Instagram can be a powerful weapon for the world’s most creative minds. The Facebook-owned company permits creatives of all types to foster organic bonds with their audience, tailoring their communication to purport themselves and their brand in whatever way they so desire. No longer prohibited by junkets or predesignated appearances, many artists utilize their social media as an extension of the viewpoints and aesthetic that they present in their music. As a result, the relationship between a rapper’s personal life and their movements in the professional sphere are more symbiotic than ever.

The autonomy that social media provides the artist and its uncensored, largely self-governed nature has aided many artists’ ascents while also spawning its fair share of cautionary tales. Beyond the intrepid dangers of rampant clout chasing that Denzel Curry is quick to warn us of, there is another, far less publicized side to the application that has largely remained shrouded in mystery and hearsay.

This is Instagram's ability to “shadow ban” an aspiring hip-hop artist. In an era where visibility is placed on a high premium, “shadow banning” obstructs artists from gaining new followers or being discoverable by the search function, ultimately hindering their livelihood.

Rather than a conventional ban— such as that which was doled out to Boonk Gang or almost befell The Game— there is no significant effect on functionality of the app for the recipient of the shadow ban. In many cases, it’s highly probable that an artist wouldn’t know they’d been given this exposure-hampering designation unless they were specifically informed. By the same token, their pre-existing fans and followers would be none the wiser as their posts would continue to show up on their feed without incident. Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that their omission or diminished position in search results makes it exceedingly difficult to find them. Thus, getting slapped with a shadow ban can covertly stifle audience growth without Instagram ever having to offer a robust explanation.

In fact, the powers at be over at Instagram HQ vehemently refute that it’s a real practice. Speaking to reporters in July of 2018, product lead Julian Gutman opted to use the press visit as a platform to dispel many of the “misconceptions” that have haunted them in recent years. Amid granting TechCrunch and others a window into the intricacies of the platform, they set aside time to downplay the existence of shadow banning and other supposed foibles of the app that have come under scrutiny. 

"Instagram’s feed doesn’t favor users who use Stories, Live, or other special features of the app. Instagram doesn’t downrank users for posting too frequently or for other specific behaviours, but it might swap in other content in between someone’s if they rapid-fire separate posts. Instagram doesn’t give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach. Shadowbanning is not a real thing, and Instagram says it doesn’t hide people’s content for posting too many hashtags or taking other actions."

NLE Choppa at the HNHH NYC Office - Image by HNHH

Draped in the same ambiguity as an urban myth, the issue reared its head in the hip-hop sphere in recent weeks after a discovery from NoJumper’s Adam22. Known to champion the exact generation of burgeoning rappers that are so intertwined with social media, he took to Twitter to flag what he saw as unfair treatment of one of Memphis’ rising rappers. Complete with screen-recorded evidence of the issue, Adam proclaimed, "NLE Choppa is one of the most popular up & coming rappers. He’s also shadow banned on Instagram and it’s almost impossible to find his account unless you type in his exact username and scroll past a bunch of fake accounts. He has no recourse or avenue by which to appeal this. I’ve noticed this with a bunch of rappers lately," he continued, "but can’t remember who else. Either way the government needs to step in and stop this shit."

Met by fervent agreement by some and scepticism by others, Adam’s insistence that this must go to a higher body speaks to how crucial platforms such as Instagram can be to a rising MC’s progression. When levelled with allegations about this practice, their spokespeople are always quick to espouse the "principles" that are key to success such as "having a distinct visual presence," "being a storyteller" and putting "thought into your creative."

This may be sound promotional advice on the surface but it is ultimately null and void when you’re being thwarted by an algorithmic anomaly. In light of Adam’s revelation that NLE Choppa had fallen foul of a shadow ban, it seemed only right to delve into the ranks of today’s rising artists to discern who else has found themselves on the receiving end of it and whether there’s any commonality between them. To clarify, all prior research into shadow banning estimates that they last around 14 days so while these examples are valid at time of writing, that could realistically change any minute in favour of another crop of rappers being afflicted.

In terms of artists in the upper-reaches of the modern-day game, two notable victims of this form of social media-based marginalization come in Freddie Gibbs (@FreddieGibbs) and Max B (@Maxb140). Teetering more towards elder statesman than the archetypal Instagram generation, both rappers are nigh-on undiscoverable on Instagram unless you search their username on a search engine that’s independent of the app. Segueing towards XXL Freshman territory, the polarizing Blueface (@bluefacebleedem) has been extricated from the results entirely while Skinnyfromthe9, Icy Narco and the incarcerated YNW Melly are all buried below fan pages and other offerings with far less relevancy and far less follower counts.

Veering into the up-and-comers, the social media prevalence of artists such as ABG Neal, Queen Key, Philthy Rich, Freebandz’ Lil Wookie, Peewee Longway, Coca Vango, Egypxn and 9lokkNine is diluted on account of unspecified shadow bans that they may not be privy to whatsoever. An undisclosed restriction that may leave these aspiring artists screaming into the void, where it gets interesting is when you factor in the other societal group that have been plagued by this scenario.

Peewee Longway at the HNHH NYC office - Image by HNHH

In April of this year, Instagram implemented a new power that enabled them to discreetly minimize what they saw as “inappropriate” content even if it didn’t explicitly violate their community guidelines and, in typical fashion, have seldom expanded beyond the blanket terms. After refusing to provide further explanation to HuffPost, it had been suggested that shadow bans were closely aligned with their new policy of combatting "inauthenticity."

"Every day people come to Instagram to have real experiences, including genuine interactions," they declared in a blog post. "This type of behaviour is bad for the community, and third-party apps that generate inauthentic likes, follows, and comments violate our Community Guidelines and Terms of Use."

However, the ongoing trend of sex-workers, strippers and other adult-oriented content creators receiving shadow bans suggests that there is an attempt to remove anything risqué or subversive from the platform. Among the most vocal detractors of Instagram’s shadow banning policy, Jacqueline Frances, otherwise known as @jacqthestripper, spoke openly about the toll that it has on her ability to engage with her audience:

"I absolutely depend on Instagram to make a living. I sell books, I sell T-shirts, I sell art, and Instagram is my largest-reaching advertising platform," she conceded. "Having my content demoted makes me less visible and makes it harder to remind people to buy my stuff."

Although the products may be different, the plight of the artist depicts how shadow banning could directly affect today’s rappers in the same irremovable fashion. While they think they may be doing ample promotion for a new single or project, getting saddled with a shadow ban will mean that they won’t be eligible for any explore pages and are ultimately left preaching to the converted rather than having any hope of alerting potential fans to their material.

Not only does it set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression on Instagram and social media at large, shadow bans have the potential to meddle with an artist’s standing in the hip-hop realm. Consequently, the community must keep a watchful eye on this and spread awareness until this invisible ceiling on creatives has been lifted once and for all.

Have you noticed a shadow ban on certain artists? Let us know in the comments.