Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash
Originally written for Quench magazine
Shadow banning, also known as stealth banning and ghost banning, has been around since the 1980’s and is used to block comments and posts by certain users. Recently on Instagram, many accounts that use the platform for sex work and education have found their accounts have been shadow banned, limiting their reach and customer base. Despite the fact that this shadow banned content isn’t violating community guidelines, it’s deemed as “inappropriate” enough to be given a limited viewing due to its “sexually suggestive” nature. Users aren’t usually informed when their content is being limited, causing feelings of confusion and hurt when their posts generate no engagement.
Instagram refuse to comment on their explicit reasoning behind the blocks, making it even more of a struggle for sex workers to adapt their work to prevent shadow banning and still cater to their audience and business needs. The rules appear so vague and blurred, making us question; how do they differentiate between women in lingerie, or women in bikinis and even fitness models? I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Savage x Fenty and other lingerie adverts containing scantily clad women on my Instagram, so what’s the difference between that and an exotic dancer promoting their stripping businesses?
So many people from all walks of life and all different professions rely on Instagram to promote their business and make money. From selling art to books, t shirts to cakes, there’s a lot of money circulating the social media app, and they are all supporting small businesses in the same way. Who should get the vote on which businesses are more important and which entrepreneurs have more right to gain engagements and sales?
Annie Brown is a digital marketer and feminist activist who is working to transform ‘Lips’, her sex positive magazine, into a social media site where users can feely embrace their sexuality. However, she has faced a lot of challenges on Instagram due to posts being deleted and demoted within the algorithm. She says that “Bots can’t tell the difference between erotic art and pornography. So now with Instagram [demoting] ‘suggestive’ content, they’re basically saying, ‘We don’t care if it’s art, we don’t care if it’s activism, we don’t care if it’s self-expression.’”
This provides a really important insight from inside the industry as we can get to the bottom of the fundamental issues. The Instagram of ‘Lips’ is full of liberating posts from members of all communities, educating and empowering sexuality and it is important for young people to witness and learn from this empowerment in a positive way. The site also provides a form of education that gets missed in the general school curriculum, especially surrounding topics regarding LGBTQ+ sexuality. Due to the increasing number of dangerous and harmful sex information circulating various corners of the internet, it is even more important to provide good, trustworthy and educational sites, presenting young people with the full picture after a limited school education.
In September of 2020, an Instagram account for ‘School of sexuality education’ claimed that they were deactivated with no explanation other than that they didn’t follow “Community Guidelines” and that “sexually suggestive content isn’t allowed on Instagram”. These actions and allegations are against an account that prides itself on its fun, educational tone and anatomically correct language. They carry out vital education on a wide range of nitty gritty sexual topics that schools shy away from. For example, their Instagram is littered with reminders about consent, offering free resources and pointers for help. They offer a diagram entitled ‘3 ways to make inserting a tampon easier’ along with pro discharge and masturbation paraphernalia. These are vital lessons and reminders for all generations, especially those who missed out on a well-rounded sex education at school. It’s important for Instagram to distinguish between these sites and the negative ones, as they risk doing more damage than good.
The algorithms are catering against sex work and sex education and its harm is widespread. Whilst sex workers are unable to increase their customer base or sell their products, vulnerable people are being blocked from accessing the information they need. By taking away and blocking these accounts, many will remain unaware of the pleasures of sex, whilst members of the LGBTQ+ community will find it harder to access safe, informative accounts. It’s such an important issue and there is no question that Instagram needs to step up and address this in order to avoid any negative repercussions that they are inadvertently responsible for.