Facebook.” And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard truer words. What once was the ultimate form of grassroots marketing is now a robust ads generator and marketing platform.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just Facebook that’s in the business of making money for its social channel, and any good marketer should know that (and should tell you). Twitter has gotten into advertising, as has Linkedin and Instagram. But again, none of this is news.

Want to know what is news? Some of the more…interesting practices that are being used to get you to take up advertising and spend money to grow your channels, as opposed to the traditional method of engagement.

 

SHADOWBANNING

Earlier this year, Twitter took up a strategy called shadowbanning — an anti-abuse tactic wherein a user who was spamming or bullying in a particular hashtag would get ‘banned’ from that hashtag by Twitter. So say if someone is going into #blacklivesmatter and doing call outs and harassing those in that tag, they would be banned from it (which, good). Great concept, and it has shown to be helpful.

After the success on Twitter, it didn’t take long for other platforms to take on similar tactics, in particular Instagram. They too had starting banning people from hashtags where harassment was taking place. But what people started to discover was that Instagram wasn’t just banning the ‘bullies’ from certain hashtags, but had also started banning people in general who had used particular hashtags multiple times in a short period of time.

Not necessarily spamming, but say, someone posts two to three times a day, and uses a campaign hashtag every time to promote themselves or their business, and it wasn’t too long before people started to notice a halt in their growth and engagement, and a quick search showed them they weren’t appearing in that preferred hashtag.

 

AN ATTACK ON ORGANIC GROWTH

When this came to light, Instagram released the following since-deleted statement:

 

 

It’s the perfect ‘we’re doing it, but we aren’t actually going to say we’re doing it, so here’s a bunch of steps you can take so we can keep doing this against you and you won’t notice.’

Let’s just call a spade a spade here. Instagram isn’t doing this because they’re still ‘continually working on improvements’ or even that they’re having issues: they’re doing it to force you to pay for growth and engagement.

It’s no coincidence that this happened after Instagram launched their own algorithm last year, which came on the heels of Facebook’s purchase of the image-sharing social app. Facebook has been squashing organic traffic for years, forcing growth through paid social. You’re organic growth will only truly improve on Facebook if you either 1) go viral for whatever reason, or 2) you pay to drive traffic. You can’t get one without the other. It also helped that the use of hashtags on Facebook never really took off.

But what do you do when the social platform you just bought does have a robust hashtag community? How do you crack into that so you can force paid traffic the same way you have on the parent company?

Simple. Use Twitter’s new feature on your own platform to quietly ban accounts from hashtags, thus keeping them from achieving organic growth. And it’s not like you would notice because — and here’s a bit of a kicker — you’ll still show up in the tag by you and anyone who follows you. So even if you personally wanted to check that you were showing up in the tag, you would appear there.

Now, this hasn’t been proven as an intentional tactic by Instagram, but considering that people are being banned from hashtags where they aren’t spamming or harassing people, and accounts that use Instagram for their business are the ones who are reporting the ban the most, you have to assume there’s some truth to it.

It’s like I said: Facebook is in the business of making money for Facebook. And since Facebook owns Instagram, well we aren’t Winston Smith and we know that two plus two equals four, not five.

 

BUT THERE’S HOPE!

The good news, though? Bans aren’t permanent; most of them only last 2-3 weeks, so after a time you can go right back to your preferred hashtags (until you get banned again). Also, there are some hashtags that are more likely to see a ban than others, so make sure your choice hashtag isn’t already a banned tag (using banned tags could get you banned from other tags).

When choosing your hashtags, make sure to review them all first and make sure they’re good to go. Also, it helps to periodically check that you’re showing up in the tags by employing either a friend to unfollow you and check the tags for you, or if you have more than one Instagram account (like me, because you don’t need photos of my cat — not yet), unfollow your business account and check your tags.

I’ll keep you all abreast of how this plays out. Chances are, if Instagram follows the same playbook as Facebook (they clearly are, for duh reasons), then it’s going to become even more difficult to achieve organic growth, over time.

But for now, continue to use your hashtags and engage with both your followers and potential followers alike. Turn yourself and your business into a social influencer before Instagram takes that ability away from you.

Stay Shiny!

Posted by Stephanie Cole

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