Can Hashtags Get You in #trouble on Instagram? Hint: the answer is Yes.

Millennials eat, sleep, and breathe hashtags. This fiddly little symbol once made popular by Twitter, has been adopted everywhere from Slack to Facebook. This is known as the pound sign to the rest of us, many remembering the piercing plunk it made when pressed on the telephone. Some of the pre-millennial community might also know this symbol as an octothorp. Hat tip to those that do and a lesson for the rest of you (#poetry).

The hashtag is one of those necessary evils in social media and is used as a way to group similar content and to make it easier to both find and be found. “Hashtagging” is an often abused tactic to increase the visibility of posts and a catalyst to many user automation schemes. What many do not realize, however, is that the use of these tags can not only impact who sees your posts, but how you’re profiled internally by Instagram.

One of the heated debates in 2017 surrounded the alleged “shadow banning” of posts and why this was happening. I was involved in some research on the topic and my conclusion was that it most likely had to do with the specific hashtags used on a post, the format, location, and quantity used. How a user chooses to “hashtag” is just as important as the hashtags chosen. In-caption hashtags appear to be shadow banned less than the in-comment counterparts, while using the same group of non-unique hashtags throughout posts seemed to also set off flags.

The main strategy for determining whether a post is shadow banned lies in the web page source. Posts with hashtags typically have these listed in the meta tags at the head of the media page, but many of these “shadow banned” posts were missing these tags. It is impossible to know for sure whether this is a shadow ban signal, but it proved to be a clear way to find similarities in troubled posts. I haven’t done any more recent research on the shadow ban, but it led me to start looking more at hashtags and how they are used on Instagram. One of my new projects is dealing with data-driven influencer analysis, so this seemed like a reasonable topic to spend an afternoon researching.

Is it possible that these shadow bans were signaling a shift towards an increased moderation of hashtags on Instagram?

There are few, if any, tools available to search and analyze hashtags on Instagram leaving many users unaware of how hashtag behavior might impact their visibility and reach. I found a few articles outlining small-scale analysis of hashtags on Instagram but there was nothing recent and nothing at scale, so I decided to take a deeper look at the problem. The lack of existing research and data left me with a second problem. I would need to come up with my own hashtag list.

Two coffee’s and an hour of keyboard slapping later, I had a list of around 800 thousand hashtags to analyze. Still, this number felt like it would not do the analysis justice, so I went back to the drawing board. One more coffee and another hour of channeling my inner 🤔 emoji, I had redesigned the process to make this list much larger and it would continue to grow, almost perpetually, over time.

I crunched the data, reviewing over 5 million hashtags on Instagram and this is what I found…

From my research, there are four primary hashtag classifications. Active, Inactive, Flagged, and Banned. Active and inactive are more or less the same classification. These are non-flagged hashtag groups, one with posts and the other without. You can check the active status of any hashtag by viewing the tag online and making sure there is a count displayed.

What you should expect to see for active posts.

The two classifications of most interest, however, are flagged and banned hashtags. Flagged hashtags are those with posts that have been reported as violating community guidelines. These hashtags will not display a related count and will show a violation message below the group of top posts. How long these hashtags remain flagged is not known. It appears to vary by tag, some changing status every other day, with others remaining in exile for months on end. While writing this article the hashtags #tgif, #snail, and #whitening went from being flagged to being active.

Some of the posts using these flagged hashtags also exhibit the same missing meta tags as the posts having shadow ban issues, so it is plausible that using flagged hashtags could reduce the visibility of a post.

The flagged list includes some unusual tags such as #kickoff and #grande; while some more understandable flags appear on #knockers and #swingers (the full list of over 1600 flagged hashtags appears here). The more common tags #boredom and #womancrushwednesday were also flagged at the time of this writing.

Sorry Starbucks, this tag is a grande no-no.

Finally, banned hashtags are not visible on the site and users will be faced with a “404 Not Found” error on search. Some more obvious banned tags on the list are #bigdick, #porno, and #videosex (the full list of over 5200 banned hashtags appears here). This list includes both banned tags (inappropriate and offensive content) and deleted tags. Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger discussed the issue here, stating that some hashtags were removed because they “didn’t provide enough end-user value”.

The page you’ll find when searching a banned hashtag

So, what does all of this mean? I believe it would be wise to stay away from using flagged hashtags, and making sure you are never using a banned hashtag. How users choose to present their content seems to have an impact on post visibility and reach, so it would be reasonable to believe that hashtags play a role in that. The great shadow ban of 2017 stirred up a lot of news, but I think it’s a greater signal on the moderation of posts by all user behavior, including hashtags. Using unique and relevant tags in your posts is wise, and checking the status of your tags ahead of time will help you slide under the ban radar.

To make it even easier, I’ve built and hosted a little online tool where you can search the status of any Instagram hashtag in real-time. You will also find the full research lists for flagged and banned hashtags at the time of this post.

Check out the tool at doyouevenhashtag.com and catch me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Being more aware of how hashtags are classified could help keep your engagement in check and get you one step closer to Insta-fame!