Guide: What is censorship and shadow banning on Instagram, and who experiences it?
Whilst Instagram provides many people with their own communities online, for some they are subjected to censorship and shadow banning.
Instagram has been in and out of the mainstream press over the last few years for its censorship and shadow banning of certain users' accounts on the platform. Notably, the users who are affected are either from communities and groups who experience marginalisation in society (for example, for their race, ethnicity, colour, disability, gender identity, sexuality, body size, nationality, their work, and/or their religion), or are activist accounts that campaign against one of the forms of discrimination listed above.
So what are censorship and shadow banning? And, why are marginalised people more likely to experience it on Instagram?
What is censorship?
Censorship is when images are deleted by Instagram for supposedly violating their community guidelines. Images can be deleted either because the Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology used by Instagram to scan posts for inappropriate content has identified it as potentially violating the rules, or a team of human reviewers believe the post violates the community guidelines. Often a post is reviewed due to other users reporting the image, which disproportionately impacts marginalised communities as they are more likely to have their post’s reported. Those who have been censored have highlighted that Instagram’s policies are biased, and favour white, cis-gender, straight, thin, non-disabled and/or famous bodies.
There are many examples that evidence this claim. In this guide, I will focus on @curvynyome’s and @wheelchair_repunzel’s experience of censorship, and @pxssypalace and @nowhitesaviours’ experience of shadow banning. Whilst this article does discuss ableist, racist, fatphobic, and LGBTQ+ censorship and shadow banning, many sex workers and other marginalised communities, as well as some artists, are censored and shadow-banned too.
Who has experienced censorship on Instagram?
In August 2020, model and activist @curvynyome (Nyome Nicholas-Williams), posted a picture of her body from a professional photoshoot by Alexandra Cameron. The image featured her top half nude with her arms placed around her breasts. The photos from the shoot were repeatedly deleted from both of their accounts, and they were told that their accounts could be shut down. It was then that Nyome, and fellow activist Gina Martin and photographer Alexandra, launched the #IWantToSeeNyome campaign whereby Nyome wrote an open letter to Adam Mosseri (Head of Instagram), launched a petition and the team encouraged Nyome’s followers to repost the image.
Instagram stated that initially the image was deemed to violate their ‘breast squeezing’ policy, which associates ‘breast squeezing’ with pornography. However, photographer Cameron said to the Guardian “There is more flesh to hold or place your arm around if you have bigger boobs. There was no suggestion of pornographic squeezing – my photos are explicitly about the female gaze and about empowering women”. Nyome said that “Millions of pictures of very naked, skinny white women can be found on Instagram every day. But a fat black woman celebrating her body is banned? It was shocking to me. I feel like I’m being silenced.”
In this instance, and thanks to Nyome’s campaigning, Instagram reviewed its policy on nudity, and acknowledged that it needed updating. The new policy, which was updated on Wednesday 28th November 2020, will "allow content where someone is simply hugging, cupping or holding their breasts''. Whilst the new policy was celebrated by Nyome, in a podcast she pointed out that it does little to address the racism within the review process.
Instagram’s renewed effort to make its platform more inclusive was short-lived, as on Wednesday 13th January 2021 Nyome posted on her Instagram account that her images had been censored again.
Censorship on Instagram isn’t a new thing. In 2018, @wheelchair_repunzel’s (Alex Dacy) remake of an image Kim Kardashian posted, was deleted as it supposedly violated Instagram's nudity policy, yet Kim’s post was not deleted. Alex’s blog post shows the image side by side with Kim Kardashian’s, and Alex’s image is no more nude than Kim’s. In the same blog post, Alex highlights that “representing disabled bodies in a sexual or risqué outlet is SUCH an important tenant of disability advocacy and education”, and airs her concerns over the message Instagram is sending out “by deleting a marginalised body and leaving a normalized body posted”.
What is shadow banning?
Censorship is not the only Instagram-related injustice facing users, shadow banning is a thing too. Shadow banning is different to censorship as shadow banned images are strategically hidden from users, they will not appear when searching for a shadow-banned hashtag or on peoples explore pages. This means those who are shadow banned may not notice until they realise their engagement is significantly different to usual - as their images are no longer shown on their followers ‘feeds. However, Instagram has not formally acknowledged that it uses this tactic - which makes the situation all the murkier.
Back in 2019, a popular queer arts collective and London club night, @pxssypalace, experienced sharp dips in likes, comments and engagements with posts. They also found that some of their users couldn’t comment, like or search for their posts.
Because of this, they argue that they experienced shadow banning by Instagram due to their LGBTQIA+ positive content. A.I.D, a member of Pxssy Palace, offers a clear explanation of why this is the case, speaking in Bricks Magazine; “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[sic] here”.
By now, it’s perhaps unsurprising that another account that faces shadow banning is the activist Instagram account @nowhitesaviours whose work sits within the three categories of education, advocacy and action against white supremacy, racism and the white saviour complex.
Despite having 800k followers, the account has experienced repeated dips in engagement over the last year with just 7000 - 8000 engagements per post or story and posted about it as recently as Saturday 16th January 2021. The threat of shadow bans has led them to take steps to own their content outside of Instagram, which means Instagram’s policies are driving users off the platform. The @nowhitesaviours team, in an email to Forbes, said “Instagram seems to do better to protect white supremacists and Nazi pages than those of us working to hold anti-Blackness and white supremacy accountable”.
Whilst Instagram’s policies are designed to protect people online, when falsely enforced, they threaten psychological, emotional, and economic harm to marginalised communities who already face injustices everywhere. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Protest’s last year, Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, acknowledged that the platform needed to do more for Black communities, including addressing algorithmic bias and shadow banning to ensure societies bias are not reflected on Instagram. This sounds promising, but over 6 months on and the people and accounts mentioned throughout this article continue to experience both.
Many questions remain unanswered and unaddressed. Yet, one thing is clear - Instagram needs to go further to ensure its policies, processes, employees and algorithms are no longer discriminatory towards marginalised people and their communities.
Head over to the Instagram accounts mentioned throughout this article for more information on the themes discussed. We also have more content on racism here.