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The Shadowy Side of Shadow Bans

Annabel Mulliner explores how bigotry is written into Instagram’s algorithm, and the other challenges faced by minority users in the ever-growing business of influencer marketing.

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Image Credit: Alex Grace Jones

Influencer marketing is becoming an increasingly profitable industry and is expected to be worth $15 billion globally by 2022. The profession seems to have become synonymous with the high life: unlimited sponsorship deals, an all-designer wardrobe, and miraculously perfectly lit mirrors with aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, ready for the mirror selfie. It’s the dream of an easy life - to be paid to lounge around with your free products.

But the reality is never that shiny, and the stereotype of what it means to be an ‘influencer’ is largely based around the most successful mainstream figures (Molly Mae, I’m looking at you). Though the starry-eyed impression may remain, as Instagram has grown over the last decade, the influencer profession has grown ever more complex and competitive.
And like any other industry, the influencer business is riddled with systematic bias; it comes as no surprise that if you’re white, skinny, cis, and straight, you’re going to get more brand deals - and you’re going to get paid more for them. Not only this, but Instagram will favour your content over your minority competitors.

The Influencer Pay Gap
One upside to influencer marketing is that it’s one of the only industries in which women can consistently out-earn men, frequently being able to charge up to four times more than their male counterparts. It’s unsurprising that women are dominating the field, given that we are socialised to perform for the male gaze. Though John Berger’s assertion that “women watch themselves being looked at” haunts me continually, it also makes perfect sense when we consider how expertly female influencers market themselves online. Women also tend to be more active and engaged than men across social media, and on top of this, stereotypically use more products than men on a day-to-day basis. This, therefore, equates to a much wider scope of potential brand deals.

But it should come as no surprise that, like almost every other industry, it’s a lot easier to make it on the ‘Gram if you’re white. Black sustainability influencer Aja Barber (@ajabarber) recently carried out an experiment in which she contacted over fifty sustainable businesses expressing interest in a product exchange (whereby an influencer is given a free product, and in exchange offers free marketing on their page). By 6pm, no one had responded. In response to her experiment, zero-waste, white-owned skincare brand Conchus (@conchuslife) lashed out at the implication that they were ‘racist’ for not replying to Barber’s message. As a highly successful figure with 209k followers and average post likes exceeding 6k, it’s difficult to see why Barber would fail to secure a partnership with any of the 50 brands she contacted; Conchus, for example, have just 13.6k followers, with their post likes rarely exceeding 500.

In June, Adesuwa Ajayi, an agent for influencer marketing, created the account @influencerpaygap. The account anonymously posts influencer submissions of how much they have been paid and how they’ve been treated, in order to expose racial disparities, amongst other biases, in the industry. The account currently has 44.9k followers and has posted over 800 anonymous submissions. Ajayi claims that she created the page out of “frustration” with “seeing the ways black influencers were being low-balled and knowing their white counterparts, or non-black counterparts, were earning a lot more - even if they had significantly fewer followers or overall influence”.

The influencer business is no less biased than any other; if anything, with influencers working freelance, the potential for exploitation is greater than most. The majority of influencers won’t have the financial security to turn down a contract with unfair pay, or even to negotiate a contract for their work in the first place. @influencerpaygap is beginning to provide black creatives with the evidence they need to challenge brands on unfair working conditions, but there’s far more work to be done.

Shadow Banning
But it’s not only the biases of potential business partners that minority influencers have to contend with. Shadowbanning has long been a contentious element of Instagram’s safety policy, with the company’s Head, Adam Mosseri, denying its usage in a Q&A back in February. Also known as ‘stealth banning’, it means that your content will not appear under hashtags, or on the all-important Explore page - only your followers will be able to view it.

This helps Instagram to protect its users from bots or spam accounts, as well as filtering out content that doesn’t meet their community guidelines. But it can, and does, have massively detrimental effects for smaller businesses and activist organisations who rely on social media exposure. Mosseri claimed that being featured on the Explore page is “not guaranteed for anyone”; that it’s a matter of luck. However, Instagram has been accused on numerous occasions, by a variety of minority groups, of unjustly shadowbanning content that in fact adheres to their community guidelines.

The obvious issue with this is that, as it is unclear what will and won’t be shadowbanned, it leaves content creators confused as to what content is appropriate. This conveniently allows Instagram to shadowban whichever content they please, without having to provide an explanation. Furthermore, when an account is reported or banned, the user is alerted as to why and can appeal the decision. Though it’s made obvious through changes in engagement, a user is not alerted when their account is shadowbanned. No questions can be asked, and there’s no telling when, and whether, it will be reversed.

Around 2016, many prominent conservative voices claimed that they were being unduly shadowbanned, using this as evidence that Instagram and other BigTech platforms were unforgivingly liberal. Republican Jim Jordan claimed that “Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch, that’s a fact.”

In reality, while shadowbanning does work to remove extremist and offensive content on both sides of the political spectrum, it’s more often minority groups and liberal activist accounts that fall victim to unjust muting online. This year, Instagram has been increasingly accused of shadowbanning liberal activist accounts, ranging from those supporting Black Lives Matter to sexual education and feminist accounts. What’s more, they’ve been accused of extending shadow-ban measures to hide posts from followers’ feeds.

Racism
@theunplugcollective has launched a campaign entitled #DearInstagram, in which activist pages share their experiences of undue shadowbanning, in the hopes that Instagram will pay attention and take action. Anti-racist account @nowhitesavours released a statement via #DearInstagram in September, in which they expressed that they are “deeply concerned that Instagram is trying to limit the engagement of those who are combating anti-black racism and white supremacy”. The anti-racism accounts involved in the campaign claim to have experienced a significant increase in censorship, with their post engagement dramatically decreasing over a short period of time, despite no significant drop in their follower count.

Feminist porn director and activist Erika Lust has experienced her fair share of censorship on social media, mostly owing to Instagram’s ambiguous stance on “sexually suggestive content”. She points out that “because this term is mostly left to interpretation, the decision ends up in the hands of the social media algorithms and the people who make them” (ie, white men). On the subject of racial bias, she said:

“All female bodies are generally hypersexualised on the media however, research shows that BIPOC women’s bodies are policed even more than their white, straight, cis counterparts for being “sexually suggestive”. This clearly implies that these bodies are considered inherently sexual, whether they are actually engaging in sex acts or not, which reinforces misogyny and racism both online and offline.”

She coined the term ‘biased banning’ to describe unfair censorship on social media, and asked her followers, particularly women, BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community, to share their experiences of undue censorship via #biasedbanning.

Fatphobia
Instagram has also been accused of targeting plus-size women who post photos in underwear or bikinis. We’re all too familiar with the barrage of picture-perfect modelling shots from the likes of Emily Ratjakowski and the Kardashians. It’s well documented that this tedious wave of photoshopped images can have detrimental effects on users’ body image. Rather than encouraging representation of more diverse body types, Instagram is stealthily ensuring that the platform stays ‘skinny’.
Their guidelines for nudity only specify that no genitalia or female nipples are on display, so bikini pictures are obviously well within the realms of the acceptable - so why are plus-sized users being shadowbanned, or having these photos removed altogether? When black, plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams (@curvynyome) posted an artful nude shot by Alexandra Cameron on her Instagram in August, it was met with an ecstatic reaction from her followers. Within hours, Instagram took down the image, and Nicholas-Williams was warned her account could be deleted. Soon, her followers began rallying under the hashtag #IwanttoseeNyome for the censored photos to be reshared. Meanwhile, Ratjakowski’s bikini pictures continue to rake in millions of likes.

LGBTQ+
In June this year, Mosseri performed a u-turn in his previous denial of Instagram’s shadowbanning policy, releasing a statement claiming that the company would look into how its “policies, tools, and processes impact black people”. He went on to claim that such efforts wouldn’t stop with racism, and would also look to better serve “underrepresented groups” such as LGBTQ+ users, body positivity activists, and artists. One key point of this strategy aimed to tackle algorithmic bias, though at the time Mosseri did not outline any specific strategies that would implement this.

On 9 September, Mosseri outlined the actions they had taken in a new blog post, including creating an equity team to work with their AI department, in order to ensure “algorithmic fairness”, as well as hiring a new Director for Diversity and Inclusion. But the @theunplugcollective’s #DearInstagram campaign is evidence that the algorithm is, five weeks later, still failing in its inherent bias towards BIPOC and other minority users, as well as activist accounts. And they aren’t alone; TikTok have also been caught in the act of censoring the “gay”, “lesbian” and “transgender” hashtags in Russian, Estonian, Bosnian and Arabic. “Acab” (“all cops are bastards”) was also restricted in English. When confronted, TikTok claimed the shadowban was a “localised” approach to moderation. This censorship extended far beyond the laws of the countries in question and consequently silenced pro-LGBT users without justification.

Queer influencer @prettyhaunter spoke to me about their experience of being shadowbanned, after their following reached 20k. Previously, they posted regular photoshoot content and had secured brand deals. “I realised I was shadowbanned when my followers suddenly dropped from 22.8k to 22.6k, and my posts weren’t even showing up on people’s feeds or in hashtags,” they tell me. When I ask why they think Instagram shadowbanned them, they explain “I think it’s because I was growing quickly. After being shadowbanned my self-esteem went to zero, and I’m not really motivated to take pictures anymore.”

@prettyhaunter’s content was purely visual, and their account was not involved in any political or social activism; it begs the question, why is Instagram shadowbanning accounts who are posting nothing besides pictures of themselves? Clearly, Instagram’s algorithm isn’t fine-tuned enough, leading to users being punished for successfully achieving fast follower growth. @prettyhaunter deleted their old account after their engagement plummeted. Their current account has a following of 790. If Instagram doesn’t adapt their algorithm soon, it’s doubtless that they will lose more valuable content from their users.

Small Businesses - Not Interested?
Shadowbanning doesn’t exclusively happen to larger accounts, and quite often small businesses and independent artists inexplicably fall victim to Instagram’s incompetent algorithm. Chloe Hodgson (@keezura), a York CompSci student and independent artist, has been shadowbanned by Instagram numerous times. “I’ve been shadowbanned for interacting with too many different accounts into a short space of time… I suppose Instagram thinks I’m a bot?” Chloe tells me. Certainly, the leading advice from Instagram marketers nowadays is to ‘act human’; too much interaction or posting can easily be mistaken for spam. But users can have legitimate reasons for over-interacting: “this can happen if I’m commenting on lots of other artists’ posts because it’s part of an art challenge, or if I discover a new account that I really like and spam them with likes.”

Chloe explains that shadowbanning has left her disorientated with her audience engagement. ”You’re left not knowing if the low engagement is due to the contents you’re making (that people just aren’t interested), or if it’s because the algorithm is putting somewhat of a barrier up.” She reveals that shadow banning has left her over-analyzing her content, which is especially disheartening if a piece she’s taken a lot of time and effort over gets minimal engagement.

Chloe confesses that as an independent artist, she doesn’t feel supported by Instagram. “Instagram has a good artist community, but that’s down to the people, not the platform,” she says. “I like to think that I post high quality, time-consuming art, and illustration, so as a result, I post less frequently. But if I don’t post three times a week, I can actively see Instagram stop promoting my posts”.

This leaves artists like Chloe with a disheartening dilemma. “It comes down to the big question of: do I make the content I wanna make and that I know will organically grow an audience and get a good response, or do I post more frequently in the hopes that it will show up on people’s feeds?” While the former option fits the “passionate artist” narrative, and, more importantly, would allow an artist to explore and develop their style and interests, as Chloe herself points out: “it’s not always that easy when you’re trying to build a brand and a business to support yourself.”

Instagram can be a fantastic place for independent artists and creatives to build their brand and make a living. Over lockdown, the launch of the #supportsmallbusiness sticker encouraged users to share their personal favourites with their friends. However, Instagram’s algorithm favours those who post consistently and keep their content uniform. Sandeep Bhushan, Director and Head of GMS, Facebook India, shared during a panel on influencer marketing that 50% of users are more interested in a brand when they see an advert on Instagram. Instagram favours those businesses who have the time to commit to a solid branding strategy, which for many means hiring a dedicated marketing or social media team. But more still - those that have the budget to advertise with them.

Stealthily hiding away posts comes with some obvious ethical issues; Instagram is undermining a users’ choice to determine what content they view, and clearly a significant proportion of shadowbanning is done without justification. Ironically, while hate speech remains to be rife across the platform, women’s and minorities’ bodies are unduly censored. It would be naive to say that Instagram’s algorithm is failing in its purpose; white cis men continue to police women’s and minorities’ self-expression across all other social and political spheres. It’s far from cynical to say that Instagram is no exception to this.

Many shadowbanned users are urging their followers to support them by actively engaging with their posts, by liking and commenting on posts, but also by saving posts (this is Instagram’s equivalent of a ‘super like’) and sharing posts to their personal stories. If you believe that you’re not seeing content from an account you’re following, you can also turn on post notifications so that you don’t miss out on any content that doesn’t make it into your feed.

Influencers in Union
While Instagram fails to act on its biases, influencers are finding their means to improve job security and protect themselves against the algorithm. An increasing number of influencers are unionising in response to discriminatory practises that have emerged within the profession, such as wage disparity and a lack of diversity in campaigns. The Creator Union (TCU) was established in July by fashion influencers Kat Molesworth and Nicole Ocran, and is the first organisation of its kind. Previously, the invite-only American Influencer Council was the only organisation seeking to protect influencers. Kat revealed to me that the response to the union has been overwhelmingly positive; people are ready to see substantive changes within the industry.

“Collective power means that we can develop industry standards which work for both influencers and brands,” she tells me. The TCU plans to create a legal fund, which members can use both for advice, and for support should they need to take action. Kat highlights that TCU’s mission is “to create fair and equal working practices within the influencer marketing business and ensure that our members have strong contracts and are fairly compensated for their work.” They also hope to have helplines open to members and have industry figures signed up to codes of practise. “In a year’s time, I would love to see thousands more influencers know their worth and their rights as valuable marketing partners.”

Many influencers have begun to use Patreon to conceal their content behind a paywall. This allows them to generate a more reliable and sustainable income. For example, the aforementioned @ajabarber uses Patreon to generate an income from her sustainability newsletter, amongst other content. By subscribing to our favourite content creators’ Patreons, we can recognise and respect the labour that goes into producing accurate and educational content.

Instagram’s current algorithm, though hard to pin down, is clearly working against progress. This year, as we all yearned to stay more connected, social media’s potential as an educational and uniting force infinitely increased. Instead of fostering this new power, Instagram has brushed it aside in favour of profit and upholding the status quo.

@elwingbling’s claim that “Instagram is not a people’s platform” could not ring more true; “it is a capitalist, corporate interest and like all others, it views our humanity as a commodity, a consumable product… and it caters to the highest bidders.” What do independent businesses, activists, and minority influencers have in common? For the most part, they aren’t profitable - at least not on the scale that a tech giant like Instagram would prefer.

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Image Credit: Kat Molesworth

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